Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman, who passed away last Shabbat night, was the most stubborn man I ever met – or ever will meet. Had he been anything less he would not have survived infancy. Eighty-one years ago, two-pound preemies rarely survived. Rabbi Freedman bore the reminders of that premature birth and a subsequent case of childhood rickets his whole life.
That stubbornness did not always make him endearing. He held up publication of my biography of his great teacher Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz for four years because he did not feel it did justice to his rebbe. After all, Irving Howe had written a nine hundred-page book on the Lower East Side, how could a book on Reb Shraga Feivel, the pioneer yeshiva builder in America, be any shorter? (In the end, he admitted it was a ``pretty good" book, and distributed free copies to anyone who would take one.)
Today the term tam has a vaguely pejorative flavor – naïve, otherworldly. Rabbi Freedman was surely that. But the Torah also instructs us to be ``tamim (whole) with the Lord, Your G-d." No verse so describes Rabbi Freedman, for whom nothing existed besides the will of G-d.
He had virtually no physical needs, and even had difficulty appreciating that other people did. Once he brought a wealthy businessman with him to Israel for a three-day trip. The man gave Rabbi Freedman his credit card, and told him to make all the arrangements. He was more than a little shocked to find that the ``hotel" Rabbi Freedman chose was a hostel in Meah Shearim with one bathroom for ten rooms and no telephones. Since they were coming for spiritual uplift, Rabbi Freedman reasoned, they might as well be as close to the action as possible.
Nor did he have any ego. People could shout at him and ridicule him all they wanted; it made no difference once he had honed in on the target. With that determination, he played a major role in building a Torah community in Detroit. When he arrived in Detroit in 1944, as the first teacher in Yeshivas Bais Yehudah, there were less than 100 Sabbath observant families in the city.
Reb Avraham Abba went door-to-door urging parents to send their children to a Jewish school. Most laughed at the little, cross-eyed man, but he was oblivious. And little by little a school was built. Rabbi Freedman lived to see grandchildren of those original students teaching in Bais Yehudah, and in his latter years, he supervised putting the kindergarten children (some of them great-grandchildren of those original students) on the school bus. No task was beneath his dignity.
In the first decades of Bais Yehudah, few of the students came from religious homes. Rabbi Freedman and his fellow rabbis invited them to their homes for Shabbat, kept the school open on Purim and Sukkot so that they would observe the mitzvos of those holidays, foraged with them in abandoned housing projects for material to build sukkot, and ran a summer camp for them. Three times a year, they packed all the students into busses for cross-country bus rides to Williamsburg and Boro Park so that they could celebrate the festivals in a religious community.
Rabbi Freedman was still leading those bus trips until the end. Only now, the passengers were fifty or sixty recent Russian Jewish immigrants. Somehow he convinced them to join him for Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot in Brooklyn. Like so many before them, they simply could not resist his relentless pressure. Without charm or charisma – as far as I could ever discern, he had no sense of humor – Jews agreed to the most outrageous requests because they recognized a true tzaddik, who was absolutely focused on the Master of the Universe every moment.
There was nothing that Rabbi Freedman would not do if he felt he could bring another Jew closer to Torah. Neighbors watched him in his late ‘70s run down the block in a torrential downpour to wish a recent Russian immigrant, ``Good Shabbos." His last words to his wife, after suffering a fatal heart attack, were instructions to give $1,000 to SHUVU, a network of religious schools in Israel for children from Russian-speaking homes.
His own eight children were no dearer to him than any other Jew, and he would miss family simchos if they conflicted with one of his ``missions" on behalf of not yet religious Jews.
He always saw the good in every Jew, and was the world’s greatest believer in the Jewish people. He never doubted that our future would be even more glorious than our past or in the potential of any Jew to draw closer to G-d. When someone told him about Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Rabbi Freedman decided that Frankl was a potential baal teshuva. He flew unannounced to Europe just to meet with Frankl.
Once Rabbi Freedman had you in his sites, there was no escaping. While I was writing the Reb Shraga Feivel biography, he constantly pestered me (yes, that is the word) to spend Shalosh Seudas (the third meal on Shabbat) with a particular Chassidic rebbe whom he admired greatly and whom he felt was a true disciple of Reb Shraga Feivel. It was beyond him, why I should hesitate to walk in the heat of the summer from Har Nof to the Old City or to leave my family after having been away from home for weeks.
Three weeks ago, Rabbi Freedman appeared unannounced at my door. His purpose: to urge me to attend the Shalosh Seudas of a charismatic young rabbi of whom he had become enamored. With him, he brought the second volume of the rabbi’s writings. He had already given me the first volume in Detroit last May. (No one ever gave away so many copies of the works he loved.)
The biography of Rabbi Mendlowitz was already in its second printing, and Rabbi Freedman no longer had the pretext that he was trying to help me understand my subject better. He simply felt that I lacked a proper appreciation of Chassidut and that it was his duty to enlighten me. (Though he was himself of Lithuanian stock, he was open to every strand of classical Jewish thought, from the symbolic interpretations of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to the great Chassidic masters.)
I told Rabbi Freedman that I would try to join him at the Shalosh Seudas, but something came up the last two weeks he was in Israel.
But I will go. Like so many others, I, too, cannot say no to the purest Jew I ever met.