HaRav Nachman Bulman, zt’’l: A Passionate Life
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 10, 2002
``Who can imagine ever again seeing such genius and passion joined together in one person?" Rabbi Noach Orlowek remarked to me at the conclusion of the levaya for HaRav Nachman Bulman late last Motzaei Shabbos.
Few people ever lived at the level of emotional intensity of Rav Bulman. The surprise is not that his poor, misshapen heart eventually gave out, but that it could have sustained him for 77 years under the constant strain to which it was subjected.
That too must have been included in the berachah of the Imrei Emes. Rav Bulman’s father Meir had already buried two wives and two children in Europe and his mother was in her mid-40s when they wrote to the Imrei Emes of Gur for a berachah that they should yet be blessed with children. Rav Bulman was the fruit of that berachah.
No event in the Ribbono shel Olam’s world ever seemed trivial to Rav Bulman. Everything was cosmic in his eyes, and he responded accordingly. Anything might trigger a welter of emotions, without diminishing his analytical clarity. The Gemara (Avodah Zara 20.) relates that Rabbi Akiva once saw Rufina, the beautiful wife of Turnus Rufus. Rabbi Akiva spat, then laughed, and finally cried. He spat as he remembered the lowly source of her beauty; laughed out of recognition that she was destined to be a ger tzedek and to become his wife after the death of Rachel; and cried over the thought of the grave that would one day claim that beauty. Rav Bulman had a similar ability to encompass many conflicting emotions at the same time, and to understand the source of each of them.
While still in his early ‘30s, he was already the most sought after orator in the American Orthodox world. His speeches were not mere entertainments, but intense learning experiences. Even those who could not follow the profundity of his thought felt themselves being transported to higher realms as he spoke. Starting softly, there came a point in every speech where Rav Bulman would become so carried away with his subject that his voice would crack, and with it the hearts of his listeners. At an Agudath Israel convention in the late ‘50s, he spoke of the duty of the Orthodox community to reach out to Jews who had not yet recognized that they were parched for Torah. When the young man finished, the Kopycznitzer Rebbe rushed over and kissed him.
Nowhere was his passion more evident than in his davening. Bochurim would slip out of their yeshivos before Ne’ilah to go to the Young Israel of Far Rockaway to hear Rav Bulman plead with the Ribbono shel Olam for each and every member of Klal Yisrael. Kohanim who gazed upon Rav Bulman’s face as they prepared to duchan for the last time on Yom Kippur sensed that he was in another world, directly in front of the Kisei HaKavod (Throne of Glory). (As recently as four years ago, he still was the Shaliach Tzibur for Kol Nidrei, Maariv, Mussaf, and Neilah on Yom Kippur.)
Rav Bulman once told a bochur at Ohr Somayach who approached him in Elul with a question in emunah to defer the question until after Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah. Listening to Rav Bulman speak to Hashem in tefillah was sufficient to remove all intellectual doubts. To him, davening was a conversation with the Creator. He once explained to Rabbi Mordechai Pearlman, the long-time Shaliach Tzibur at Ohr Somayach for the Yomim Noraim, every place where the niggun should go up or down depending upon the different middah (aspect) of Hashem being referred to according to Kabbalah.
RAV Bulman was a ``Klal Yisrael" Jew, whose heart embraced every single Yid. He rejoiced at every Jewish simcha, and suffered every Yiddishe tzara, whether of the Klal or of an individual. His only personal need was other Jews to whom he could devote himself totally. From the age of 25 he led kehillos in Danville and Newport News, Virginia; South Fallsburg; and Far Rockaway. In every place he served, he made a lasting impact. When he arrived in Danville, there was not even half a minyan of Shabbos-observant men. Yet numbered among the youth that he touched in his three years in Danville are roshei yeshiva, rabbis, and the wives of rabbonim and teachers. Long after he left Danville, the congregants still looked to him as their rav. Twenty-three years after his departure, on the eve of the Bulmans’ aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, the Danville congregation made a special farewell party for the Bulmans.
Rav Bulman implanted in the unpromising soil of rural Virginia, the Hirschian Austritt principle of eschewing all connection of anything that smacked of heresy. When the community in Danville was no longer viable, the members razed the shul rather than risk it being taken over by a Reform congregation or a church. When the day school in Newport News that Rav Bulman founded could no longer sustain itself, it simply closed its doors rather than become a community school, in which Torah would be reduced to "one of the options." In both cases, the members of the kehillah were simply acting according to the principles that they had learned from Rav Bulman.
Upon moving to Eretz Yisrael in 1975, Rav Bulman became the Mashgiach at Ohr Somayach. The author of these words is one of hundreds who would likely never found their way into the Torah community but for Rav Bulman.
His office was the address for all those seeking to be convinced of the truth of Torah. He found a way to connect to each student according to his needs. One former student, who went on to become a Hillel rabbi on several large campuses, recalls that the turning point for him was when he told Rav Bulman that he intended to spend Pesach vacation sightseeing in Egypt. Rav Bulman began crying. Those tears not only marked the end of the travel plans to Egypt, but the beginning of the young man’s taking his studies seriously.
Another student was spending the summer at Ohr Somayach prior to commencing studies to become a Conservative clergyman. At their first meeting, Rabbi Bulman did not begin with a frontal attack on the Conservative movement. Rather he suggested that the young man read the last chapter of Conservative Judaism by Marshall Sklare, a sociologist deeply sympathetic to the movement. After discussing the remarkable growth of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Sklare concludes with an assessment of the movement’s minimal impact on the spiritual life of its followers. Rav Bulman was wise enough to recognize that the young man would conclude on his own that his idealistic commitment to the Jewish people would find no satisfaction within the Conservative movement. Who but Rav Bulman could have so quickly grasped the nature of someone to whom he was speaking for the first time, or could have known where to direct the young man so that he would feel the decision to abandon his career plans was his own and not forced upon him.
After four years at Ohr Somayach, Rabbi Bulman devoted the next fourteen years of his life to creating a community in Migdal HaEmek in the Lower Galilee. Kiryat Nachliel was designed for those – mostly English-speaking immigrants – who had not found their place in the major Orthodox centers of Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. It was a community of baalebatim, firmly anchored by a yeshiva and kollel and with constant shiurim for men, women, and children from the rav. The effort to create a community with few parallels since the Frankfurt of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sapped Rav Bulman’s strength and health. Nevertheless most of those who shared in that ultimately failed experiment with Rav Bulman would look back on the years invested as the richest of their lives.
THE LIST of accomplishments on Rav Bulman’s imaginary curriculum vitae is a long one: first editor of the Jewish Observer and long time member of the magazine’s editorial board; founder of Sarah Schenirer High School in Boro Park; founder, together with Rabbi Jechiel Perr, of Yeshiva Derech Ayson of Far Rockaway; translator of Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s three-volume classic Sefer Toda’ah (The Book of Our Heritage). But his greatest impact was surely through the thousands of shiurim he taught over fifty years and upon the thousands who sought out his advice.
Six years ago, at the first staff meeting of Seminary Darchei Binah, Rabbi Bulman told the teachers how he had been approached by a middle-aged woman at a Torah Umesorah convention. She asked, ``Rabbi Bulman do you remember me?" Rabbi Bulman confessed that he did not. The woman told him that she had been his student more than twenty years earlier in Newport News. She then pulled back a nearby to reveal a large range of children all beautifully dressed in Shabbos clothes. ``All these children are yours," she told Rav Bulman, ``for without you, neither I nor any of them would be here today."
Knowing that you have the power to influence generations, should be your inspiration, Rav Bulman told the educators. He himself was the best proof of the power of one caring individual to touch hundreds of lives. For over a quarter of a century, his home was the central address in Eretz Yisrael for hundreds of English-speaking immigrants or those contemplating aliyah.
He was incapable of guarding his own strength or time. His door was open to all who sought him, and there was no issue that was beneath him. By taking so deeply to heart the problems that were brought to him, he had a unique ability to lift the despair from those who poured out their hearts to him. Because he cared so much they no longer had to.
All those who could not find their place within the Israeli religious society found their way to Rav Bulman’s door. What they perceived as failure, Rav Bulman assured them, was often a sign of their strengths – the result of their quest for truth and purity, of their pain at the failure of the community to live up to its own highest ideals. At the same time, he would gradually show them how to find their place within society.
The last time I spoke to Rav Bulman at length, he was filled with excitement about a group of young teenage girls in the neighborhood with whom he met every Shabbos. Most of the group suffered from serious adjustment problems after moving to Israel from America at an older age, and Rav Bulman felt that he had been able to help them get over the hurdle.
He understood that different neshamos are drawn to different aspects of Torah, and had an uncanny ability to direct different people to the proper path in Torah for them. That he could do only because he himself was so grounded in the full panoply of Torah expression.
EACH group claimed him for their own, and in a way they were all right. He was a proud Chassid, with an absolute command of the Chassidic masters. At the same time, he was enamored with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He opened up the eyes of thousands for the first time to the Kuzari, to the Maharal, to the Bais Elokim of the Mabit, to the Nesivos HaShalom of the Slonimer Rebbe, zt"l, to the Malbim on Shir HaShirim. Each shiur would begin with an overview of the topic, and then a reverential word-by-word reading of the text, in the course of which he demonstrated how each word is pregnant with meaning.
WITH RAV BULMAN’S passing, a complete commentary on Tanach has been lost and another on the Maharal and another on Jewish history. His knowledge of the latter was both panoramic and detailed. What delighted him above all was the rich tapestry of Torah as lived by Jews throughout the ages. He knew each thread of Torah thought at its sources, and how all the threads intertwined.
By virtue of his phenomenal breadth and depth of his knowledge, he was perhaps the figure in our time best qualified to carry forth the project begun by Rabbi Chaim Heller in Berlin between the two world wars of teaching ma l’hashiv l’apikorus.
Such a work for our times will now never be written. Nor will the hundreds of commentaries that Rav Bulman carried around in his head and heart.
A GREAT loss – certainly; a failure – no. For if Rav Bulman never found the time to commit to paper the synthesis of classical Torah thought that was uniquely his, it was only because he never found it within him to hold back his heart from any Jew in need. He had heart enough to give to everyone but himself.
He never learned to conserve and marshall his strength. As soon as he saw the truth, he acted upon it. ``I’m a Kotzker" he said of himself.
``He was," says Rabbi Ben Tzion Kermaier, who worked closely with Rav Bulman in his last years, ``the most gallant man I ever met." He sallied forth into battle without calculating the likelihood of success and undeterred by the wounds he still bore from previous battles.
Along the way, there were great triumphs. Shortly after his arrival in Israel, he took the lead in bringing together all the various religious factions to combat former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s plan to build a amphitheater for sports on Shabbos on land that is today the chareidi neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
WELL PAST midnight on Motzaei Shabbos, Jews converged upon Ohr Somayach for Rav Bulman’s levaya, some traveling for four hours to get there. Soon the beis medrash was filled to overflowing, and many were forced to stand outside where they were unable to hear a word of the hespedim. To those who could not hear the hespedim, it barely mattered. For they gathered in groups, often with old friends they had not seen in years, to deliver their own hespedim and describe Rav Bulman’s impact on their lives.
They felt little need to have their sense of loss aroused by others. For they all knew that they would never again merit to be touched by someone embodying such a combination of mind and heart. .
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
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