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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

בחיר היצירה. Natural Kings and Queens.

When my mother shetichyeh was around 13, she left her home in Kelm to go to the Ponovezher Gymasium,  The Ponovezher Gymasium was a high school for Jewish girls, founded by Ponovezher Rov, HaRav Yosef Kahaneman, that taught Jewish and secular subjects.  In Ponovezh, she rented a room from a Jewish family.  My mother's parents felt comfortable letting her leave home because her sister (Taibel) was married to Rav Mottel Pagremanski's brother (Yosef), so her family and the Pogremanski family were very close, and Reb Mottel's sister, Bassel, lived a few houses away and kept an eagle's eye on my mother.  Bassel, a lawyer, was already very frum by then.  (A little too frum, my mother implies.  An envious classmate of my mother's reported to Bassel that she saw her talking to boys- a total fabrication.  Back to Kelm she went.)

A Gentile that lived in the same courtyard passed away, and the woman from whom she rented the room mentioned that she had gone to pay her respects to the deceased's family.  My mother said, "Oh, they must have been very honored."  דאס איז זיכער געווען פאר זיי א גרויסער כבוד.  The lady looked at her as if she had come from another world.  She incredulously said "Honored??? I'm lucky they let me into the house."

My mother simply couldn't process that response.  She had been raised in Kelm to think of Jews as בחיר היצירה, the pinnacle of creation.  She had been taught that to be a Jew meant that one is a member of the עם הנבחר, that as a servant of Hashem one is an aristocrat, and that a Jew must comport him or herself as would a king or a queen.  What did that mean, that she was lucky that they let her in???  It took a long time for my mother to assimilate the fact that not every Gentile had that point of view.

I don't want you to thing that my mother, at 13, was childishly simple.  A few years later she was offered the King George Scholarship to Oxford, which she had to decline because her parents sought the advice of Reb Eliah Lopian, who was living in England at that time, and he strongly discouraged them from allowing her to go.  In the Lithuanian Yeshiva world, she was famous for her intelligence and knowledge, among other things.  Reb Mottel Pogremanski used to say to her "מנוחה, איר ווייסט צו פיל."  Unfortunately, unlike in some families, such as the Huxleys and the Soloveichiks, brilliance is not a dominant gene.

The point of this story is not that she was educated to see Gentiles as inferior.  The point is that she was taught that to be a Jew meant that we represent the Torah and the relationship between the Ribono shel Olam with His world, and this created responsibilities- noblesse oblige.  It was not intended to belittle, it was not a statement of relative inferiority of the "other."   It was a concept that emphasized the obligation of the Jew to ensure that his life and his behavior expressed the Kedusha with which Hashem has entrusted us.  God chose us; He gave us His Torah, He put His name on us, and He expects us represent Him.

I was reminded of this story by an obituary that I saw for Hagaon Rav Ovadiah Yosef.  Of all the things one could say about him, about his love of Torah and Klal Yisrael, of his photographic and encyclopedic memory  for Torah and the ability to perfectly assimilate and organize all his knowledge, the fact that he was a living treasure whose life was absolutely dedicated to the Mesorah of Klal Yisrael, what did they say?  "...and said God put gentiles on earth only to serve Jews...."  Which is, of course, something להבדיל בין קודש הקדשים להמאוס, Julius Streicher was fond of attributing to the Jews.  What a pity it is that from a life of a Malach Ha'Elokim they found and quoted out of the context of Jewish philosophy one theological expression that is not politically correct.  Who do you think has more respect for human life?  The secular humanists, the left wingers, or our Gedolim?  The Irish think they're the best of all the races;  Stokely Carmichael and Cornel West think they are the pinnacle of the creation.  All that is needed is a tiny little bit of Seichel to realize that there's nothing wrong with voicing such sentiments of self esteem within one's group.  But they stupidly and unethically use these words to attribute to this great man a primitive and xenophobic tribalism.

But, as noted in the comments, the unfortunate reality is inescapable: these quotes have increased antipathy towards the Jewish people.  Let me say this:  I don't know what Rav Ovadia said. I wasn't there. But I know enough to not trust reporters who are quoting people they don't respect (an understatement) and don't understand (another understatement.)

I also know that the Talmud (Berachot 58) quotes the Tanna Ben Zoma, who once looked out upon a vast multitude of Jews surrounding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and said "Thank God, who has created all these people to serve me." He was talking about his fellow Jews. He was not a horrible solipsist.  He obviously did not mean that no Jew other than he had any independent significance. He knew that every one of them was equal to him in God's eyes. Harav Ovadia said exactly the same thing as Ben Zoma, but while Ben Zoma applied it to himself vis a vis the rest of the Jewish People, Harav Ovadia applied it to Klal Yisrael as a whole vis a vis the rest of the world.  So if you're going to quote Rav Ovadia Yosef, if you're going to quote someone whose entire life and lexicon reflected the deep wisdom of Chazal, you really ought to have a smidgen of understanding of the context of his words.  If you don't, then you can quote God Himself and make Him look like the Devil.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Please say, if the Rav, (may his soul be at peace in Heaven), did he say that non-Jews were created to be servants to the Jews?

Or was he misquoted. Thanks.

A-non

chaim b. said...

I was riding the subway this morning and couldn't help but see the person standing near me holding the paper open to a picture of R' Ovadya with that quote in big letters. Either we saw the same paper, or the newspapers in Chicago and NY pick up the same dirt. Anyway, I was thinking to myself that I can only imagine what the guy was thinking of me (standing there holding a sefer) when he sees a quote like that attributed to a Rabbi.

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

I don't know what he said. I wasn't there. But I know enough to not trust people who are quoting people they don't like or respect or even understand.

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

I also know that the Talmud quotes Ben Zoma, who once looked out upon a multitude of Jews and said "Thank God, who has created all these people to serve me." He was talking about his fellow Jews. He obviously did not mean that every Jew but he had no independent significance. He knew that every one of them was equal to him in God's eyes. So if you're going to quote Rav Yosef, you really ought to understand the context of what he was talking about. You can quote God himself and make him look like the Devil.

Sass said...

Yasher Koach. We also have to keep in mind that Rav Ovadya zt"l was 93years old, born of a different era when political correctness did not rule the day. Frankly, I always found his candor and honesty refreshing. But either way, you are correct that these statements were such a minor part of the person, and his legacy. To focus on a few comments rather than on his numerous encyclopedic works, just breathtaking in their scope, not to mention his reinvigoration of the Sephardi religious community and his single-handed restoring of Sephardi pride...just misses the point, fails to recognize the gift that was bestowed on our generation. Sigh. If any of these people could read one tshuva in Yabia Omer, just one tshuva! And there were hundreds, maybe thousands...

On an unrelated note, have you seen the new biography of Rav Mottel Pagramanski?

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

Sass- no, I didn't know it came out already. The author had contacted me, we traded stories. Thanks for letting me know. I'm going to try to find out where I can get it. I assume it's an Israeli edition in loshon hakodesh.

A friend in Israel wrote me, saying that every Motz'sh his drashos on the radio would include five minutes of hard language against people/organizations he wanted to castigate. The next day, the taxi drivers would all be talking about it. My friend believes that he did it davka for the reason you mention- he wanted to engage the man on the street and he wanted to project and publicize a powerful Sefardi persona in the face of shkenazi social and religious and financial domination by the Ashkenazim.

Avrohom said...

A beautiful and veru fair minded approach. We have undoubtedly lost a majestic godol that has "mekimi meafar dal" - lifted and established thousands upon thousands of sephardi bnei torah.

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

Thank you.

I've heard that from several people- that he was instrumental in giving back badly needed self respect and pride to the average Sefardi on the street. So sad that there is nobody like him, as far as I know. I know there are several very respected poskim and manhigim, but no powerful personalities that inspired awe along the whole spectrum- from crazy frum all the way to anti. (with one or two notable exceptions)

sass said...

Yes it's in Hebrew, and looks to be very well done. Your mother is quoted extensively on pages 27-30.

The book says that unfortunately none of his halachic/lomdishe writings have survived to the present day. Although page 507-508 says that someone in America plagiarized some of his chiddushim and published them under their own name. Have you heard about this?

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

I bought a copy as soon as they came to Chicago and gave it to my mother to read. I'm sure she'll let me know when she gets there. But from glancing through it I think Biton did an impressive job. I wonder if he went through Rav Gifter's and Rav Shternbuch's sefarim where he is quoted. I sure don't know who the plagiarist is and I would like to, simply to enjoy Reb Mottel's words. In our family he and Ponovezher Rov were legends that personified what Litteh was all about.

sass said...

Could you please provide some mareh mekomos to where he's quoted in those sfarim? The book is very good, but it's hard to read arichus about how he was a great iluy and gaon, yet have no idea as to the content of his chiddushim. Do you know what I mean? With any other biography, I can look at the sfarim and see first-hand the gaonus, it's just frustrating to read report after report of his gaonus, and how Rav Gifter considered him not from this world, but with nothing tangible to look at myself.

Barzilai/Eliezer Eisenberg said...

I just was reading the book, looking where Biton quoted my mother's stories, and I saw that his half brother, Eric Page, apparently did the Chalitza when he died. While reading that I noticed, towards the end of the book, that Biton says that he gathered all of Reb Motel's divrei Torah and is printing a book soon on Tanach and sugyos. I'm really looking forward to seeing it- you're right. It's obvious, from the way Rav Gifter and Reb Chaim Stein described him, that he was a bolt of lightening, and unique in some way. I hope that his divrei Torah give us an insight into exactly what that means.

sass said...

Yes, I saw that too. But from the footnote on page 61, it appears that that volume will be mostly divrei aggada and mussar, with little halacha/lomdus. It seems that it was the lomdus and havana that earned him his fame and reputation as the biggest iluy in Lita, and I'm afraid we won't see much of that.