“The Power of His Mind, the Softness of His Heart”
It was the first day of shiva. Three local rabbis came in and asked us, “How did your father raise you? We need to hear as much as possible!” That question was repeated throughout the shiva, and I began to realize that the true question was, “What was it like to have a gadol for a father?”
The answer to that is quite simple: It was exactly the same as having a gadol for a rebbi, a guide and advisor – only more so. My father was a servant of Hashem and a man of truth, and these qualities permeated every aspect of his life and of our lives with him. This means that there was a rare consistency to his existence, with no difference between his outside and home worlds. We lived with the same relentless search for truth and for ratzon Hashem (G-d’s will) that all his students experienced, the same gentleness and attentiveness that he displayed to everyone – children, students, Jew and non-Jew alike. That’s why there were no surprises during shiva; all the stories had similar themes and paralleled our own experiences. The sheer volume of individuals and communities whose lives my father touched took us aback, but everything else matched what we knew of this unique individual.
It’s hard to say which persona was predominant in our upbringing, the truth-seeker or the one whose love was so all-encompassing. My father’s pursuit of truth was legendary. As a child, he decided to learn the fundamental purpose of this world and what G-d wanted from His people. He was determined to set aside all preconceived notions, all the stories and interpretations he had heard and to find the objective truth of Torah. His way of life would follow the path set out in the words of the Creator and in the actions of His servants.
One thing he knew from his studies was that example was far more powerful than talk. Because of this, my father never lectured to us – or at us; we were to absorb his approach through observing his conduct. At the same time, he encouraged and even demanded questions from us. And there was never a question undeserving of serious consideration. He listened intently, with great concentration and patience. Of course, he was always quick to gently point out any weakness in the question – “Think again how that question could be much stronger” – or any flawed assumptions underlying it – “That would be a beautiful question, if your premise were correct.”
Knowing that even our silliest questions would be heard and judiciously analyzed provided the foundation of our self-concept. After all, if this great man, busy with the affairs of the Jewish nation throughout the world, thought our existence was worthwhile, then surely we had worth in the eyes of the Ribono Shel Olam (G-d). For years, one of my sisters was convinced that Hashem looked like our father, possibly with a longer beard! Our early picture of Hashem as a loving, caring Being came from this identification of Him with our father.
When I was 18 and had all the answers, I queried my father about an interaction he had just had with a younger sibling. “I don’t want to judge you…” I began. He quickly interrupted me: “Of course you should judge me. You need to observe and ask about what you see. Then you’ll decide if that’s how you want to live your life. That’s the way you learn.”
“That’s the way you learn.” Perhaps that was the most powerful lesson he taught: Think, always think. Think honestly, think fearlessly, think without worrying about what others will say or think about you. That’s how to serve G-d, how to discover what He wants from you.
It was not necessarily easy to grow up with this! My father was incapable of evading or sugarcoating the truth. He was also very sparing with his words, unless he saw that the listener needed an elaboration to truly grasp the point. One couple told us that they received a halachic decision from my father that was exceedingly difficult to live with. “He had done his job,” the husband said. “He gave us the decision. But your father sat with us for over an hour, giving us the strength to carry out the halacha. It was an incredible example of the power of his mind combined with the softness of his heart.”
My siblings and I sensed that my father’s method of teaching bore a striking resemblance to Rashi’s description of Moshe and Aharon in Exodus (7:2): “Moshe transmitted exactly as he heard it from Hashem and then Aharon would present it in a more palatable fashion to Pharoah”: He presented the unvarnished truth, but he was able to convey it in a manner that could readily be understood and acted upon.
For example, I remember walking out of the neighborhood grocery as a nine-year-old, having spent a nickel for an ice cream cone. I was joyously licking it when I met my father walking home from the yeshiva. He took one look at me, smiled, and said, “Ha’ochel bashuk domeh lekelev (Eating in the street is canine behavior).” I heard the love and gentle humor and accepted the rebuke. From then on, I took my chances on the ice cream arriving somewhat melted, when I could eat it in the privacy of my home.
With one short sentence, this master teacher could accomplish months’ worth of growth in his children or a re-ordering of our priorities. Although sometimes it was not pleasant or inviting to contemplate change, we were able to accept his words with complete trust, knowing that he always spoke truth and that whatever our father said was a reflection of G-d’s will and came from pure love. When vinyl tops were first introduced on cars back in the late 60s, I saw one of the newer models as we were walking. I commented to my father, “Wow! Now that’s something to aim for!”
“Look how the American culture has rubbed off on you,” he responded. Thirty years later, that comment still helps me maintain my focus.
I’m not the only one whose perspective was changed with a small comment or an aside from my father. His talmidim (students), as well as strangers who heard him speak, or people who went to him for advice have mentioned to me again and again how a single comment turned around their thinking and even redirected their lives.
One young man in his 20s told me he was caught in a relationship dilemma and had been immobilized for months. “The Rosh Hayeshiva told me that while it’s true that I’m obligated to be sensitive to the other person, there is no obligation to commit suicide. At that instant, I understood that my current behavior was killing me. Those ten minutes with him saved my life.”
There was never any burden too heavy for him to lift off of our shoulders or our hearts. There was never a request that went unanswered or an hour that was too late to offer comfort, solace, and advice. Our parents went on a weekly four-hour, round-trip drive to teach in a small community of unaffiliated Jews. Many times they didn’t get home until 2:00 in the morning, but if my father found a note on his pillow, he would meet us at 6:30 a.m. to help us with our homework.
Ironically, as accessible as he was to family, talmidim, and total strangers, my father was such a complex person that it was difficult to fully know him. We used to say that only two people truly understood my father: Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, and my mother. Theirs was a rare partnership, spanning 54 years of building, working, and reaching out to others as an Avraham and Sarah team.
Most of the time, my father waited for us to approach him with our questions, problems, or issues. However, if he saw something that needed improvement or redirection, he made sure to let us know. It was the same way in the world of the yeshiva. He never imposed his will but was there to make an impact when a student was ready for it. But if he saw a need, whether in an individual or the klal, he took the initiative to meet it. That’s why he took a strong stand in the late 50s to start the Mechina (preparatory) program at Ner Israel. Even my grandfather, Rav Ruderman, zt”l, who had so courageously founded the yeshiva with his rebbetzin in the hostile American climate of the 1930s, hesitated to commit the yeshiva to this kind of expansion. It meant extra classrooms, salaries and tremendous financial risk. But he trusted my father’s vision and went ahead with the plans.
The same thing happened in the early ’60s: My father saw the need for a kollel and understood the impact it would have on the yeshiva. Opposition was quite strong, but he was tenacious about anything that was necessary for the strengthening of Torah. Once again, time proved him right. Before the establishment of the kollel, any newly married couple committed to full-time Torah learning had to leave Baltimore. Today the city reflects the influence of the kollel in its vast numbers of Torah scholars, lectures, and shuls. As one eulogizer pointed out, my father dealt with each issue not only in the here and now, but with a view towards the future, years away.
Doing whatever needed to be done for Torah was paramount in his life. There were many times he accepted a speaking engagement somewhere, even knowing that he would not be treated with proper respect. We used to argue with him, asking, “Why are you giving of yourself to those who won’t give you your due?” The reply, invariably, was, “There are people there who need to hear what I have to say. What difference does it make how I’m treated?” We never succeeded in answering that question to his satisfaction.
In my father’s concept of avodas Hashem, it was obvious that we are obliged to bring Torah to every Jew and not to rest until the entire world, Jew and non-Jew, recognizes the existence of our Creator and His direct involvement in our lives.
There were two major outgrowths of this understanding. The first encompassed his outreach efforts, starting in the early 1940s in New York, when he walked from the Lower East Side to Brownsville every Shabbos to speak. Lieutenant Birnbaum was there in those years and described him as “a maggid – at age 19.”
While many were opposed to my father’s willingness to speak to and teach secular and non-Orthodox groups, he persevered in his efforts, as well as in guiding those involved in outreach. His most ardent disciple in this area was his younger brother, Reb Noach Weinberg, founder and rosh hayeshiva of Aish HaTorah. Reb Noach was dismissed as “the meshugener” for his resolute labors; he remained steadfast with the constant encouragement and direction of his brother.
Today, of course, outreach has become mainstream and is viewed as every yeshiva’s responsibility. Interestingly, the same process occurred with Project SEED, the summer program in which yeshiva students establish a beis medrash in small cities that have no institutions of higher Torah learning. When Rabbi Gavriel Ginsberg first proposed this innovative idea, it was greeted with horror. My father was the one who forcefully convinced the roshei yeshiva to approve a trial run. Once again, my father’s notions were labeled “outrageous” and “radical”; once again, the revolutionary became mundane and every yeshiva was vying to send students on this important mission.
We never heard my father voice any satisfaction at the turn of the tide, but we wouldn’t expect that: There was always more to accomplish, and that’s what he concentrated on. This attitude came to the fore at a rally to counter chilul Shabbos in Baltimore three years before. There was an air of satisfaction at the large turnout. My father punctured the self-congratulatory tone by remarking, “Yes, we have 3,000 people here today, and that is truly wonderful.” Then, in a thundering voice, he continued, “But what about the other 95,000 Jews in our city who know nothing about Shabbos? What are we doing for them?”
The second outgrowth of my father’s sense of obligation to bring Torah to all was his articulate presentation of what Torah and Torah study are all about. As one of the first American-born roshei yeshiva, my father was able to give the secular world an idea of the high level of scholarship involved in Talmudic research, the complexity of thought and depth of understanding required to navigate the rivers of Torah shebe’al peh. This became crucial at a time when yeshiva attendance was frowned upon as a burdensome delay in a young man’s pursuit of a profession.
My father made it far more difficult to depreciate the academic value of yeshivah studies. Now it was possible for secular institutions of higher learning to recognize the unique process of yeshivah education. This recognition, in turn, led to the founding of AARTS, the Association of Advanced Rabbinic and Talmudic Schools, a national agency of accreditation for post-high school yeshivos. Today we take it for granted that a qualified yeshiva student can attend yeshiva full-time and have his Torah learning recognized by even the most prestigious colleges and universities. My father’s painstaking work was a major factor in this process.
I knew on some level that there were people who found my father intimidating, but I never really understood that response to him. Now I realize that his towering intellect combined with his fierce defense of the truth could indeed be daunting. He had an unapologetic fidelity to the spirit of the Torah, even if it meant taking a stance that was unpopular. To us, his children, it meant we could ask him anything – any Torah verse, any concept, any subject – astronomy, calculus, history, nuclear physics, the nature of volcanoes, or the properties of water. The greatest thrill was to actually stump him. But he took far more pride in those rare occasions than we did and proceeded happily to look up the answer.
It was much harder for me to grasp a person’s failure to see the warmth and sweetness that could never be obscured by the intellectual genius. Perhaps, as one who eulogized him explained, people understood that listening to him meant that they had to change; his mere presence obliged one to think and act differently. And yet, of all the qualities enumerated at the shiva or in letters, faxes, and phone calls by the hundreds, my father’s warmth topped the list.
It will take time to assess fully his impact as a rebbi, but already it’s clear that his concern for his talmidim and availability to them were the foundations of their relationship with him. Then came his specific approach to learning, the training in critical thinking and the demand and expectation to care for and serve klal Yisrael. The totality of their experiences with him left his students feeling invigorated, alive to the possibilities of Torah and their place in it.
My father understood the centrality of ahavas Yisrael (love for fellow Jews) even as a young child. In his parents’ household, he was the child sent to ask any sheilos (halachic questions) about chickens. In those days, the person asking the sheila put a quarter down for the rabbi before showing the chicken. There was one rav who answered the sheila with or without the quarter: Rav Moshe Feinstein. As a six-year-old boy, my father walked an extra 20 minutes each way to ask Rav Moshe his sheilos. As he explained it, he put down the quarter anyway and he trusted all the local rabbis; but he wanted his sheilos answered by someone who displayed such ahavas Yisrael.
More than the genius, greater than the encyclopedic knowledge, beyond the prodigious output of original thought, there was the love: the all-encompassing, totally accepting, completely non-judgmental love for us and for every single Jew. It was a love that could give us a sense of what Hashem’s love is like for His children, so to speak. One erev Rosh Hashanah, my sister called my father to express her fears of the Day of Judgment. He asked her, “Do you know I love you?”
“Of course,” she answered.
“And if you did the absolutely worst thing possible, would you still know I love you?”
“One hundred percent.”
“Then listen carefully: Hashem loves you a billion times more. Don’t be afraid of Him: turn to Him.”
We can listen to tapes of his speeches, we can share memories. We can keep bits and pieces of my father in our lives. But we can never fill the hole created by the absence of the security and warmth of that incredible love