Rabbi Nachman Bulman: A Passionate Life
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 9, 2002
As we look back over our lives, most of us can point to one or two individuals without whom we could never have become who we are today. Rabbi Nachman Bulman, whose shloshim was marked this week, was one of those seminal influences in my life.
My first meeting with Rabbi Bulman in the summer of 1979 was the most fateful. The passage of time has done nothing to diminish its memory. My wife and I were newly married, and spending our honeymoon studying in Jerusalem at Ohr Somayach in preparation for my planned entry that fall into the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative).
One of my wife’s teachers arranged for me to "accidentally" bump into Rabbi Bulman after davening one Shabbos morning . Rabbi Bulman asked me about my future plans. I answered noncommitally that I was an attorney.
That didn’t work. Rabbi Bulman knew more about me than I did about him, and he kept pressing about future plans. He was well-versed in Conservative theology, and I was unable to answer his queries – either to his satisfaction, and, more importantly, my own. Having been a champion debater from high school through law school, my sudden speechlessness led me to suspect that I had a losing case.
Rabbi Bulman was far too clever to launch into a frontal attack on Conservative Judaism. Rather he told me that the rabbinate, in which he had spent nearly three (highly successful) decades, was no place for a good Jewish boy. Congregational rabbis, he said, were like dogs: They appear to be running ahead, but at every moment they are listening for their master’s whistle.
He suggested I read a book by sociologist Marshall Sklare called Conservative Judaism. Since the work is largely a paean to the phenomenal growth of the movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, the choice seemed an odd one. Rabbi Bulman, however, directed me to the last chapter, in which Sklare describes the failure of Conservative Judaism as a spiritual movement, concluding: "steady erosion of observance among Conservative Jews." Conservative rabbis’ halachic role is confined to "taking a poll of their membership" and writing post-hoc justifications for their congregants’ behavior.
Rabbi Bulman was wise enough to lead me to the pertinent information while leaving it to me to draw my own conclusions. Somehow he had sized up a complete stranger and what would or would not appeal to his idealistic streak.
Through all the difficult decisions about our future that we had to make that summer, Rabbi Bulman was our main guide. I still remember him telling me to defer a certain theological question until after Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah, for which he was always the hazzan. Listening to Rabbi Bulman speak to G-d in prayer could indeed melt away intellectual doubts. As he pleaded with the Creator on behalf of each and every Jew, in the last moments of the Neilah service of Yom Kippur, his face shone with a supernal radiance.
Rabbi Bulman was the most passionate man I ever met. For him there were no everyday experiences. The sight of any Jewish child after the Holocaust could provoke tears of joy; the actions of the "pea brains" (his favorite epithet) within our own community frequently drove him to righteous indignation and beyond. (In recent years, I was relegated to the camp of the pea brains more than once.) My friend Seth Mandell attributes his religious transformation to the tears Rabbi Bulman shed when Seth told him he would be sightseeing in Egypt over Pesach.
Rabbi Bulman offered a stark contrast to the model of perfect self-control, idealized by the Lithuanian mussar movement and exemplified by most of my rabbis at Ohr Somayach. Unable to imagine myself ever achieving that mussar ideal, Rabbi Bulman provided hope that there might still be a place for me in the chareidi world.
Above all, Rabbi Bulman was passionate about the Torah and the classical works of Jewish thought. His mastery of Tanach, Jewish philosophy, and Jewish history was unparalleled. He delighted in the rich tapestry of Torah as lived by believing Jews throughout the ages. He knew each thread of Torah thought at its sources, and how all the threads intertwined.
In class, he would begin with an overview of the topic, and then proceed with a reverential word-by-word reading of the text, demonstrating how each word is pregnant with meaning.
As an orator, Rabbi Bulman was in a league of his own. Even those who could not follow the profundity of his thought found themselves transported into a different realm. Starting softly, there came a point in every speech where he would become so carried away that his voice would crack, and with it the hearts of his listeners.
I did not know then that already in his early thirties he had been the most sought after Orthodox speaker in America. He was the keynote speaker at conventions of groups across the entire Orthodox spectrum – a feat only slightly less remarkable in the America of the ‘60s and ‘70s than it would be today.
At a convention of the Orthodox Union in the early ‘80s, he was paired with a famous political activist. The latter gave a fiery 45-minute address, if not quite in defense of the Jewish Underground, at least filled with praise for the nobility of their intentions. Rabbi Bulman began his response by noting that the previous week’s Torah reading, Ve’Yishlach, recounted how Shimon and Levi killed the worst of men for the best of reasons. And yet they are condemned by our Sages for their failure to consult the leader of the generation, their father Jacob, before giving vent to their anger.
In this week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Bulman continued, we read how the same Shimon and Levi plotted to kill their brother Joseph. From this we learn that when one doesn’t seek guidance from Torah scholars, one may start with the best of intentions and yet come to fratricide. Rabbi Bulman spoke for less than two minutes, and yet in that time completely demolished the preceding speaker.
Every group within Orthodoxy claimed him as its own. A graduate of Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchonon Seminary, which in his day produced most of America’s English-speaking rabbis, he dwelt imaginatively in a lost world of Yiddish speakers. A proud Gerrer chassid , he was once offered a position as rabbi of the main German Jewish congregation in America.
But if all groups viewed him as one of theirs, in truth he belonged to none. He was too dialectical in thought, too open to the full spectrum of Torah to be pigeon-holed. That openness made him the address, in his later years, for all those who did not quite find their place in Israeli Orthodox society. To those who blamed themselves for not "fitting in," Rabbi Bulman always had words of encouragement. What they perceived as failure, he told them, was often a sign of strength – the result of the purity of their quest for truth, or their pain at the failure of Torah society to live up to its own highest ideals.
Yet he knew that a Jew cannot live apart from a community. Because he was so inclusive, he had an uncanny ability to discern the approach to Torah appropriate for different souls and to direct them towards it.
Six years ago, Rabbi Bulman opened a new seminary for post-high school students from America. At the first staff meeting, he described the goal of an educator with a story. A woman approached him at a Torah Umesorah convention whom he had last seen a quarter of a century earlier when he was a young rabbi in Newport News, Virginia, and she was a teenager in NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth). She beckoned Rabbi Bulman to join her by a curtain, which she then pulled back to reveal her large family dressed in their Shabbat finest. "All these are your children," she told Rabbi Bulman.
The thousands who gathered at Ohr Somayach well past midnight on the Motzaei Shabbos after his passing knew exactly what she meant. Unable to enter the overflowing beis medrash to hear the eulogies, friends of twenty years or more sat together to offer our own and to reflect upon how much we are Rabbi Bulman’s children.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
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