The End of an Era
One of the most remarkable and influential careers in Israeli Torah chinuch came to an end last month with the retirement of Rabbi Nosson Bar-Chaim as head of the beis medrash at Machon Lev after 41 years. Rabbi Bar-Chaim led the beis medrash from the first day that Machon Lev opened its doors.
During that period of time, he had a profound impact on over 2,500 talmidim. At Rabbi Bar-Chaim's retirement ceremony, the capacious beis medrash at Machon Lev's Givat Mordechai campus was packed with former talmidim, many of them already grandfathers themselves. They came in kippot serugot, black kippot and hats (though few came from chareidi backgrounds), and IDF uniforms. They mixed freely with one another, brought together by their common memories of how their lives changed in that the beis medrash of Machon Lev and their devotion to the man to whom they attribute much of what they are today.
I'm distantly related by marriage to one of Rabbi Bar-Chaim's closest talmidim. He works for one of Israel's leading hi-tech companies, and he has written at least ten sifrei mussar on the life of a ben Torah, which are disseminated in almost all the mainstream yeshivos. Yet his formal advanced learning was entirely in the beis medrash of Rabbi Bar-Chaim. Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman, the director of SHUVU since its founding 25 years ago, has continued in a weekly shiur with Rabbi Bar-Chaim's since graduating Machon Lev and will soon be joining his morning beis medrash for working men.
One of the speakers at the ceremony was General Yaakov Cohen, the director of Israel's space program. Another senior IDF officer in Israel's rocket program, who learns every morning before the neitz minyan and has twelve children, wanted to speak, but time ran out. Also at the ceremony was a former Ponevezh talmid whom Rav Schach, zt"l, sent to Rabbi Bar-Chaim. He is today in charge of the computer department for Israel's missiles and a rav.
If there has been one complaint from employers about graduates of Machon Lev, it is that they do not sufficiently succumb to the hi-tech culture because they are too meticulous about their times for Torah learning.
Professor Zev Lev, the founder of the institution that today bears his name, once described the institution that he hoped to build as one in which the Torah learning would be at the level of Chevron or Ponevezh and the physics at the level of Yale or Cambridge. (Professor Lev himself learned in Gateshead Yeshiva and was a world-renowned expert in the field of fiber optics.)
Machon Lev was not based on a philosophy of Torah plus anything else. All was Torah, both the beis medrash, in which every talmid spent at least half his day, and the classroom, where they studied the niflaos haBoreh and received the training necessary to earn a respectable livelihood.
Professor Lev had a very close relationship with Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky from the time he was interned as an enemy alien in Canada during the Second World War and Reb Yaakov was a rav in Toronto. Reb Yaakov wrote a letter of approval for Machon Lev, but placed several conditions on his approval, all of which Professor Lev treated in his lifetime as psak din. One was that the rebbeim in the beis medrash should have equal status with the academic staff – e.g., with respect to tenure, salary, and membership in the academic Senate. He also told Professor Lev that the rebbeim should not only be talmidei chachamim but ba'alei middos.That condition too was fulfilled. Over the past 41 years, there has never been the hint of machlokes in the beis medrash, even though the rebbeim came from diverse backgrounds.
Rabbi Bar-Chaim was only 27 when Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, zt'l, the late rav of Antwerp, recommended him to Professor Lev to lead the beis medrash. He was then learning in a kollel for ten elite scholars that Rabbi Kreiswirth had established and which paid ten times the average stipend in the three kollelim that existed in Jerusalem at the time of Rabbi Bar-Chaim's chasanah – Mirrer, Chevron, and Machon Harry Fischel. Perhaps Rabbi Kreiswirth's choice was based on the fact that Rabbi Bar-Chaim was one of six Chevron Yeshiva bochurim who fought in the Six-Day War, and one of only two who subsequently returned to the yeshiva.
A number of his friends in the kollel were staunchly opposed to the new venture, and went to the Steipler Gaon, zt"l, to seek a letter forbidding Rabbi Bar-Chaim from taking up his new duties. They did not succeed. Subsequently, Rabbi Bar-Chaim travelled to Bnei Brak to speak privately to the Steipler. The Steipler told him (as he related in his speech at the retirement ceremony), "There are institutions that the gedolei Torah would never establish themselves. But once they are established, they can either be a great Kiddush Hashem or, chas v'challilah, the opposite." With that the Steipler Gaon gave him a berachah that he succeed in making a Kiddush Hashem.
Rabbi Bar-Chaim was to meet afterwards many times with both the Steipler and with Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and always felt himself to be their shaliach in guarding the original vision of Machon Lev. Ten years ago, the Board of Governors of the Jerusalem College of Technology of which Machon Lev is the flagship institution closed the beis medrash in order to dramatically change the staff. Most of the chareidi rebbeim who were eligible took the generous retirement package offered them at the time.
At that time, I attended a protest gathering on campus of over 300 talmidim. The speakers that night all described the beis medrash as the "heart of Machon Lev, on whose merit Machon Lev's existence and good name depends until today" and the rabbonim as "the point of connection for the majority of the graduates of Machon Lev." One speaker demanded to know how rabbonim who had given their live blood to Machon Lev and who "still maintain continuous contact with hundreds of graduates" could have been terminated. "When no one remembers who was the president of Jerusalem College of Technology in 5765," he said, "there will still be dozens who will continue to call HaRav [Bar-Chaim] for advice, and generations of children and grandchildren who still look at the picture of him marrying their parents."
Rabbi Bar-Chaim, together with less than a handful of his long-time colleagues, refused to step down at the time. And over the last ten years, he has turned down numerous offers to retire because he believes so strongly in the original vision of Machon Lev and in the institution's vital importance in Israeli society. As he pointed out in his speech, Israel is fast approaching the point where fifty percent of the incoming first-graders will be in religious frameworks (most chareidi), but the crucial needs of both the IDF and the Israeli economy for those with advanced technical training will only continue to grow.
Over the last ten years, Rabbi Bar-Chaim has stood in the breach continuing to influence hundreds of talmidim in the beis medrash and keeping a vigilant eye to ensure that an absolute separation of the genders be maintained on the large Givat Mordechai campus. During that same period, Jerusalem College of Technology has become a very important institution for Israel's chareidi community, educating hundreds of chareidi men and women. What happens next is therefore of great concern to the community.
In the meantime, the entire Israeli society owes a great debt of gratitude to Rabbi Bar-Chaim and the distinguished talmidei chachamim who taught with him in the beis medrash for the impact of the graduates of Machon Lev over the last 41 years in holding the banner of Torah high in all sectors of the society.
A Course for Chareidi MKs
I'm beginning to think that someone should arrange a course for all new, and not so new, chareidi representatives about the implications of the words they choose. As many have learned to their dismay, we live in an era where every comment that one makes will often be whizzing around the globe almost as soon as it is out of one's mouth.
For those living in insular environments, who imagine themselves to be more or less cut off from the broader society, it is often hard to adjust to a world in which what is said in a Motzaei Shabbos shiur in a small beis medrash may appear on the front-page of Sunday's Yediot Ahronot.
The course I'm proposing might have prevented the damage created by veteran Shas MK Rabbi David Azoulay's statement that he could not bring himself to call a Reform Jew a Jew. That statement is a distortion of the Torah, as Rabbi Azoulay subsequently acknowledged. There are undoubtedly Reform members who consider themselves to be Jewish through patrilineal descent or by virtue of a Reform conversion but who do not meet the halachic standards. Their religious beliefs, however, have nothing to do with their halachic status.
Rabbi Azoulay did not need a course to teach him that. But he may not have been aware how eager the Reform and Conservative movements would be to seize on such remarks or how they would turn them to their advantage. Nearly twenty years ago, an obscure rabbinical group in America came out with declaration that Reform Judaism is not Judaism. The rabbis did not say anything about the halachic status of Reform Jews. Yet the declaration set off a firestorm of controversy, with headlines in the prominent journals of Anglo Jewry reading, "Reform Jews are not Jews, say Orthodox rabbis."
When asked Rabbi Azoulay should have stressed the critical distinction between Reform Judaism and Reform Jews, even though his remarks might still have been twisted, as the above example shows.
But by misspeaking, he ended up kicking an own goal, perhaps several, and advancing the cause of those whom meant to disparage. "Religious rights" for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel is virtually the only thing the Reform and Conservative movements have today to arouse their base. That has always been the attraction, for instance, of the Women of the Wall. A woman I know well once asked her Conservative rabbi, after his Yom Kippur sermon, "Don't you have anything to talk about besides how bad the Orthodox are, especially since most members of our synagogue have never met an Orthodox Jew?"
Rabbi Azoulay's comment provided movements that have nothing positive to sell with grist for their mill. And because Prime Minister Netanyahu rightly worries about the fraying bond between Israel and world Jewry, he also felt the need to placate the Reform movement, exactly the opposite of what Rabbi Azoulay hoped to achieve.
The only question is: If such a course is organized, will anyone attend?