Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rav Breuer: His life and his legacy by Dr. David Kranzler and Dovid Landesman

Anyone familiar with the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights knows the Germany Jewish synagogue community known by its founding rabbi's name: Breuer's.  K'hal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ) on Bennett Ave is a model "Kehillah", a Jewish community in the old corporate style of pre-enlightened Europe that is comprised of a rabbinate with its own court, kosher supervision service, a mikvah society, a full school system and synagogue. David Kranzler and Dovid Landesman have written an excellent history and record of the community's achievement by highlighting the amazing leadership of Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, a grandson of Rabbi Samson. Refoel Hirsch and a trustworthy tradent of his philosophy, Torah im Derech Eretz.

Rav Breuer was a dynamic personality, a fearless individual who strove for truth and defended his grandfather's outlook of the primacy of Torah that subordinates secular studies without negating or ignoring them.  He believed that Torah im Derech Eretz was not just a ad hoc approach to dealing with modernity but rather a long term answer to the challenges of assimilation in the modern world.

One reads about the rav's fearlessness in dealing with the Nazis and his understanding that escape was the only option.  He was one of the few who saw that the true nature of Nazism was not a passing fad.

In coming to America, he had clarity of vision to set up a parallel community that was modeled after Frankfurt retaining all of Nusach Ashkenaz.  He refused to conform to America, and as a result was a towering role model.  With much tact, understanding and sensitivity, he identified with the financial struggles of his congregants, but never wavered in the demand for Torah observance.  He also initially did not identify with the Yeshiva world of negating the outside by creating Kollelim because the philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz incorporated secular studies to gain employment and security. Only until it became clear to him that Orthodoxy needed such an approach of the Yeshivos in America did he lend his support.

His integrity and honesty was made famous by his aphorism: Glatt Kosher implies Glatt Yosher!  He would deplore the outward looking obvious pious Jew who cheated in business but was scrupulous in finding the proper kosher insignia on what he consumed.  He would not associate with any organization that acknowledged anything not Torah observant.  He did not identify with the religious Zionists of Mizrachi since they were in partnership with completely secular Zionists.  He sided with his grandfather to remain independent and secede from the irreligious community. He believed that the future of the Jewish State could only be long lasting if it were centered around Torah.

When I was a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, (a community with the philosophy called "Torah U' Mada" Torah and Science and as some allege an offshoot of Torah im Derech Eretz),  I lived among the Breuer community in the same building as Chazan Frankel who was a superb refined human being with a very pleasant voice.  It became very clear to me that YU was not an offshoot of Torah im Derech Eretz but rather something original and it certainly lacked the consistency and clarity of the Breuer community.  Although secular studies were ensconced, YU was too eclectic to assume a Torah im Derech Eretz label.

I must mention that my experience with Rabbi Shimon Schwab Zt"L, Rav Breuer's successor, although brief had a profound effect on me.  He was an extraordinary role model.  When I frequented the synagogue, he used special crutches and although he seemed in pain as he walked, he demonstrated a lofty spiritual countenance as if accepting his pain out of love for Hashem; there was no grimace, only a faint smile. I would make a Kinyan with him to sell my Chometz and his pleasant smile still reverberates in my mind.  Even though he knew that I was not a permanent member of his community and knew I was studying at YU, I always felt a warm welcome from him.  I heard him tell of his experience with the Chofetz Chaim in a tone anticipating the coming of Mashiach.

This biography is an excellent introduction to the Hirschian philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz and an inspiring read about one of the architects of Torah survival.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory by Deborah Lipstadt

Ms. Lipstadt has written a history of Holocaust denial, the troubling trend to sow the seeds of doubt about the most horrific event of the twentieth century.  Denying the Holocaust is a subtle way of hiding one's antisemitism under the cover of 'scholarship' by questioning the number of victims and methods of the Nazi annihilation of European Jewry.

The numbers defy the imagination.  The method of gassing seems too brutal to be true.  Coupled with the responsibility attached to the national identity of Germany one can understand a desire to forget about the greatest blight on humanity.  Without the overwhelming evidence of the slaughter, one could easily question how one could one be so cruel.

The evidence, however, has not stopped many from attempting to rehabilitate Germany from its Nazi past.  Most deniers, antisemites in disguise tend to create doubt by actually ignoring the overwhelming evidence by espousing arguments of 'reason', speculations and assumptions that reasonable people would never conjure up such brutality! Or peg the evidence on Jewish historians who they claim have an obvious bias against Germany!  Never is their argument ever fully explained because internally it can't stand up to internal logic.  If Hitler never wanted to destroy the Jews why would the Jews be against him?  Their arguments only make sense to one who hates Jews, who believe there is some kind of Jewish conspiracy against them.

I remember a Television program that aired a visit to Auschwitz in which a so called "expert engineer" collected samples of Zyklon B from gas chambers and concluded that there was not enough residue to effect lethal levels.  I don't remember a rebuttal of the charges that he made on the program.  Prof. Lipstadt, however, gives the background and discussion of this fellow and exposes him as a absolute fraud who lacked any professional training.  And in-spite of debriefing the TV producers before the airing of the show about the fraud, the program nevertheless aired!  It is a sad commentary about the nature of TV and ratings vs. the need to tell the truth.

It is clear to me, with the aging of and passing of Holocaust survivors, there will be more denial of the past crimes because most can't or won't fathom such abuse, sadism and murder even with the overwhelming evidence of the program for the 'final solution of the Jewish problem' by Hitler and his Nazi regime.

Titan: the life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow

This great biography is really a monumental contribution toward the history of US business of the late 19th and early 20th centuries putting into perspective the values and politics of a free capitalistic society and how government becomes involved. The American Oil companies of Mobil, Exxon, Chevron, Soho, Amoco have there origins in the Standard oil monopoly that was ultimately broken up by the government.  This is a story of the investment houses of JP Morgan and Kuhn Loeb (Jacob Schiff) as they pertain to the 'discounts' allotted to Standard oil by the different train companies to transport the oil for kerosene lighting.

Mr. Rockefeller Sr. was described sensitively and realistically showing what one person can achieve through thought, planning and great effort.  He exhibited some formidable qualities worth studying.  Highly sensitive and very intelligent, Mr. Rockefeller showed great restraint and control over his emotions.  Never one to allow a slight to go unanswered, Mr. Rockefeller never was impulsive.  He was a determined person with cunning and sharp insight always seeking an opponent's weak spot.

His way was legendary: be scrupulously honest in accounting and always give an account. (He required his adult son to always account for his expenditures even when their fantastic wealth could not have been affected by any miscalculation.)  He prided himself on honesty since his religious Baptist upbringing, well integrated into his being demanded it.  Similarly, however, he was known to be vindictive in a subtle way.  Only upon reflection does one see that personality flaw because he was so cunning in his retaliation, a way that always could be interpreted without vengeance.  He could always explain away his behavior in a positive manner.  His rapaciousness was constantly justified and explained as "cooperation" is always preferred over "competition".  Many testified that he was probably the most intelligent person of his day.

His antisemitism came out as he prided himself for besting a Jew in business.  Interestingly enough, he could not swallow up Shell Oil (founded by Jewish Marcus Samuel) and the Royal Dutch Oil companies but rather had to compete with them since they were supported by the financially muscular French Rothschild family.  Ironically, his son seemed to claim that his company received better treatment from the Jewish Jacob Schiff of the investment house of Kuhn Loeb then the house of JP Morgan.  There seemed to be a lingering feeling that Rockefeller could not trust Morgan.

Rockefeller showed tremendous restraint.  When he was completely vilified in a series of magazine articles and press coverage, he felt no impulse to respond and defend himself.  He always felt confident that he was guiltless.  As a matter of fact, during his tenure at Standard Oil he prided himself at keeping prices of kerosene low for the consumer.  With the rise of the automobile, Standard Oil supremacy remained through his successors who were responsible for the changes in price.  He shied away from any publicity until his retirement at which point he had already given away millions to a number of philanthropies (including the founding of the University of Chicago).

Rockefeller never understood or appreciated the charges against him.  He condemned the vilification of his person to the evils of 'Unionization' and 'Socialism'.  Teddy Roosevelt capitalized on Rockefeller's lack of appreciation of the charges against him.  He saw a great opportunity to grow the government and curtail free enterprise when the public cry against the rapacity of Rockefeller and Standard Oil rose to a deafening shout.

Ironically, the breakup of Standard oil did not punish John D. Rockefeller Sr.  Since he owned a majority share of the company he benefited by owning majority shares in each separate company which exponentially augmented his wealth to billionaire status.  Before the actual breakup, Mr. Rockefeller recommended buying Standard Oil stock because he understood the benefits of what was essentially a huge stock split! And although he became somewhat bawdy in his old age, by the time he died (well into his 90's) he was known for his philanthropy and not for his avarice.