In the wee hours of Friday morning, November 2, thousands of Orthodox Jews across the United States gathered around telephone speakers and amplifiers in yeshivot, synagogues and homes to join, in a small way and at a great distance, a funeral taking place thousands of miles away.
In Bnei Brak, a town near Tel Aviv, the funeral itself filled the streets with hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews (few of them true contemporaries of the deceased, who was, according to informed sources, anywhere from 103 to 107 years old) at what is usually the busiest time of the week, mere hours before the onset of the Sabbath.
It is a troubling but poignant commentary on the dissolute state of the contemporary Jewish world that, despite the immense stature of the man who had passed away, evidenced by the prodigious number of mourners, he was virtually unknown to most Jews outside Israel.
Perhaps even more ironic was the fact that Rabbi Elazar Schach has since been characterized by the press as someone who "wielded powerful influence over [Israeli] politics," a "key power broker" with "shrewd political instinct" (The New York Times); "one of the most powerful forces in the evolution of Israeli society" (Jewish Telegraphic Agency); and as a "political kingmaker" (Associated Press).
That Rabbi Schach strongly influenced the course of Israeli politics is undeniable. But that was not why hundreds of thousands joined the funeral procession his funeral - or why his passing is being mourned as well by hundreds of thousands of others. The reason so much of the Orthodox Jewish world was engulfed in grief at the news of his passing was because of Rabbi Schach's powerful appreciation for, and achievements in, another realm entirely, a universe likewise unfamiliar to all too many contemporary Jews: the study and teaching of Torah.
Rabbi Schach was the dean of deans in the world of yeshivot, a man who was greatly instrumental in forging what one leading Israeli sociologist has called "the society of learners." What those "learners" learn, of course, is Torah - the endless sea of Jewish law and lore, the Talmud and Midrash and commentaries and responsa that comprise the corpus of Jewish religious literature.
Few outside the Orthodox community would likely recognize the name of the man who successfully accomplished much the same on these shores: Rabbi Aharon Kotler, who arrived in the United States in 1941 and died in 1962. What resulted from the efforts of men like Rabbi Kotler and Rabbi Schach was nothing less than the post-Holocaust re-empowerment of the Jewish religious tradition.
The two scholars shared a secret knowledge: that the soul of the Jewish people is the study and observance of Torah. And so each set out, without regard for either the cynics or the odds, to create the yeshiva world anew - indeed, to make it even broader and stronger, to make up for lost time and lost souls.
From the vast and crowded study-halls of Bnai Brak's Ponevezh yeshiva, which Rabbi Schach headed for a half-century, and Lakewood, New Jersey's Beth Medrash Govoha, the seminary Rabbi Kotler founded, have emerged thousands of dedicated and determined students, many of whom went on - and go on, each year - to establish yeshivot of their own, to become expert decisors of Jewish law or to serve the cause of Jewish education in a broad assortment of venues and roles.
About two years ago, I read a New York Times article that made mention of America's "Jewish seminaries"; it went on to list them: Hebrew Union College(Reform), Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) and Yeshiva University(Orthodox). Since I was friendly with the article's writer, a non-Jewish, top-notch reporter, I called him and said, "With all respect to Yeshiva University, did you know that there are dozens of yeshivot in the American Orthodox world, many of them larger by several times than YU's rabbinic training school?" He hadn't known, he admitted, and I suggested he allow me show him one. He seemed genuinely interested and, a few months later, traveled with me to Baltimore, the home of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, where I was privileged to study for several years in the 1970s.
The Baltimore yeshiva has a high school and post-high school division, as well as a married students program, or kollel. The sprawling, stunningly beautiful suburban campus includes dozens of apartments and townhouses, dormitories, basketball courts and, of course, active, noisy, vibrantly alive study-halls.
We entered the main one and surveyed the scene of several hundred young men surrounded by books, animatedly arguing points or poring over texts; my guest was clearly intrigued. Our host, one of the yeshiva's administrators, invited him to walk through the cavernous if crowded room and engage students in conversation. He seemed hesitant to take up the offer, reluctant to take the students from their studies, but the administrator's encouragement and the reporter's own natural curiosity won out in the end.
I watched as he went from one pair of students (much yeshiva study is done in pairs, or chavrutot) to another; at each, the students stood up to welcome the visitor, invited him to sit down with them and seemed happy to answer his questions. A good while later, he returned, his pad filled with notes, and his eyes with wonder.
He told me how deeply impressed he had been "with the sincerity and idealism" of the students he had met. He had spoken with some from Orthodox families, whose fathers had studied at the same yeshiva decades earlier; he had met others who had come to Orthodoxy on their own. One student who had particularly impressed him had been a screenplay writer in Los Angeles a year or two earlier. The article my reporter-friend went on to write for The Times about the yeshiva amply evidenced the positive impact his conversations had left.
The idealism and determination he had witnessed comprise the engine of the yeshiva world, fueled by men like Rabbi Schach and Rabbi Kotler - and by those who carry on their dream. The study and observance of Torah represent a commitment not only to the Jewish past but to the Jewish present and the Jewish future.
And Torah is not the "Orthodox" heritage, but the heritage of all Jews, whatever we may choose to call ourselves. How wonderful it would be were every Jew who cares about his people and its future to visit a yeshiva - there are many, including seminaries for women and adult-education "community kollels", in cities across the continent. They shy away from self-promotion and are all too easily overlooked. But they are well worth seeking out.
Rabbi Schach was indeed an important and powerful Jewish personality, but not for the reasons the media proclaimed. The enormity of his contribution to our Jewish world is discernable not through the lens of politics, but rather through the unobstructed, bright and clear view provided by truly Jewish eyes.
The loss of Rabbi Schach is immense, but so, happily, is his legacy.
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