A Letter from R. Nathan Kamenetsky
In response to my last post on the Seforim Blog, R. Nathan Kamenetsky sent me a long e-mail. Because of its value to those with an interest in the Lithuanian Torah world, I asked Rabbi Kamenetsky for permission to post it here, and he graciously agreed – Marc Shapiro
The central figure, albeit a mostly passive one, in the story I shall tell below is R' Maisheh Finkel, one of the twin sons who were the youngest children of the Alter of Slabodka, born around 1887. The other twin was R' Shmuel Finkel, whose son became a caterer in Chicago and is the father of the recently deceased son-in-law of R' Bainish Finkel (son of the the Alter's oldest son R' Laizer-Yudel), R' Noson-Zvi Finkel, a namesake of his great-grandfather the Alter of Slabodka who served as the Rosh of the mighty Yeshivat Mir of Jerusalem for about thirty years.
R' Maisheh was far superior in Torah talent to his twin R' Shmuel. Someone described to me R' Maisheh's learning pose; he would pace back and forth the length of the beit midrash, and if someone asked a good question, R' Maisheh would give him one reply as he passed the questioner on the first time he transversed the beit midrash, then give him a second answer when he passed by him a second time, and a third answer when he passed him by for the third time. Raised by his mother – the Alteh lived in Kelem, not Slabodka, till the latter part of the first decade of the 20th century: see MOAG pp. 594-596 -- the Alter had at first sent him to learn under R' Baruch-Ber Leibowitz in Hlusk, and then brought him to Slabodka. R' Maisheh married Zlateh, the daughter of the Slabodka Rosh Yeshiva, R' Moshe-Mordkhai Epstein, in 1913, and was appointed as a maggid shiur in the Slabodka Yeshiva.
When the Slabodka Yeshiva opened a branch in the city of Chevron in the winter of 1925, R' Maisheh was sent along with the first talmidim to be a maggid shiur there. The Alter himself came to Palestine in the summer of 1925 – not as the mashgiach, but as a retiree – and three months later, R' Maisheh died. Chiddushei Torah of R' Maisheh Finkel were published beginning in 1986 by R' Chaim-Dov Altusky, Rabbi Pinchas Scheinberg's late son-in-law, under the name "Chiddushei Hagram Mislabodka" (together with "Chiddushei Hamasbir", with the last word created from the acronym of Harav Morainu Soloveitchik Ber Yosheh, Reb) on various massekhtot. Rabbi Altusky had gotten R' Maisheh's manuscripts from a (posthumous) daughter-in-law of R' Maishe's.
Before we go on with the story, I will quote Rabbi Altusky from one of the introductions of "Chiddushei Hagram Mislabodka" where he quotes R' Yeruham Levovitz, celebrated Mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva, as having written about R' Maisheh: "I always said that in a generation which has a great timber as he (ilan gadol kamohu), Israel is not yet widowed (od lo alman Yisrael), and in his light shall we see radiance (b'oro nir'eh or)." Rabbi Altusky points out that R' Yerucham wrote this when such greats as R' Chaim-Ozer, R' Shimon Shkop, R' Baruch Ber Leibowitz and the Kovner Rav fully functioned; but Rabbi Altusky does not explain why it was R' Maishe Finkel's presence that assured R' Yeruham that lo alman Yisrael. The Alter and his talmid R' Yeruham saw the ideal gadol baTorah, the ilan hagadol, as one who is equally great in Torah and in Musar – and this combination was very rare to find. They both saw that R' Maishe filled that prescription – also cf. MOAG pp. 805-806 on what the Alter thought of his son.
Verily, according to one of Altusky's introductions, R' Maisheh was "designated (m'yu'ad)" to succeed both his father as Mashgiach and his father-in-law as Rosh Yeshiva; this is surely something that his daughter-in-law had heard within the family and passed on, together with the manuscripts, to Rav Altusky. Also see MOAG pp. 756 and 765 that R' Maisheh would be his father's agent to carry through sensitive matters. [Do you, R' Mailech, have my Improved Edition or only the original MOAG? The Improved Edition has a asterisked footnote on page 1278 regarding the Alter's high estimation of his son and also pertains to the subject of your landmark book, viz., to R' Yehiel-Yankev Weinberg.]
Now to the body of the story. I shall tell it in the way it came to me. My father had said several times, "The (Slabodka) Yeshiva was so dear to the Alter, that he would be willing to sacrifice a child for it." I never understood what he meant by this Aqaidah metaphor (nor did I question my father about it) until I arrived in Israel and repeated it to R' Laizer Goldschmidt, a dayyan on the Beit Din Hagadol and husband of Miriam nee Plachinsky, a granddaughter of the Alter of Slabodka, asking him what my father had meant. He explained that Slabodka talmidim attributed R' Maisheh death at so early an age to his having broken his engagement to another girl in order to marry R' Moshe-Mordkhai's daughter. He had been engaged to Chava-Leah Hutner of Warsaw (who later became the wife of R' Tzvi-Yehudah Kook). (You may look up MOAG pp. 791-798 where I conjecture that this breakup brought about [in a convoluted way] R' Hatzqel Libshitz's decision to turn down the rabbanut of Kovno - thus opening the door for R' Avraham-Dober Kahana-Shapiro's appointment.) Incidentally, when R' Yitzchak Hutner, later of Yeshivat Rabbenu Chaim Berlin, came to study in Slabodka after WWI, the Alter was ill at ease with him because he was closely related to the jilted young lady, and had his major talmid R' Avrohm Grodzinsky, by then part of the Musar-hanhalah – see MOAG p. 806 – deal with the neophyte.
And why did R' Maisheh break up? Because the wife of the Rosh Yeshiva, R' Moshe-Mordkhai, insisted on it: she insisted that R' Maisheh marry her daughter Zlateh. The Alter of Slabodka felt that if he would enter into bad relations with (Menuhah Epstein, and hence with) R' Moshe-Mordkhai, the yeshiva would suffer. And he was willing to sacrifice his son on the altar of Yeshivas Slabodka. It is said that when the Alter was told of his son's demise, he repeated Job's words (3:25) "What I greatly feared is come upon me; what I had apprehended has come on me." In MOAG, I have an excursus on pp. 1061-1064 about the power certain wives of rashei yeshiva wielded in some old yeshivot – especially the Netziv's (niece, who became his) second wife, sister of R' Baruch Epstein. When R' Maisheh broke his engagement, R' Hayyim Soloveichik was angry with the Alter, saying, "For politics one does not embarrass a Jewish daughter" – see MOAG pp. 419-420.
But I had a problem: if Menuha Epstein was intent enough on having the 'iluy Maisheh Finkel marry her daughter that she would have him break his earlier engagement, why did she allow him to get engaged to someone else to begin with? Why didn't she interfere with Maisheh Finkel's proposed shiddukhim immediately?. This was bothering me for a long time – until I heard another story about R' Avrohm Kalmanowitz, of Va'ad Hatzalah fame, from a son of his sister, R' Osher Katzman, an author of many popular articles in the Aguda monthly "Dos Yiddisheh Vort" (and whose son Eli'ezer is on the editorial board of "Yeshurun").
R' Avrohm Kalmanowitz had learned in Slabodka, having come there from the town of Aishishok (the town perpetuated by Yaffa Eliach) where he learned with its rav, Reb Zundel Hutner. In his famous speeches in the United States after WWII, Rav Kalmanowitz would often refer to his study sessions with Reb Zundel and would recall that they studied through the long commentaries of the Shakh in Section 25 of Hoshen Mishpat (about the laws of a judge who erred in his ruling) - and that Reb Zundel lamented that there is no one "nowadays" who learns thoroughly through the subject at which the Shakh had toiled so hard. R' Avrohm then studied under Reb Laizer Gordon in Telz (see fn. t on p. 964 of MOAG), and, by the time he came under the wing of the Alter of Slabodka, he was already close to 20 years of age. By that time he had already completed the 4 Sections of the Shulkhan 'Arukh. In fact, when he arrived in Slabodka, he would look down upon a bachur his age who had not completed covered as much Torah as he had. He was considered a 'iluy in the yeshiva, and there was an ongoing debate among the talmidim of the Yeshiva on who was the greater 'iluy, Avrohm Kalmonowitz or Aaron Sislovicher (later Kotler). In fact, when R' Avrohm died, in 1964, two years after R' Aaron Kotler, my father za"l remarked, "The last member of our chabhurah in Slabodka is gone."
According to "Kulmos Hallev", a volume about Rav Kalmanowitz and "his Da'ath Torah and spiritual fervor (sa'arot ruach)" (published by his family in Jerusalem, 1996), p. 4, R' Zundel had spread his pupil's fame as a "wondrous 'iluy" and the Alter sent a wagon to fetch him and bring him to Slabodka; the Alter then arranged that he should learn together with his talented son R' Maisheh. R' Avrohm's father, who served as rav in Volhyn, in the town of Barashi, near Rogachov, once came to Slabodka to see how his son was faring. When the Alter told him, "He can already lead half the world," he became upset, and said, "I sent him here to learn, not to lead."
The story Katzman told was as follows: R' Avrohm had gone home for Pesach, at a time when two shiddukhim were being proposed to him; one was a daughter of his rosh yeshiva R' Moshe-Mordkhai Epstein, and the other was an orphaned daughter of the Rav of Rakov, a town between Volozhin and Minsk, and he had already met both young ladies. From home, he wrote out two envelopes addressed to the two female candidates, and then sat down to write out the letters he was planning to send them. First he wrote the letter to the Rakov girl and he put her letter into an envelope and took it to the post office. He then wrote a letter to the Epstein girl, and as he was putting the letter into the remaining envelope -- woe is him! – he saw that the remaining envelope was the one addressed to Rakov. This meant that the letter to the Rakov girl would arrive at the home of the Epstein girl. He rushed to the post office and asked the postman to return the letter he had given him, but the postman refused. R' Avrohm went on to offer the postman up to 10 Rubles to get his letter back, but the postman explained that the law is that once a letter is in his hand he must deliver it only to the addressee. In short, when the Rakov girl's letter arrived in Slabodka, and the daughter of R' Moshe-Mordkhai saw that Avrohm had even considered another shiddukh but herself, the proud granddaughter of the famous Kovno philanthropist R' Shraga-Feivel Frank (cf. MOAG Index), was beside herself, and decided she would hear no more of Avrohm Kalmanowitz.
When I heard this story I pieced two and two together, to wit: in the winter of 1913, Rebbitzen Epstein was not interested in Maisheh Finkel because she had as good a catch, if not a better one, for her Zlateh in Avrohm Kalmanowitz, the latter being not only a great 'iluy, but a tall, handsome and charismatic leader as well. So why should she care if R' Baruch-Ber Leibowitz, by-this-time the Rosh Yeshiva of Knesset Beit Yitzchak, the "other", non-Musar, yeshiva in Slabodka, had cast his eye on Maisheh for his daughter (see MOAG p. 525), and why should she care if Maisheh gets engaged to Chava-Leah Hutner of Warsaw? At the beginning of that winter, R' Moshe-Mordkhai presented R' Avrohm with an effusive Certificate of Ordination (Smikhah) testifying that he is "a wondrous baqi in all of Shas with Tospoth, and in the posqim, rishonim v'acharonim, as one of the greats of the generation." The Certificate manuscript is pictured on the page facing page 1 of "Kulmos Hallev", and is laid out in print on p. 5, together with ordinations by R' Elya-Barukh Kamai, Rav of Mir, and R' Rephael Shapiro of Volozhin, both awarded to R' Avrohm about a month later than R' Moshe-Mordkhai's, the manuscripts of which are pictured on the page following p. 220 of "Kulmos", the last page of the volume.
It is worth noting that in transcribing the manuscript of R' Moshe-Mordechai, the family misread one word, for, after praising the ordainee as "yet from his youth he stood out as a wondrous 'iluy," the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth written lines read: "Va'yiph va'yigdal va'yehi l'erez may'arzei Hatorah (he became beautiful and grew to become a cedar among the cedars of Torah)," while the printed transciption misreads the beginning of the quotation, that is, its first word, to: "Aph va'yigdal va'yehi (he also grew and became)." The family obviously did not realize that R' Moshe-Mordkhai used the language of Ezekiel 31:7 which describes "a cedar of Lebanon, that is Assyria (Verse 3)" which "Va'yiph b'godlo (became beautiful in its greatness)" to describe R' Avrohm who, after being a wondrous 'iluy in his youth, grew to become a cedar-like tall and handsome young man and one of the Torah cedars of his generations. (I had seen the manuscript Smikhah before "Kulmos Hallev" was published, and I immediately connected R' Moshe-Mordechai's expression to Ezekiel. I'll just add that R' Moshe-Mordechai used the expression from his by-heart knowledge of the verse, and did not look up the verse in a Tanakh before penning it, else he would have spelled the word "va'yiph" with two Yoddim - and the family would not have been mislead to read his Vav and single Yod as an Aleph, "aph" instead of "va'yiph".)
I believe that R' Moshe-Mordkhai wrote the extremely flattering Smikha when R' Avrohm was a candidate to become his son-in-law, but R' Avrohm obtained the other two smikhot soon thereafter because he was also interested in the Rakov girl whose hand was offered together with her late father's rabbanut of the town of Rakov - as you know from the case of R' Yehiel-Yankev Weinberg of Pilvishok, a town would keep its rabbinical post vacant until their deceased rav's daughter would find a match suitable to take over the rabbinate. Therefore, R' Avrohm sought out ordinations from well-known rabbanim who served in towns close to Rakov, not in faraway Slabodka. During the same winter that the Epsteins were sure that R' Avrohm would close a shidduch with their Zlateh, R' Maishe became engaged to the well-to-do and pedigreed Chava-Leah, daughter of R' Yehudah-Laib Hutner, a Motz in Warsaw who also owned a printing company. After Avrohm's Pesach blunder, Zlateh was left with a second-choice mate, one who was already engaged, Maisheh Finkel: her mother took care of the rest. Under the hand of the daughter-in-law who supplied Rav Altusky with R' Maishe's Torah manuscripts, I saw the ketubah of Zlateh and Maisheh: they were married two months after the Pesach debacle, in Sivan 5673 (June 1913), and one of the two witnesses thereon is my grandfather, R' Bereh-Hirsh Heller, the "younger" mashgiach of the Slabodka Yeshiva. Rav Kalmanowitz went on to wed the Rakov girl and its rabbinate, and became known throughout his lifetime as "the Rakover Rav". It is said that R' Laizer Rabinowitz, who succeeded his father-in-law the Minsker Godol, R' Yeruham-Yehudah-Laib Perlman, as Rav of Minsk, took no major action in that metropolis without first discussing it with Rav Kalmanowitz. The latter verily became a great Torah leader as the Alter had predicted.
I'll end by doing justice to the historically underrated Rav Kalmanowitz. During the First World War, Rav Kalmanowitz organized aid for the refugees who streamed from Poland into Russia, as recorded at length in "Kulmos Hallev". He also went on to become close to the Chafetz-Chaim and followed the latter's guidance in klal Yisrael activism. When the Mirrer Yeshiva underwent a financial crisis, he became the major fundraising representative of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe, and then traveled to America on behalf of that yeshiva. Because he was not a simple executive director but a great talmid chakham, he was given the title of "Nasi" of that yeshiva, and was promised that he would eventually deliver shiurim therein. (Nowadays, many religious institutions raise their stature by claiming to be uner the "n'si'ut" of one gadol or another. But the first to hold that title was Rav Kalmanowitz, who not only contributed his good name to the Mirrer Yeshiva, but earned the title by literally saving it from collapse.)
But delivering shiurim in the Mirrer Yeshiva never worked out for R' Avrohm. I conjecture that it was due to the opposition of Reb Yeruham Levovitz, the Mashgiach who shared at least equally with the Rosh Yeshiva, R' Laizer-Yudel Finkel, the adulation of the talmidim. As a ba'al Musar who sought to raise the stature of bnai Torah who devoted themselves exclusively to Torah study, R' Yeruham felt that super-activist Rav Kalmanowitz was an improper role model. (See MOAG pp. 573-576 that R' Yeruham disagreed strongly with the Chafetz-Chaim's approach to the training of yeshiva students.) Instead, the Mirrer Yeshiva fulfilled its obligation by providing a group of its outstanding talmidim to set up a kolel in Otwotzk (near Warsaw) for its Nasi to head. The Kalmanowitz family told me that R' Avrohm always looked back at that time in his life when he sat and learned in the Mir-sponsored kolel as the happiest period of his lifetime.
In spite of this, Rav Kalmanowitz could not bring himself to shun the public arena for long. He returned to his activism and became Rav of Tiktin, an ancient and highly prestigious rabbanut. His many activities on behalf of Jewry and his prolific writings about them are recorded in "Kulmos Hallev", a book which should be read by all bnai Torah. When the Second World War broke out, he happened to be fundraising in the United States, and there became the linchpin of the Vaad Hatzalah organization. Among other accomplishments, he raised the monetary means to sustain the Mirrer Yeshiva throughout its Shanghai exile. In connection with this supreme achievement, there is a famous vort which R' Avrohm expounded. He asked: why did the lion claw and injure Noah when he was once late feeding it in the Ark, when, after all, he had fed it in time all the other meals? And he answered: there can be no excuse for treating the very last lion in the world in any manner less than royally. Rav Kalmanowitz used this bon mot when asking people to contribute to saving the last yeshiva remaining when the Jewish world was destroyed with the onset of the war.
I'll end with an exchange between gedolim that R' Yankel Leshinsky witnessed and relayed to me. The three Slabodka talmidim, R' Reuven Grozovsky, R' Avrohm Kalmanowitz, and R' Aaron Kotler were meeting in the Vaad Hatzalah office, and a heated argument broke out between Rav Kalmanowitz and Rav Aaron Kotler as to which course of action to take. Rav Kalmanowitz lost his composure and said, "Listen R' Aaron, if I had sat and learned all the years as you did, I would have been greater than you." To which R' Reuven retorted, "Yes, R' Avrohm, but R' Aaron did learn!" The point is that Rav Kalmanowitz sacrificed the pinnacle of personal rank in favor of the public needs: and he was never properly appreciated for it.