Yochanan Gordon

Reviewed by Yochanan Gordon

There’s a story of the Kotzker Rebbe who was asked by a group of chassidim how well he knew his followers. They began singling out individuals, asking the Rebbe to describe them in a word or two. Ultimately, a chassid asked the Kotzker, “How about your son? How well do you know your son?”

The Kotzker replied, “I know the thoughts with which I brought him into this world.”

I open the review of Rabbi Hutner and the Rebbe with this story, which isn’t in the book, because unlike the keen insight and understanding that the Rebbe had for his own child, I suggest that regardless of how close Rabbi Hutner’s talmidim were to their rosh yeshiva, they did not truly understand him. Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, the author, laments the difficult time he had compiling firsthand testimony, due to a sworn-to-secrecy attitude among Rabbi Hutner’s inner circle of students.

Clearly, this silence on the part of his students is rooted in a certain insecurity with regard to Rabbi Hutner’s broadmindedness and diverse background and influence. Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin was established as a center of serious Torah scholarship and strict adherence to the path paved by the great European centers of Torah study where Rabbi Hutner learned under the tutelage of the Alter and Reb Moshe Mordechai Epstein. However, from a hashkafic point of view, there were aspects of Rabbi Hutner’s ideology, based upon his years learning under Rav Kook and his encounter with Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg in Berlin, that didn’t jive with the mission statement of Chaim Berlin and its administrators, and so I believe that the sworn-to-secrecy attitude was enforced in order to preserve the image that Chaim Berlin was founded upon.

By contrast, however, Rabbi Hutner was an extremely open and expressive person. Anyone who has read any of his letters, after getting past his prolific and poetic style of writing, has experienced how he enchantingly expresses his deepest thoughts and feelings, like in one letter after losing a dear friend at the tender age of 20, when he grapples with the speed in which an event of that magnitude foists one into a state of seriousness and maturity against one’s will—despite the tenderness of age.

Similarly, after the release of the Sefer HaLikkutim of the Tzemach Tzedek, the Rebbe instructed that a set be sent to Rabbi Hutner, with which he sent the following letter: “Knowing master’s great interest in the works of Kabbalah and chassidus, I have sent the newly published Sefer HaLikkutim with explanations of the Tzemach Tzedek in alphabetical order …”

After receiving the set and reading the letter, Rabbi Hutner responded: “Thanks for the set of Sefer HaLikuttim. I was taken aback by the term “interest” the Rebbe employed to classify my attachment to chassidus. In fact, a huge part of my soul is rooted in Chabad chassidus, without which I’d be incomplete.”

The correspondence between Rabbi Hutner and the Rebbe, as expounded upon at length throughout the book, is detailed and longwinded, covering many areas of Torah, both the revealed and hidden aspects. In certain instances, Rabbi Hutner poses questions to the Rebbe that occurred to him while learning ma’amarim of the Rebbe Rashab, which seemed contradictory to his knowledge of this material up until that point.

In light of this, the author concludes that Rabbi Hutner, had he been here today, would have disagreed with this sworn-to-secrecy approach that many in his family, and certainly his close students, maintain with regard to his true identity.

The timing of this book is extremely significant. Chazal in Maseches Avodah Zarah states: “A student cannot comprehend the true intent of his teacher’s wisdom until forty years after it was heard.” This book contrasting the personas of these two great leaders is the first book that deals with the life of Rabbi Hutner on any level—aside from the Sefer HaZikaron, which was written by his esteemed daughter, Rebbetzin Bruria David—and coincides with the upcoming fortieth yahrzeit of Rabbi Hutner.

So, who was Rabbi Hutner? It’s this question that this book grapples with at length and is ultimately the question that was the cause for forty years of silence with regard to the true legacy of this great figure. According to Marvin Schick, “Rabbi Hutner’s persona was based on influences of Slabodka, Rav Kook, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, Chabad, and Radzin, with whose rebbeim Rabbi Hutner spent a significant amount of time learning b’chavrusa.”

The author concludes that, ideologically, Rabbi Hutner aligned himself more with the Litvish yeshiva world of Slabodka, the Alter, and Reb Moshe Mordechai Epstein. Rabbi Hutner’s colorful personality and broadmindedness brought him to Rav Kook and to drink from the various streams of chassidic literature. But if we had to pin down Rabbi Hutner’s allegiance, he was largely a Litvisher rosh yeshiva.

This diversity within him explains an amazing fact that we find amongst the students of Rabbi Hutner that we don’t find by many other roshei yeshiva. Amongst the many students of Rabbi Hutner we find chassidic rebbes, roshei yeshiva, and roshei kollel, professors, doctors, lawyers, leaders of organizations, etc. It seems that Rabbi Hutner had a keen ability to speak directly to specific students while addressing them all together. But only someone as colorful and diverse as Rabbi Hutner would be able to pull that off. The question is why his students insist on remaining hush-hush about the aspects of his life that are the roots of this amazing ability.

Rabbi Hutner and the Rebbe remained friends their entire lives. What seems to stand in contradistinction to this friendship are the many negative things that Rabbi Hutner said about the Rebbe and Chabad. Furthermore, as the book supports, Rabbi Hutner discouraged his students from attending the Rebbe’s farbrengens and, as is mentioned, scheduled his own Chanukah ma’amar six days earlier in order that students should not leave the yeshiva to attend the Rebbe’s yud-tes Kislev farbrengen.

It is safe to say that Rabbi Hutner’s main influence stemmed from Slabodka and the Alter. Although it didn’t materialize, the original plan was for him to wed the daughter of Rabbi Isaac Sher, who held an authoritative position within the yeshiva. There is enough historical precedent to state that the conduct of the Alter was to chastise students with whom he felt a kinship and to draw close those he didn’t particularly feel fond of. It’s an interesting mode of conduct, but there is precedent for it in Torah as well. The verse in Mishlei states: “He whom G-d loves He reproves.”

Rabbi Hutner himself retells certain instances, specifically one Yom Kippur eve, when he was approaching the Alter to wish him well and perhaps receive a berachah for a favorable judgement, when the Alter publicly shamed him, warning him not to enter into his four cubits. It seems like Rabbi Hutner was humiliated by that account, but it is also clear that this was the way the Alter acted towards people he held in high esteem.

It seems quite plausible then to suggest that Rabbi Hutner inherited this mode of conduct from the Alter. Rabbi Hutner was noted for his bluntness and sharp wit—to the point where people who were familiar with him came to expect it. It is not a character flaw or mean-spiritedness; it was who he was and what was expected of him. I believe this explains why the Rebbe never responded at all to what could have been perceived as a verbal attack. Because, knowing Rabbi Hutner well, it’s clear that the Rebbe, too, knew what to expect from his dear colleague.

This leads to the end of Rabbi Hutner’s life, an account that is addressed more than once with differing testimonies, when Rabbi Hutner was heard saying that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was the tzaddik ha’dor, according to one account, and in the words of another, the Rosh Yeshiva affirmed his great friendship, stating that they could speak about nearly anything, as only friends can. To explain away this occurrence as Rabbi Hutner falling out of consciousness, as some Chaim Berlin students I have spoken to have claimed, is gross disrespect for a great leader and a sacrilegious way of talking about one’s rosh yeshiva. The only explanation left is that at the culmination of a lifetime of friendship, with certain unresolved or unjustified barbs or what seemed as verbal attacks and an undercurrent of disrespect for a dear friend, Rabbi Hutner felt the need to set the record straight.

We conclude prayers every day with the following testament: “Talmidei chachamim marbim shalom ba’olam.” Rabbi Hutner’s last will and testament, setting the record straight the way he did, is the benchmark of greatness and what is expected from a true talmid chacham. Why some people insist on perpetuating discord and divisiveness is beyond me.

As this review is being published the week of Purim, it’s appropriate to mention that Haman’s scheme to carry his genocidal plan to fruition was: “Yeshno am echad mefuzar u’meforad bein ha’amim.” As we celebrate the salvation of our entire nation and the great good that this world has received as a result, it behooves us to let go of pretenses and petty ideological fights and join hands in ushering in the final redemption on the basis of “Lech k’nos es kol haYehudim,” which was Esther’s response to Haman’s charge that the Jewish people are divided.

This book was thoroughly engaging and affords the reader rich historical knowledge of Rabbi Hutner, Chaim Berlin, and the Rebbe. And even if you disagree with the author’s conclusions, one thing is certain—both Rabbi Hutner and the Rebbe were great people and leaders in their time, and that is worth celebrating.

A Freilichen Purim.

1 COMMENT

  1. This review seems to be written from the authors own hand. Contrast and compare the language and the quotes. Impressive.

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