I’ve been following Rav Daniel Kohn from a distance. I was drawn in by his teaching style and his inspiring insight into the siddur on an Instagram shiur called Siddur Alive, hosted by my good friend Eli Schwebel.
Eli is a deeply talented musician and vocalist who described to me in a conversation we had last week about a search that took him to Eretz Yisrael where he lived for some time seeking the rebbe he never had. Schwebel told me that he entered a beis midrash in Nachlaot where he met Rav Kohn for the first time, giving a shiur to a rather small chaburah of people on the sefer Shaarei Avodah of Rabbi Ahron Halevi of Strashela. From the excitement in Schwebel’s voice it was apparent that he had located the rebbe he needed to set him on his unique path of avodah. He would find himself returning to the quaint beis midrash over a period of time and ultimately followed Rav Kohn back to Bat Ayin where the two would develop what has now become a very close relationship.
Eli was drawn to Rav Kohn’s wisdom, genuineness, and humility. I, for one, was impressed by Eli’s perseverance in heeding the words of Chazal “aseh lecha rav,” almost treating the “lecha” in that tenet as Chazal does for the mitzvah of lulav — that it be your own!
The Kohns moved to Bat Ayin from Har Nof in order to help start the new community. They were one of just seven founding families to settle a place in which Jews had not dwelled since the second Temple era. Today, over 30 years later, the town is home to 240 families from an eclectic variety of traditions — Chabad, Sefardi, Breslov, and, as some like to characterize it, “Chabakuk,” which is a confluence of Chabad, Breslov, and Rav Kook influences.
Rav Kohn and his wife, Batya, are the spiritual leaders of Bat Ayin, where he teaches a number of regular shiurim in addition to being the address for all of the town’s halachic queries. She teaches classes of her own in her role at the helm of Midreshet Zohar for women in addition to being a relationship counselor and an expert in the area of family purity. They have built a beautiful family with seven children, six of whom are married, and over twenty grandchildren.
After studying at Columbia University and receiving degrees in philosophy and comparative religions, Rav Kohn received semichah from the late Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and the “Crown of Wisdom,” Rav Avraham Farbstein, rosh yeshiva of the famed Chevron Yeshiva. He spent six years studying under the tutelage of Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman in his Yeshiva Netzach Yisrael in the Rechavia section of Yerushalayim.
It was particularly the combination of Rav Kohn’s rebbe, Rav Gustman, who hailed from Vilna, and Rav Kohn’s own preoccupation in Toras HaSod with an emphasis on the Maharal of Prague, Ba’al HaTanya, Rabbi Ahron Halevi from Strashela, and Rav Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook which piqued my interest and presented itself as a clue to the existence of an eclectic upbringing that I was compelled to learn more about.
Rav Daniel Kohn was born a little more than 60 years ago in Great Neck to David and Sarah Kohn. Rav Kohn attended the North Shore Hebrew Academy only to be switched later to public school despite growing up in what Rav Kohn characterized as a frum home. Having inquired into why his parents decided to switch him from the Jewish day school into public school, he was told by his mother that she had observed some people shuckeling during their prayers and she suspected they did not actually believe much in the words they were saying. Shortly thereafter, the rav’s parents relocated their family to Pompano Beach, Florida, because of work, where the rav said they were the only observant family.
I wondered, with the lack of a formal Jewish education and daily exposure to the secular world within the walls of the public school, what was it that kept the fire in then-little Daniel Kohn’s soul burning, and what it was that fueled his passion and curiosity that set him on the course to becoming the great rav and educator that he is today? Rav Kohn replied, “At that stage in my life it was my parents, Camp Ramah, a steady reading diet of Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, and a heart yearning for the truth.”
Asked where his first exposure to the world of chassidus came from, Rav Kohn said, “It is hard to say; however, when I was in Camp Ramah, I was very serious about Torah learning. A counselor who had once been frum became a teacher of mine and told me that I must go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the farbrengen (45 years ago) the Rebbe raised l’chaim to each person but kept skipping me. The person next to me, the person behind me, until right before the end of the farbrengen he looked straight and deeply into my eyes. I felt transported, something piercing. I think he was sending me on a mission. I was only 14. L’maaseh, I started learning the Tanya soon after that and spent many years teaching it and Likkutei Torah. To be honest, I think that what I teach now isn’t classical chassidut but a synthesis of paths in Torah aiming towards what chassidut does — a close and loving relationship with Hashem.”
There is a certain asymmetry to the story of Rav Daniel Kohn, which is appealing in a funny way. I’m reminded of the condition that Yisro made with his son-in-law Moshe Rabbeinu upon marrying his daughter Tziporah. He said, “Ben techilah l’avodah zarah,” stipulating that his son-in-law and daughter would give over their first child to pagan worship. It was Rav Kohn’s parents’ fervent wish that their child grow to be genuine and not mechanical in his observance of G-d to the point that they preferred public school, where Rav Kohn would initially need to learn to shape himself and chart his own unique relationship with Hashem rather than just perfunctorily going through the motions that he observed everyone around him at home and in school doing.
I was reminded of an interpretation of a verse in the Aseres HaDibros, which exhorts us not to make any graven images representative of G-d. I believe it was Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbitz who explained that Judaism and observance of G-d should not be confined to look just one way; while it may not be a path that we would choose for our own children, in Rav Kohn’s case, having been sent to public school as a way forward, I do believe that it was a catalyst in his life to find his own way and to perhaps make him relatable to so many people whose journeys were perhaps similar to his own.
I asked Rav Kohn how someone who grew up in a protected environment could leave the world of rote and mechanical observance in order to behold a truer and more altruistic relationship with Hashem that takes into account all the virtues and vices in each of our respective lives.
The question was inspired by a previous shiur that I came across from the summer in the Siddur Alive series where in the context of the Three Weeks and Tishah B’Av, the rav was teaching how to view the cracks in the walls of Yerushalayim in our own lives. The rav pointed out that the walls were cracked as opposed to broken or smashed down. The lesson he imparted was that, often, our willingness to experience pain and become bigger people by the light that emerges through the cracks enables us to realize that our lives, because of the cracks in the walls, are bigger and could contain more light than they were able to in their perfected state.
There is a misunderstanding with regard to the healthfulness of the realization that we are vulnerable and that these sentiments are necessary ultimately to deepen our relationship with Hashem. Chazal teach, “Ein mosrin razei Torah ela l’mi she’libo do’eig b’kirbo,” which means that only someone who is in touch with his or her vulnerability is a befitting receptacle for the hidden wisdom of Torah.
If I had to trace this unease with vulnerability back to its embryonic state, I would say that it has to do with our discomfort regarding the notion of ba’alei teshuvah due to stigmas associated with that term. Even Rabbeinu Saadia Gaon said that every day a person needs to repent on account of the shortfall of the prior day’s avodah. What it ultimately all comes down to is to never be comfortable or content with the status quo and always be catapulted forward in uncovering new ground in our quest to know the unknowable.
I’m a big believer in the timing of everything. With this conversation taking place when the people of Israel enter into yet another lockdown, and as cases of the coronavirus continue to spread locally and across the world, it needs to cause that inner feeling of discontent and a realization that we all need to push ourselves a little more in order to unleash the light of redemption both individually and globally.
A step in that direction would be to become serious in davening. It is an opportunity three times a day to spend private time with Hashem and ultimately develop a real and potent relationship with him. I have found the Siddur Alive program, led in tandem by Rav Kohn and his talmid Eli Schwebel, to be an invaluable resource in my life towards attaining those goals.
The program, which runs about 20 minutes and has been hosted up until now on Eli’s Instagram page, is presented in an engaging, almost playful, exchange between Rabbi Kohn and his talmid. In addition to being a true halachist, master educator, and expert practitioner of the human condition, Rav Kohn is a professionally trained clarinetist who writes his own music. The Siddur Alive program is punctuated by some freestyle playing, by Schwebel on the piano and Rav Kohn on the clarinet.
I mentioned in our conversation that it must have been their shared love for music that was a force of attraction between teacher and disciple. However, Rav Kohn said that he wasn’t even sure that Eli had been aware of his playing music, but he definitely picked up his musical predisposition at the time the two first met in the beis midrash in Nachlaot. Perhaps another aspect of the program that makes it truly unique is the fusing of the varied worldviews and styles of music that converge between Rav Kohn and Schwebel and the depth and profundity that emerges from between the two of them.
I think a perfect example of this would be a recent shiur the pair held during Chanukah discussing two paths of beauty and the underlying point of contention between Yavan and Yisrael.
Rav Kohn begins: “Chanukah is the holiday of chein. Yefes, the progenitor of Yavan, is in love with beauty but they are particularly infatuated with yofee. Chanukah, by contrast, as its name indicates, is a quest to connect to the virtue of chein.
“You know the verse at the end of Mishlei, in the Eishet Chayil hymn we sing on Friday night. It concludes with the words: “Sheker ha’chein, v’hevel ha’yofee.” It almost sounds like both of them are really nothing special.
Eli Schwebel then interjects: “Yeah, I want you to know, I have always questioned what that was. I am singing that with such love and I think about the words and what they mean and I’m like, ‘Huh? Something like [adapting it to the traditional Friday night tune]: “This is so full of it …”
Rav Kohn continues: “Yes, I completely agree with you. Mamash, it’s like, ‘Lies and vanity, yup, I love you, dear wife.’”
Eli Schwebel: “Yeah, ‘You are ugly but you’re nice.’ That’s what they want to hear … For sure!”
Rav Kohn: “Anyhow, so yeah, so I am thinking like this: There is a Gemara about Hillel and Shammai and their disagreement about the words we are supposed to sing to a kallah at her wedding. Hillel said ‘Kallah na’eh va’chasudah’ and Shammai countered that we are supposed to be honest in our assessment of the bride’s beauty and tell it precisely how it is.
“I don’t know exactly what they would sing, like, ‘You have a crooked nose, baby,’ while dancing around. While singing that, I don’t know what that would look like. But that is Shammai.
“Hillel, on the other hand, says we laud the kallah by saying she’s pretty and chasudah. We’ll get back to that word, ‘chasudah.’ Shammai says to Hillel that the Torah exhorts us to remain distant from uttering an untruth — ‘m’dvar sheker tirchak,’ so then how can we say someone is beautiful when in reality she is not? So Hillel counters that a bride is a ya’alas chein. She radiates chein, which means she has a unique connectivity to her chassan. She is chasudah, which means she is exuding life! Looking at that I realized that there are two different worlds: there is a world in which beauty is measurable — it’s got the right symmetry, the right color eyes, and everything is in the way everything can be measured. That is yofee, and it is very linear. Like the word ‘Yavan’ whose letters in Hebrew are three straight lines, symmetrical and measured.
“Shammai was like that also. He is the rabbi who evaluates things. A ‘shama’ee’ in Hebrew is someone who evaluates. But Hillel is talking about chein and chein is referring to the personal space. There is a weird term in Hebrew that always describes chein as ‘limtzo chein b’einai, limtzo chein b’einecha,’ which means ‘to find chein in your eyes.’ What is that even supposed to mean? I found in your eyes … How does that work?
“However, the reality is that it is referring to a type of charm and dynamism that is noticeable between two people. There is this fire and passion that awakens when two people have this. It shares the Hebrew chiyuni, which is vitality — an electricity or a magnetism. It’s not like beauty, which is measurable. With chein I ‘find it,’ discover it as if by surprise!
“Little children have the best chein. You know, you look at a little baby, a little child who is cheine’dig. A baby might not be beautiful but it possesses a certain chein, which is representative of the potential of life that is here. I am thinking, the truth is, ‘sheker ha’chein.’ Chein is not emes, truth. The word ‘emes’ is a derivative of the words ‘amat ha’binyan,’ which is the contractor’s ruler with which Shammai chased away the person seeking to be converted under his auspices. That is emes, you can measure it. ‘Sheker ha’chein,’ chein is not measurable! Chein is either going to happen or it’s not going to happen. It’s a lie in terms of beauty, but the deepest connection for the one who finds it. That is chein.
“Yofee is characterized here by Shlomo HaMelech by the Hebrew word ‘hevel,’ which means air and connotes a sense of fleeting temporality. What is the thing about yofee? Yofee passes, it’s not going to be around very long, as beautiful people submit to their inevitable sagging lines… It is like gone with the wind. Hevel is in fact like the breath or the wind; it is really beautiful when it is here, but it is not going to last very long. But chein, it is going to last because it is a connection that is personal, forever malleable, with the changes that we go through.
“You know, you see these old couples, they are not necessarily so beautiful anymore but they have so much chein.”
Eli Schwebel: “You know, this is such a great topic to explore, understanding beauty and passion. I happen to have gotten to know some supermodels in my life. I just happen to have met a couple of them. I have found that because they were put into this beauty box since they were kids and they went through their lives just like that, it resulted in the whole fire of life and yearning to be cut off from them. You could see it. You speak to them and could see they are missing something; they are missing that yearning. It is not everyone, but in general, when beauty is so front and forward it doesn’t end up being the asset in a person’s life that it is often meant to be.”
Rav Kohn: “That is right! It is a very deep thing. Yavan is really the world of the absolutes whereas Yisrael is the world of the relational or the interactive. We are the world of brit, of the covenant, which is formed when two people come together. There is no brit in Yavan. Yavan’s rejection of bris milah was not only due to the mutilation of the body, although that is certainly part of it. What it was, in essence, was the connectivity that they despised and which really characterizes what the Jewish people are all about. That is why we find this recurrent use of the word ‘chein’ with regards to Yaakov, “chanani Elokim,” “yachnecha b’ni,” which Yosef says about Binyamin. It seems to always be about chein. It’s not that beauty is a negative feature, but you put it very beautifully when you said that when beauty becomes the primary force of attraction then the life force gets squelched; you can’t be real, you can’t be spontaneous, and you can’t be connected when you’re always trying to hold the lines up straight.”
Eli Schwebel: “I can almost hear someone British say, ‘Hey, shoulders up!’
“So then why Chanukah?”
Rav Kohn: “So, yeah, the amazing thing is that the whole reality that we are meant to step into now on Chanukah is really to connect to this flame that is burning inside. This flame, this passion of life. This flame, which is ever-changing and isn’t something you can really grab onto. Like Rebbe Yochanan in the Gemara says, “Aish ein bo mamush,” fire has no substance. And precisely because it has no substance it still remains exciting to Rebbe Yochanan and all the chein people. And that is why Matityahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol is the right one to respond. I think the idea for Chanukah specifically is that these were people who didn’t make the evaluation whether taking on the Greek army was a sound move or not. Life is about your living it with fullness and passion. If we’re not going to do this, we are gone. This is the time when you are either alive or not alive, that’s all. I feel that so strongly on Chanukah when I sit there looking at the candles. You know, there is nothing like looking at someone’s face which is lit up by a flame. It’s not like electricity, it is full of chein.”
Eli Schwebel: “I was not in a good place when I got home last night. I got home late, I lit the licht, and it snapped me out of it.”
Rav Kohn: “Yeah, I was with this group last night in Ramat Gan. I am playing my clarinet for them and I guided them to follow a flame right up through their body and let it glow really inside and tell you: you have so much chein, so much chein. Yeah, and it’s every one of us.”
Eli Schwebel: “We have to take the chein, the impact of the word ‘chein’ and the word passion and we have to somehow bridge those two. Because the idea of chein is cute.”
Rav Kohn interjects: “I am so happy you are saying that. Can I please tell you why that is so wrong? That is why the word ‘b’chein’dig’ in Yiddish mistakenly is given the same connotation as the Hebrew word “nechmad.” Nechmad in Hebrew is cute. That is not chein’dig; that is chamud. Truth is, it’s often at the point in time where a child realizes that he has chein and becomes aware that people are looking at him that he becomes chamud. That is the moment he steps into the self-consciousness. However, true chein is before he enters the realm of the self-conscious. It’s not cute! There is no English word for chein. It’s like grace, charisma, connectivity…”
Eli Schwebel: “I know what it is! It’s the opposite of self-consciousness.”
Rav Kohn: “Totally! It’s like this person is alive! There are some people who you just meet and you see they are full of life. There is a life force here that is with them. It’s not how beautiful they are. It’s not how attractive they are. It’s not something that I covet that this person has because it’s so, so personal and intimate. What is that? There is no English word for that because English just doesn’t have those words because it comes from the tradition of Yavan. But we have a word for it and it is called ‘chein.’”
These are just some of my personal reflections in my initial conversation with Rav Kohn and the lessons that I walked away with. Rav Kohn is now in the final stages of editing his book, The Siddur as a Spiritual Journey, full of his own interpretations of the Siddur, meditations and music. Siddur Alive is a great way to get in touch with his unique teachings, and it is our intention to reproduce many of the previous classes in written form here in the weekly pages of this newspaper in the hopes of attracting a broader interest in these ideas.
Please look out in the coming weeks for the transcribed installments of Siddur Alive, and continue to follow Eli Schwebel on Instagram to see them in engaging video format.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.