A man for all Yidden
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 14, 2004
HaRav Nachman Bulman, zt"l, was born with a misshapen, upside-down heart. Miraculously, that heart managed to beat for 77 years, despite the constant abuse to which it was subjected by its owner.
Rabbi Bulman was the most passionate man I ever met. Passionate about everything, all the time. There were no trivial events in his universe. Everything was of cosmic significance.
The Gemara (Avodah Zara 20) relates that Rabbi Akiva once saw the beautiful wife of Turnus Rufus. He spat; then he laughed; and finally, he cried. He spat as he remembered the lowly source of her beauty. He laughed because he saw that she would become a ger tzedek and his wife, after the death of Rachel. And he cried at the thought of the grave to which that beauty would one day be consigned. Rabbi Akiva’s welter of simultaneous emotions, and the ability to retain analytic clarity concerning each of them, typified Rabbi Bulman as well.
The upschneren of any yingele after the Holocaust provoked tears of joy; the actions of the "pea brains" (his favorite epithet) – i.e., all those who lacked his breadth of vision -- frequently drove him to righteous indignation and beyond. (Once I started writing, I frequently found myself consigned to this category. There were times when Rabbi Bulman called that I instinctively knew to hold the phone at a safe distance from my ear.)
That passion came through in his oratory, the area in which he first gained fame. Even those who could not follow the profundity of his thought found themselves transported into a different realm as they listened to him. 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.
Already in his early thirties, he was the most sought after speaker in American Orthodoxy. At a convention of Agudath Israel of America in the early ‘50s, the young graduate of Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan Theological Seminary spoke of the duty of Orthodox Jews to reach out to American Jews who did not yet recognize that they were parched for Torah. When he finished, the Kopycznitzer Rebbe, zt"l, rushed over and kissed him.
The rhetorical power never deserted him. Thirty years later, he was paired at a convention of the Orthodox Union with a firebrand rabbi. The latter gave 45-minute speech, if not exactly condoning the Jewish Underground in Israel, at least lauding its members’ good 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, Ve’Yeishev, 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.
Nowhere was the passion more evident than in his davening. When he served as rav of the Young Israel of Far Rockaway, bochurim would slip out of nearby yeshivos to hear him daven Neilah. As recently as four years before his passing, he was still the Shaliach Tzibbur for Kol Nidrei, Maariv, Mussaf, and Neilah on Yom Kippur. The kohanim who faced him as they duchaned for the last time on Yom Kippur at the end of Neilah described Rav Bulman as being in another world, directly in front of the Kisei HaKavod pleading for Klal Yisrael.
Shortly after I met Rabbi Bulman for the first time, I approached him with a certain question in emunah. He asked me to defer the question until after Musaf of Rosh Hashanah, for which he always served as Shaliach Tzibur. And indeed listening to Rabbi Bulman speak to Hashem in prayer could melt away all questions and doubts.
RABBI BULMAN LOVED KLAL YISRAEL in all its manifestations. He delighted in the rich tapestry of Torah as lived by Jews throughout the ages. He knew each thread of Torah thought at its source, and how all the threads intertwined.
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 mechanchim. 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 them.
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 Rabbi Bulman.
Upon moving to Eretz Yisrael in 1975, Rabbi Bulman became the Mashgiach at Ohr Somayach.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.
Rabbi 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 an unparalleled community sapped Rav Bulman’s strength and health. Nevertheless most of those who shared in that ultimately failed experiment with Rabbi Bulman would look back on the years invested as the richest of their lives.
From the time that he arrived in Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Bulman’s home was the primary address for hundreds of English-speaking olim or those considering aliyah. His door was always open to all those who sought his advice, and once inside there were no time limits. The tzores people brought him affected him so deeply that he was able to lift their pain and take it upon himself.
His home was the refuge 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. (Early on, he warned me, "Never let them call you a shaygetz, or you will become one.") He understood that different neshamos are drawn to different forms of avodas Hashem, and he had an uncanny ability to discern the approach to Torah appropriate for different souls and to direct them towards it.
That ability to direct others in the direction best suited for them was an outgrowth of his own grounding in the full panoply of Torah expression. He encompassed every strand of legitimate Torah thought, but was fully encompassed by none. All groups within Orthodoxy claimed him, but he belonged entirely to none.
A graduate of Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchonon Theological Seminary, which produced most of America’s English-speaking rabbis in his day, he dwelt imaginatively in the lost world of Yiddish speakers. A proud Gerrer chassid, he was once was offered the leadership of the largest German congregation Jewish congregation in America. And that too would have been fitting, as he was enamored of the thought of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
RABBI BULMAN’S LIFE WAS RICH in concrete achievements. He was the 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 he bore many scars as well. Someone who was very close to him in his final years described him as "the most gallant man I ever met." He sallied forth into battle, even after his strength had waned, without any assessment of the relative changes of victory and defeat. There were victories: He led a coalition of various religious factions to oppose Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s plan to build a sports stadium on what is today the chareidi neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. But there were many defeats as well.
Surely Rabbi Bulman’s greatest disappointment was that he never wrote any of the books that he had within him. He took to the grave with him a commentary on Tanach, another on the Maharal, and, perhaps dearest to him of all, a complete overview of Jewish history. Talmidei chachamim from all streams sat at his feet to soak in his rich knowledge of the greatest Jewish thinkers. And he opened the eyes of hundreds for the first time to the Kuzari, Maharal, the Bais Elokim of the Mabit, Nesivos HaShalom of the Slonimer Rebbe, zt"l.
His unique synthesis of the entire panoply of Torah though is lost, though bits and strands are found by hundreds of talmidim. A great loss to be sure. But not quite the failure that Rabbi Bulman viewed it as. For if he never found the time to write his magnum opus, it was only because he was unable to withhold himself from any Jew in need. He never learned to conserve and marshall his strength. He had heart enough to give to everyone but himself.
Six years before his passing, Rabbi Bulman opened a new seminary for post-high school students from America. At the first staff meeting, he taught us with a story what it means to be an educator. Rabbi Bulman described 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 in NCSY a quarter century earlier when he was a young rabbi in Newport News. She beckoned Rabbi Bulman to join her by a curtain, which she then pulled back to reveal her large family dressed in their Shabbos finest. "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 us. And he himself was the best proof of the power of one caring individual to profoundly change thousands of lives.
News of Rabbi Bulman’s passing came late on a summer Motzaei Shabbos. Nevertheless thousands converged on Ohr Somayach from all over Eretz Yisrael for the levaya. Most of us could not enter the beis medrash or even hear the hespedim. But it did not matter. We who could not find a place inside, met old friends and together we shared stories of being Rabbi Bulman’s children.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
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