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Around the Maggid's Table by Paysach J. Krohn
Around the Maggid's Table by Paysach J. Krohn

Volume 3 , Issue 5

Man of Faith in the Modern World:Reflections of the Rav, Volume Two by Rabbi Abraham Besdin

Man of Faith in the Modern World:Reflections of the Rav, Volume Two by Rabbi Abraham Besdin. Ktav Publishing House, 1989, 164pp. Reviewed by Michael S. Berger

A normal review usually hopes to accomplish two things. First, it evaluates the material of the book, assessing its content, the arguments the author makes, and the insights he or she reveals. Secondly, a review tries to determine the impact of the work, whether the book sparked (or will spark) renewed debate on a subject, whether it has cast an issue in an entirely new light, or has simply compiled, in an orderly and clear fashion, the existing views on a particular topic (Tolstoy's ?hedgehog?), assessing their respective strengths and weaknesses.

In this sense, then, it is both inappropriate (for most of us) to evaluate the Rav's thought, and superfluous to say it has had an effect. Of Rabbi Soloveitchik's published writings, both in Hebrew and in English (much of which have emerged only in the last twelve years), it is fair to say that hardly a page is turned without being rewarded with a keen insight, a penetrating observation, or a perceptive distinction. This holds true both for his halakhic shiurim (the two yarzheit volumes, the analysis of the Yom Kippur service, and a collection of his own shiurim ‑ all in Hebrew) as well as for his more aggadic, if not wholly philosophic works (Halakhic Man -- Hebrew and English), The Lonely Man of Faith, Halakhic Mind, 'Al ha‑teshuvah, Hamesh Derashot, Yemei Zikkaron,and others. I am most assuredly unqualified to assess the Rav's material per se.

To discuss Rabbi Soloveitchik's impact is also unnecessary. As the leading spokesman and thinker of the type of Orthodoxy which espouses contact with secular culture as both positive and enriching, the Rav succeeded in giving intellectual grounding to a broad segment of Jewry. He articulated a philosophy and phenomenology of the Halakha that has enabled three generations of Jews to understand their religion in a sophisticated and intellectually rigorous manner on par with any other discipline in the human or social sciences (and the Rav would argue hard sciences, as well). Hundreds of musmachim, as well as lay leaders, help export his views to congregants and communities worldwide. A thorough analysis of the Rav's thought has begun to appear as well, most recently in articles in Tradition and Jewish Law Annual by Marvin Fox and Lawrence Kaplan, attesting to Rabbi Soloveitchik's increased influence. There is no need for reiteration of his impact in a normal review.

However, this is not a normal book. In a sequel to the extremely successful Reflections of the Rav, Abraham R. Besdin has again attempted to summarize some of the Rav's comments on a wide range of issues, thus making these thoughts available to a wider audience. Indeed, the presence of an index assists the reader in locating where in the book a reference can be found to the Rav's treatment of a very specific topic (such as asceticism or prophecy). This is particularly helpful if one is unfamiliar with the vast corpus of the Rav's writings, or has simply forgotten where the Rav himself addresses the issue. Given the Rav's style of passing references and small digressions to myriad subjects within one article, this is extraordinarily helpful.

The issue this review must address is whether a positive purpose is served in introducing the Rav to those who can't read the original. I am not referring to those who did not hear the lectures or shiurim when originally delivered. There is undeniable value in collecting the Rav's views on diverse subjects, otherwise unattainable, into one volume. This was done earlier in Shiurei HaRav: A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1974). That collection was a deliberate and worthwhile effort to encapsulate the (at the time) mostly unpublished material of the Rav. Without such a summary, Rabbi Soloveitchik's ideas would not be disseminated to a larger audience.

It is, however, an entirely different matter to take the published works of the Rav and paraphrase them, leaving out the harder words and more complex formulations. While it is true that not all readers can follow the Rav's technical jargon in Lonely Man of Faith, or even grasp his basic arguments in Halakhic Mind, this is not a warrant to dilute the exposition to a level most people can understand. There are several reasons for this, both in general with respect to any author, and in particular with respect to the Rav.

First, an essay, any essay, is not made up of merely a single or even several ideas. Every work has an author, and the style through which a writer chooses to express himself is as much a part of the work as the ideas included. Most of us accept this quite readily when it comes to fiction: no sensitive student and surely no teacher would sanction the use of Monarch Notes as a replacement for Shakespeare's Macbeth or Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. While the student seeking a short‑cut might pass the exam, one would not dare say they had truly read the play or the short story.

This holds true in non‑fiction as well. How a writer transmits his or her material is an indispensable element of any type of work, even scientific or intellectual. Many students might pray for summaries of Kant's Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals (Does even a translation really help?) or wish for paraphrases of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Indeed, annotated volumes of these works have appeared, with notes and introductory essays. But no edition forgoes the original text, or a translation of it. If the Rav's essay Lonely Man of Faith appears in Tradition, as Rabbi Besdin points out at the beginning of Chapter 3, then that is where the reader should go. One cannot state excusingly ?There is no substitute for an actual reading of the Rav's brilliant essay in its original, which is couched in his inimitable literary style,? and then go ahead and offer a substitute, patently lacking in the very style so acclaimed.

There is another reason to avoid this type of enterprise, particularly in the case of the Rav. In all his non‑halakhic writings, whether in Hebrew or in English, Rabbi Soloveitchik is repetitive. In a style reminiscent of his grandfather's hibbur on the Rambam (actually written by his children and students), Rabbi Soloveitchik takes several sentences, and at times even paragraphs to make a single point, reiterating the same insight in three or four different ways. This is not motivated by any Dickensian tendency or affinity for prolixity. As Marvin Fox points out in his recent article in Tradition (Winter '89), the Rav chose what he wrote very carefully. His (and his family's) resistance to publish is (in)famous, rooted in a deep‑seated perfectionism, that every word be proper, every nuance highly crafted. The Rav's repetitiveness stems from a keen awareness that one does not merely offer an insight and then leave it to go on to another one. When the Rav presents us with a fresh perspective on prayer or the holidays, he knows full well that these must be absorbed by the reader through a sort of literary osmosis. The Rav works and re‑works a point, allowing it to penetrate the reader. Those who read the Rav in the original know that, oftentimes, a paragraph (or even an entire section) must be re‑read not so much to understand what was written, but to understand it better, to give it a chance to settle, to be fully absorbed. Indeed, many if not all, of the Rav's writings can be re‑read many times, with newer insights revealed each time.

Such an effect is impossible in a paraphrase. In one or two short sentences, major distinctions or penetrating insights are summarized and left behind. The chapters do not ?work on you;? on the contrary, they seem to pass you by. Upon finishing a chapter, one has the sense that there were deep reserves that were only strip‑mined; I, myself, (and I speak only for myself) did not feel at the end of the book that I totally understood, beyond a superficial level, the Rav's view on the meaning of Parah Adumah or on Zionism. With the Rav noted for his careful editing, those chapters which summarize existing essays do not do the original, or the reader, a service.

Although Rabbi Besdin explicitly cites the original essay of Lonely Man of Faith before chapters 2‑3 (and it is unclear why it's more digestible over 2 chapters), he does so nowhere else, leading the reader to believe that the other 14 chapters are paraphrases of oral, unpublished lectures. However, this is not the case. The Rav's comments on aninut and avelut (entitled herein From Negation to Affirmation) have appeared in several places (in their original), most accessibly in J. Reimer's Jewish Reflections on Death, (N.Y., Schocken Books, 1975), but originally in The Jewish Advocate, in 1972 (and translated into Hebrew in Divrei Hagut ve‑Ha'arachah, pp. 195‑201). Chapter 6, Shaping Jewish Character, which develops the Rav's notion of the Patriarchal Covenant, appears in Hamesh Derashot under the title of Berit Avot, and the tension between the universal and particular (Chapter 8) is more elegantly stated, in piecemeal form, in Mah Dodekh mi‑dod in the same volume. Rabbi Besdin, undoubtedly familiar with this material, could at least refer the reader to these original, unabridged versions.

Another significant weakness of these paraphrases is their lack of context. If, as we assume, most of these were oral lectures, then they were delivered at a certain date and in front of a particular audience. Perhaps Rabbi Besdin was piecing together otherwise disparate thoughts, expressed by the Rav on various occasions. Nevertheless, ideas are best seen in their native context. The articles in Conspectus cite the date and situation in which these remarks were made. For instance, the Aninut and Avelut piece was originally delivered on the shloshim of Rabbi M.Z. Twersky (the Telner Rebbe), a fact that Rabbi Besdin could have easily mentioned in a footnote or in a prefatory comment (as, indeed, all other publications of the article do). While any Jew familiar with learning understands the timelessness and contextlessness of Torah thoughts, these short comments would help readers, presumably unfamiliar with the Rav's writings, understand the Rav better -- when he made remarks, were they in shiur or impromptu, or delivered in front of committed or unaffiliated Jews. If Rabbi Besdin's volume is to allow more people to become better acquainted with the Rav, his thought and personality, such details are invaluable.

Several chapters also seem to go together naturally, such as Chapters 10 and 11, May We Interpret Hukim? and Interpreting the Parah Adumah. Rabbi Besdin should explain if these were separate lectures which he joined together, or whether they originally were offered as a unit, in which case an explanation for separating them is necessary. This is not to be petty, but if the Rav is such an expert craftsman of published (and unpublished) material, then we owe him the courtesy of sticking as close to his format as is possible. And much more was possible in this volume.

Our review of the book can best be summed up in a famous Yiddish anecdote. The Yiddish Theater, putting on a production of Hamlet, once ran an advertisement: Hamlet, foon Villiam Shakespir, fa bessert foon Hyam Shvartz. (Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, improved by Hyam Schwartz). While we must thank Rabbi Besdin for giving us otherwise unattainable (oral) material in written form, the enterprise of paraphrasing Rabbi Soloveitchik's written words, in a word, in no way reflects the Rav.


One Little Goat ‑ Had Gadya. Lettered & Illustrated by Betsy Platkin Teutsch. Published by Jason Aronson and Company, Livingston, N.J. 1990. Reviewed by Nechamah Reisel.

Had Gadya, One Only Goat, is an old Aramaic song sung at the conclusion of the seder. It is a paradox and a puzzle. Its inclusion in the Ashkenzic seder service as the ultimate or, in some communities, the penultimate song/story of the Haggadah has been the subject of many scholarly articles. A common theory is that the song is, at least in form, based on an old German folk song, Der Herr der schikt den Jokel aus, which was sung on the feast of St. Lambert, September 17. This, in turn, is said to be based on a still older French song, which may have really had its origin in still older Oriental versions.

Another commonly accepted belief is that the song is deliberately placed at the very end of the Haggadah in order to motivate the child, at whom the entire seder ritual is ostensibly aimed, to remain awake. But if one truly analyzes the seder service, this seems simplistic.

True, in Exodus XIII, we are commanded to tell and teach each generation the story of our plight in and flight from Egypt, and of our subsequent redemption through the miraculous act of the Almighty. The Passover seder is an exemplary teaching device to achieve this purpose. It utilizes the best pedagogical devices to achieve its ends. There are all sorts of rituals, foods, hands‑on ?materials,? and songs which motivate a child to ask questions and participate in the service. Not the least of these ?materials? may be a well‑illustrated Haggadah, or portions of one.

These same devices also make the service an ideal teaching tool for adults, to whom, I believe Had Gadya is truly addressed. Coming where it does, at the end of a long, intellectually stimulating, full night, and after the participants have consumed a heavy meal and more wine than most people normally drink at one meal, the song may find few children, try as they may, fully awake. Their elders, too, fight sleep, but, given the challenge of singing the Had Gadya (as well as a group of songs that precede it), and discussing some of its allegorical meanings, the possibility increases that the participants will remain not merely awake, but also alert. Thus, any representation of Had Gadya as being merely a children's song is naive, and any of the texts that have been designed specifically for children, while interesting and well‑intentioned, are lacking. Like all good children's literature, the song can and should be read on many levels.

Jason Aronson Company's new edition of Had Gadya, lettered and illustrated by Betsy Platkin Teutsch, is a good attempt to fill the void. While its bold, widely spaced print and gentle, non‑threatening line drawings are easy on the young child's eyes and psyche, older children and adult readers are not forgotten.

On the whole, the translation from the Aramaic is simple and direct. The author, however, can't resist a commentary ?poor him? after each stanza's initial mention of the little goat, a commentary that is not part of the original text and which detracts from all but the literal meaning of the song.

That Ms. Teutsch understands the song to be more than a simple children's song is born out by both her illustrations and the pages following the text itself. The illustrations for each stanza are full‑page black and white drawings that, in most instances, unambiguously illustrate the text. The main part of the page illustrates the new event with which each stanza begins. However, at the bottom of each page, the artist recapitulates the events that precede those at the top of the page. Thus, while the goat is eaten by the cat, he reappears at the bottom of the next page, frisking ahead of the long line of successively unfortunate characters. At the end, when the Holy One kills the angel of death, the illustration is that of a tree in full bloom and a glorious, shining, rising sun, with a triumphant, smiling little goat looking up toward the scene. At the bottom of the page are the goat's vanquished foes.

While the main part of each page, taken as a whole, does illustrate the literal events of the stanza, the recapitulation at the bottom of each page, taken with the final illustration, does suggest the symbolic meanings of the song. It is these illustrations which may certainly initiate still another round of questions and discussions that are the true earmarks of the seder, a far‑from‑ordinary se'eudah.

Another feature not found in most other individual volumes of Had Gadya, and again, one which indicates the author's apparent intent that this edition is meant for more than just children, is the author's brief explanation of the song and the hint at its deeper symbolism.

On still another page is the most popular interpretation of these symbols, one which equates the events in the song with the sufferings of the Jewish people throughout our early history. In this interpretation, the cat symbolizes the Assyrians; the dog, the Persians; the water, the Romans; the ox, the Saracens; the butcher, the Crusaders; the angel of death, the Ottomans -- many of our historical oppressors. One of the nations mentioned on this page, however, the Macedonians, is misrepresented as being the water. This is obviously an oversight on the part of the editor since, doubtless, the author meant this nation to stand for the fire in the poem. In a volume of this type, these explanations are sufficient; however, the author might also have suggested that this is only one of a number of possible interpretations of the text.

Two other unusual additions at the end of the book are music for and the transliteration of all the stanzas of the song, and a glossary of twenty‑five words in the song giving their English, Hebrew, and Aramaic equivalents.

This volume is a welcome addition to both a child's library of Hebrew literature and the adult's collection of Judaica. It would make a good prize to give to the individual who finds the afikomen on the first night -- one that could then be referred to during the second seder's discussions.


Around the Maggid's Table. By Paysach J. Krohn. Mesorah Publications, 1989.Reviewed by Sanford L. Drob

?A maggid,? Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells us, ?is a multifaceted darshan (lecturer) who can deliver colorful drashes on a variety of topics while simultaneously weaving a fascinating tapestry of stories and parables around his words ‑ be they harsh rebuke or gentle encouragement.? A maggid is thus someone much more than a teller of stories, he is a raconteur with a deep spiritual and ethical message, one who, as was the case with the fabled Maggid of Mezrich, can be accorded the highest status as the spiritual guide for an entire generation. Yet the true maggid has almost completely disappeared from the landscape of Jewish life.

Why, we might ask, should this be so? Certainly, the proliferation of the printed word and the ready availability of entertainment through various live and, later, recorded, media has made some of the functions of the maggid seemingly superfluous. One can read lectures in books and be entertained by ?stories? on film and video, or, if one has a yearning for a live performance, attend the theatre. The idea of listening to a rabbi tell stories for hours on end seems a bit quaint and more than a little out of step with today's fast paced style of life. This, it seems, would explain the demise of the maggid in the Jewish community as a whole.

But what about the frum world? Why should, as Rabbi Krohn tells us, R. Sholom Mordechai Schwadron, The Jerusalem Maggid, be virtually unique, perhaps the last of his kind? Is there something lacking in our generation, something lacking in our spiritual selves, that we somehow fail to appreciate the incredible artistry, virtuosity, and spiritual genius of one who has entered deeply into events in the lives of the Jews of his generation, from the simplest horsedriver to the gadolim haDor; and one who has been able to sift, transform and relate these events in a manner which elevates the listener into a higher spiritual world? If not for our lack of appreciation, why else should we be lacking in maggidim? Why else would we not draw out from our generation one maggid, or indeed a cadre of maggidim to replace those who we have lost?

Reading Around the Maggid's Table one feels nourished in a portion of one's neshamah, one's Jewish soul, which, at least in this reader's case, had been so neglected that it didn't even experience that absence. The stories Rabbi Krohn has selected, all with attribution and many from the mouth of Rabbi Schwadron himself, are a unique blend of pathos and inspiration. One instinctively desires to commit them to memory and, as a result, transform oneself as much as is possible into something of a maggid oneself.

Here we have examples of great mesiras nefesh, as in the story of R. Arye Leib Levin, who, in the midst of Arab terrorism in Jerusalem in 1945, walked around at great risk to himself, taking photographs of the faces of the dead who were to be buried in a mass grave. This in order to prevent their wives from suffering as agunot, unable to remarry because they would be uncertain of their husbands' fate. Here, too, we are provided with case studies of exceptional emunah (faith) and piety like that of R. Zalman Grossman whose practice of staying awake all Shabbos night, reciting Tehillim, singing zemirot (Shabbat songs), and davening with kavanah (praying with concentration), resulted in the saving of lives on two occasions, the first of an entire community in Palestine, and then, many years later, his own. Here, too, we are introduced to relatives of the fabled Chofetz Chayim: one, a nephew, who upon visiting his uncle erev Shabbos was exhausted from his journey and proceeded to sleep well into the night only to find the Chofetz Chayim patiently waiting to make kiddush with him in the wee small hours; the second, a great grandson of the Chofetz Chayim who was a brilliant student at a kollel in Lakewood, but was, nonetheless, reprimanded by the gabbai for failing to appear at the early morning minyan. The student pleaded that each morning he would start on his way, but that very often he would encounter a young woman in his neighborhood who was burdened with numerous children and who had no one to help her (and hence he would be forced to attend a minyan a little later in the day). Hearing this, the Gabbai understood and inquired as to the identity of this woman so that he might be of assistance as well. ?The woman,? answered the Chofetz Chayim's grandson, ?is my wife!?

As these examples show, these are not, for the most, part epic tales, but rather everyday incidents which reveal the light of personal character or teach us a valuable lesson. Often, this lesson is that things in the life between man and man are often not what they seem. How much more so as between man and God! I am touched by the story of four men whose morning flight from Cleveland to New York is diverted to Washington. When at the airport they meet up with and form a minyan with six Chasidim who have also been on their plane. Another man appears, says kaddish and as he does so, bursts into tears. When queried he relates that his recently deceased father had, the night before, come to him in a dream and inquired as to why he could not find the time to honor him by saying kaddish. The man offered some feeble excuse, and the father inquired, ?What if I were to send you a minyan? Would you say kaddish for me then?? ?Yes, father, I would.?

In the men who tell these remarkable tales as well as those in whose regard these stories are told, Rabbi Krohn has sent us a minyan of sorts: one to inspire, entertain, console and reprove our souls. But if we are to benefit, it is up to us to join in. This is a book to be read and to be enjoyed. Hopefully it is a book which will bring out the maggid within us and perhaps, along with his previous book, The Maggid Speaks, inspire one or two souls to take up the mantle of Rabbi Sholom Schwadron and become full‑fledged maggidim themselves. Rabbi Krohn, it seems, has taken up something of this mantle himself and he is to be both encouraged and congratulated on a job well done.



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