Menachem Mendel

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Rabbis and Beards

Life in Israel mentions that some Haredim are finding fault with the incoming Chief Rabbi of the Army that he doesn’t have a beard. First of all, who cares what the “Haredi Street”, i.e. people who have nothing better to do with their time than to envy a person who can be both a rabbi and a combat helicopter pilot, secondly, it reminds me of a story that I heard from David Weiss Halivni and was brought in his book, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction.

I came to the United States on February 11, 1947, as part of a group of orphaned children under the age of eighteen—my papers were ready in Germany before I actually became eighteen—who were brought to this country for adoption under the auspices of Eleanor Roosevelt, who headed a committee for children found in the European theater of war.I remember that we arrived at midday and were taken to an orphanage on Caldwell Avenue in the Bronx, where they served us cold milk.I still savor the taste; after years of starvation, to be able to drink as much cold milk as one wanted was a memorable event. But then in the evening they served a dinner with meat, and the question of Jewish dietary laws came up.If I remember correctly, out of fifteen children, three ate kosher, and they followed my lead. They were in a precarious psychological state, and I worried about them. (One of these children, by the name of Rosenfeld, jumped to his death from a building a few months later.)

I wanted to make sure the meat was kosher, and the director obliged me by bringing in a young man who supervised the kitchen to see that it conformed to the dietary laws. The young man, I later found out, was from one of the right-wing yeshivot, Torah VeDaath, but he had no beard. It was the first time I had seen a rabbi without a beard, so naturally I had some hesitation about his supervision. Since I was very hungry and anxious to eat, as were the people following me, I tested him by asking him a question on the law. I was already ordained and asked him the kind of question I would have been asked in Sighet, an interpretation of a text that is part of a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, which we had to study for ordination. The commentary was called Peri Megadim, and I subsequently learned that rabbinical students in the United States did not study it as intensively as we did in Europe.

I asked the young man the question and he did not know the answer. His not knowing made me doubt his reliability, and we did not eat. The incident proved to be embarrassing to the management. The place had a reputation for being strictly kosher and we, who had come from Europe, from concentration camps, did not want to eat there. We also had a problem of language. We couldn’t talk to the orphanage staff because we did not know English well enough. Someone had the bright idea to bring in a social worker who could speak Yiddish to try to convince us to eat. They brought a social worker by the name of Shulamit Halkin, granddaughter of the Netziv, who also happened to be the sister-in-law of Professor Saul Lie berman, the scion of a famous scholarly family in Lithuania. She spoke a different Yiddish, Lithuanian Yiddish— I was more accustomed to Galician Yiddish. She addressed herself earnestly to me. But speaking Yiddish is no guarantee, no certificate of kashrut, of meeting the dietary requirements. We had to go to sleep without eating meat. But she had asked me, “If I take you to the person who I think is the greatest Talmud scholar, will you go?”

I said, “Of course I’ll go.”

The next morning, February 12, 1947, she took me to Professor Lieberman’s home. I was enormously impressed by his erudition, which probably was unrivaled by that of any living scholar. Even when he didn’t want to impress, he was impressive. This time he wanted to impress. He wanted to make sure that I would eat. He explained that the meat was kosher even though the fellow who supervised didn’t know how to answer my question. After a few hours of discussion, he sent me back to the orphanage, where we stayed for a few more days and then were sent to another orphanage; and we ate, of course.

From this first, long discussion with Professor Lieberman that day, concerning Talmudic subjects, I remember only one “Tosafot”, a passage of medieval commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, on Tractate Chulin 97a, in which I had the upper hand because I remembered it better than he did.At the time he did not say anything. But as I left —when I was already at the door and turned back to thank him again—I noticed that he had taken out the Chulin folio of the Talmud, turned to the first page, and begun to study.I asked him “Why Chulin?” and he answered, “If I forgot one Tosafot, who knows how many others I may also have forgotten?” Erudition is a steady endeavor.

(pp. 78-81)

When I heard Prof. Halivni tell the story he added that when he saw Prof. Lieberman he thought to himself “another clean-shaven man.” He also gave some more details of their learning, how they gradually realized that the other was very learned.

4 Responses to “Rabbis and Beards”

  1. 1
    Yerachmiel Lopin:

    Nice post. Thank you!

  2. 2
    Yitzhak:

    Great story about Halivni and Lieberman. But are you sure that R. Peretz is a “combat helicopter pilot”? Rafi’s post, and several other pages that I saw, merely state “helicopter pilot”, and Ha’aretz claims “transport helicopter pilot”.

  3. 3
    Menachem Mendel:

    Peretz does not fly an attack helicopter, such as an Apache or Blackhawk, but a Sikorsky CH-53. Sikorsky’s can still be shot out of the sky, often when they are transporting troops behind enemy lines. That sounds pretty “combat” in my book.

  4. 4
    Yitzhak:

    Point taken.

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