What I Learned from Rabbi Noach Weinberg
Feb 4, 2020 | by Yonoson Rosenblum
How writing his biography and immersing myself in the life of Rabbi Weinberg changed my life.
At long last, the biography of Rav Noach Weinberg, zt"l, has gone to the printers, and the time has come for me – the author – to reflect on some of the major lessons that I learned from a decade of immersion in Rav Noach and the Aish HaTorah story. That immersion included interviews with approximately 150 individuals, most of them multiple times, and with further follow-up by email.
The first thing I learned is how little I actually knew about either Rav Noach , whom I met only once, or Aish HaTorah, though one of my younger brothers spent nearly a full year there in its early years. Whatever I knew about Aish and Rav Noach came primarily from Ellen Willis's iconic Rolling Stone article Next Year in Jerusalem, in which the famous feminist writer explored whether the course taken by her younger brother Mike (Chaim) could work for her as well. I'm ashamed to say I'm one of the few ba'alei teshuva who had never heard one of the 48 Ways classes before I started working on the book.
Besides knowing next to nothing about Rav Noach, I knew little about Aish HaTorah. Above all, I was thoroughly ignorant of the impact that Aish HaTorah has had on the broader Jewish world through major programs developed by Aish students – Discovery, Aish.com, Jerusalem Fellowships to name a few.
From Rav Noach, I learned what it means to take responsibility for the entire Jewish people, indeed for the entire world.
From Rav Noach, I learned what it means to take responsibility for the entire Jewish people, indeed for the entire world. Our Sages tell us that we should each say "bishvili nivra olam – for me the world was created" every day. That means, Rav Noah taught, that everything in the world that is not as God wanted it to be is our responsibility to repair.
There was nothing Rav Noach did not care about – and passionately. Eric Coopersmith, one of Rav Noach's closest students, once rattled off to me a list of at least 20 organizations, other than those initiated by Aish HaTorah itself, to which Rav Noah had helped raise significant funds, even as Aish itself labored under perpetual indebtedness.
Rav Noach's demands on himself and all those close to him were unremitting. Eric Coopersmith once said to him in exasperation, "Rosh Yeshiva, we don't have an air force [with which to destroy the Iranian nuclear program]."
The spirit of taking responsibility is the identifying mark of an Aish HaTorah student. A Toronto high school student, who attended the Aish Partners Conference one year returned home to start a hot meals program for the poor. He later related that he felt embarrassed by what he heard at the conference not to be involved in saving the world in some way.
Rav Noach's students universally describe him as the most empowering person they ever met. He spoke frequently of his search for "ten men" with whom he would change the world, and proclaimed Aish HaTorah to be an institution for training the leaders of the Jewish people.
Failure, he taught, is not the opposite of success, but its precondition.
He taught his followers not to fear failure, and freely regaled with them stories of all his failures before he got Aish HaTorah off the ground. Failure, he taught, is not the opposite of success, but its precondition: Those who fear failure too greatly will never achieve great things.
From Rav Noach, I learned that the most empowering idea is simply this: God loves you, and as long as you are aligned with His goals for the world, He will help you. Rabbi Motty Berger, a senior Aish lecturer at Aish HaTorah and lead Discovery presenter, once remarked to other rabbis as they walked out of Rav Noach's office, "None of us really believe that it is possible to return the entire Jewish People, but we all recognize the power of working for someone who thinks we can." What he did not realize is that Rav Noah had followed him out of the office – at least until he felt a firm kick in the seat of his pants. "Traitor!" Rav Noach cried.
Rav Noach's logic was irrefutable, as even those who chafed under his constant pressure to achieve quicker results recognized. "If the Almighty were helping you to achieve your goal, could He do it?" he would ask. Once that was acknowledged all one had to do was to make sure that his goals are aligned with God's. And about God's desire to bring His children, the Jewish People, close to Him, there can be no doubt.
I also learned from Rav Noah the importance of intellectual clarity. He viewed ideas as like barbells: the more one reflected upon them, the more real they become and the more deeply comprehended. The Six Constant Mitzvos were the barbells to which he reverted automatically whenever his mind was not otherwise engaged.
Because he had spent so much time working on first principles – Love of God, Fear of God, the purpose of prayer -- he was able to answer virtually any question that was thrown at him without hesitation. A friend of mine was a somewhat alienated product of the yeshiva system when he first met Rav Noahc at nineteen. For the first time he had to acknowledge that he was losing every debate, but far more important he received answers to questions that had long bothered him. He realized that Rav Noach could answer so quickly because he had spent years reflecting on the same problems himself. Because he had such clarity with respect to first principles challenges did not throw him off. That young man is himself a rosh yeshiva today.
Above all, I learned how much more each of us could do for God and the Jewish People if we only cared enough.
And finally, Rav Noach taught me that one's own community should not be exempt from criticism and that the ultimate act of love is to seek the improvement of those closest to us, not to become their partisan defenders. Rav Noach grew to maturity in the world of the yeshivas and was very much a product of that world. But he never made the mistake of thinking that world was above criticism. That world was, in his view, no more than "the least crazy in a world gone mad." The Torah is perfect, but no group fully embodies that perfection.
One of the primary missions he envisioned for his own students was that they should infuse the larger Torah world with the clarity and enthusiasm that had made it possible for them to upend their lives in mid-course to commit themselves to a life of Torah and mitzvot.
Over my decade of living with Rav Noach on a constant basis, his teachings entered deeper and deeper. Above all, I learned how much more each of us could do for God and the Jewish People if we only cared enough.
COMING OUT SOON! Rabbi Noach Weinberg: Torah Revolutionary is an inspiring and thought-provoking biography, written by famed biographer Jonathan Rosenblum. This unique work honestly addresses the development, teachings, controversies and legacy of one of the most powerful and influential Torah figures of recent times: Rav Noach Weinberg of Aish HaTorah.