Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Correspondence with Professor Alan Dershowitz Regarding Rav Elchanan Wasserman

Rabbi Ari Kahn
    Hashaked 5/3 Givat Zev
     Jerusalem Hills 90917
     p.o.b. 443

18 Elul 5756
September 2nd 1996 

Professor Alan Dershowitz
Harvard University
Boston, Mass.

Dear Alan,
I hope that this note finds you well. Thank G-d everything is well here, things returned to normal .....

Prior to your request for the letter of Rav Elchanan Wasserman, (which we discussed) I began to search for it myself.  My gut reaction was similar to yours, “How can a man leave America to knowingly be killed in Europe?” I had heard some of the legends surrounding Rav Elchanan's demise over the years, and I had never taken the time to try to distinguish fact from fiction. As a result of our discussion I decided to research the issue, therefore I thank you for being the impetus for this learning and clarification.

The legends spoke of a man leaving the comforts of America in order to be with his students in Europe, much in the way of a captain   going down with his ship[1]. When confronted by the enemy he never stopped teaching Torah, and like Rabbi Akiva of old, he died after giving a class about martyrdom. Eyewitnesses described him as looking like an “angel of G-d”. Reportedly some of the Nazis were afraid of the Rabbi who “glowed”, but in the end he was taken out and shot.
I can not evaluate where the facts end, and embellishment begins. However, I have succeeded in reconstructing some the pertinent facts.

As for the letter, I had assumed the letter was in His collected writings called in Hebrew “Kovetz Mamarim”. Indeed , I found one letter, written to the “Young Israel” movement dated 1939 [2].  The letter, however does not explain anything on a personal level, rather he responds to their willingness to help[3]. He responds almost exclusively on a theological level, with an analogy of a medical patient who complains of symptoms; the doctor should treat the symptoms, but more importantly should find the cause. So, too, the Jews in Europe are suffering greatly, but what is the spiritual cause? And what is the spiritual prescription? He proceeds to analyze the spiritual issues which he thinks should be brought to the attention of the masses. Interesting, but not what I was looking for.

In the course of searching for the letter, I was, as I said, able to reconstruct some important facts:

      1.     Most importantly, Rav Elchanan left America before the war began, and no one knew at the time what was in store for European Jewry. I was told by a friend, who was a student of Rav Elchanan`s son Rav Simcha, that he once discussed this with Rav Simcha who said  “my father had no idea of what would be; had he known, he never would have returned[4] to Europe.
2.     The people that discussed with him, the possibility of his staying in the U.S. reported great ambivalence[5]. He was torn, obviously aware that returning meant some type of danger, but he felt he was needed in Europe.
Here are some of the quotes attributed to Rav Elchanan: When told that his other 2 sons may be able to escape he replied “What about my other 400 sons (the number of students in his yeshiva)? [6]
When asked pointedly how in terms of Jewish law he was permitted to return he said “I am a soldier who must return to the front”[7]
3.     Once back in Europe and the nefarious plans of the Nazis became clear he instructed people that anything that can be done to avoid danger must be done.[8]
4.     Rav Elchanan himself tried on numerous occasions to escape, mainly to Israel[9], once the real horrors of the Holocaust became clear.[10]

The letter however was not mentioned in the biography or any other secondary source. To make a long story short, I finally found a photocopy of the letter, the main section reads:

Friday Parshas Naso Talma[11]

I received your letter but I could do nothing about it, so I did not respond. I am unable to bring the students to the Yeshiva of Dr. Revel or Beis Medrish Litorah in Chicago, for they are both places of spiritual danger, for they are run in a spirit of “free thinking” [prevalent in these places]. What would one gain to escape physical danger in order to then confront spiritual danger? But I sent your letter to Rabbi Shlomo Heiman the head of the Yeshiva Mesifta Torah VaDaas in Brooklyn. My advice is that you contact him and have him write a letter to------ the address is------------------
Elchanan Bunim Wasserman

Some important background
1.     The consideration of physical danger and spiritual danger, can be found in the writings of many sages, most notably the famed Chafetz Chaim, Rav Elchanan`s  mentor , had said such things about America, especially before and during World War one.
2.     Even during the early part of the War Rav Elchanan was concerned about people with young impressionable children who were contemplating going to America.[12]
3.     Having been to America and personally seen the relative spiritual wasteland that it was, Rav Elchanan was further (initially) convinced that the old policy of the Chafetz Chaim should remain in force.[13]
4.     I sense some ambivalence in the letter; was he against coming to America, or was the problem Y.U. (“Dr. Revels Yeshiva”)? Was he perhaps simply trying to get an invitation from a more acceptable yeshiva?

In conclusion, I think the facts stand on their own, but of course you and all students of history will draw their own conclusions. My study brought me in touch with a great Jew who lived and died for his people, and was dedicated to his students in a manner which is unfathomable to the modern mind.
We are bidden in Pirki Avot not to judge our friend until we find ourselves in his place. Perhaps by judging people we tempt Fate, as it were, to put us in that place. Let us hope and pray that no Jew - no person - is ever put in that type of situation again.
If I can be of assistance in any way please do not hesitate to contact me.
May the coming year be a year of health and prosperity to all of G-d`s children. May you and your family enjoy health and happiness, and may you be inscribed in the book of the righteous.


[1] One can find this phrase in Rav Elchanan`s, justification for returning to eastern Europe from London in the spring  of 1939 Or Elchanan  (A biography written about the man and his teachings)page 213, although the source also cites a more mystical consideration.
[2] I later saw the letter referred to as the last published letter
[3] This is my assumption - their letter was not published
[4] As it was, he did instruct his son to stay in the U.S. Legend: Rav Simcha reportedly said that it was then that he realized that he would never have children, (see below).
[5] Or Elchanan page 213, the source was his son Rav Simcha
[6] “Or Elchanan” page 212.
[7] Or Elchanan page213
[8] Or Elchanan page 239,270
[9]  A Facsimile of the letter is in Or Elchanan on page 273, notice the handwriting matches the letter which I found.
[10] Or Elchanan page 271, it is recounted that once he was waiting online for a visa to Israel, one of his students was in front of the line and tried to entice Rav Elchanan to trade places on line, Rav Elchanan refused. See page 276 for other attempts at escape.
[11] Apparently the name of the city he was in, no year is given.
[12] Or Elchanan 246, 247
[13] Rav Elchanan was in America primarily for fund-raising purposes.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Essays and audio V'etchanan

Essays and audio V'etchanan…

The Echoes of Eden Project:
New Essay:  



Uplifting the generation - Moshe teaches the new generation about to enter the Promised Land

Tisha B’Av lecture
Halacha shiur based on this week’s Parasha

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Parashat Dvarim – Tisha B’Av 5775 - It’s About Time

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Dvarim Tisha BAv 5775
Its About Time

This week’s Torah reading is the first in a new book, but for the most part it is a book that tells an old story, a book whose very existence is born of tragedy. Moshe is close to death; he will not cross over the Jordan River to the Land of Israel, and he opens his final series of speeches with a retrospective. How did we get here? Where did we go wrong? Can we avoid such mistakes in the future?

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel on the east bank of the Jordan, ... An eleven day journey from Horev to Kadesh Barnea by way of the Se’ir highlands. (Dvarim 1:1,2)

The Jews have arrived at the cusp of the Holy Land, at the banks of a river that the disciples will cross without their master. After forty years of wandering, Moshe reveals that the actual distance between the Land of Israel and Horev (also known as Sinai), the place the detour began, is a mere eleven-day journey. So many years wasted, so many lives lost, and it all could have been avoided.

How, indeed, had it come to this? At Horev, Moshe was first called upon to lead the Jewish People out of slavery. There, he saw a bush that burned but was not consumed, a symbol of eternity, of God’s existence beyond the confines of space and time. This personal revelation was later shared with the entire Jewish People at that very same spot, just as God had promised Moshe at the start (Shmot 3:12): The personal, micro-revelation was transformed into a macro-revelation, The Revelation, that would forge a nation and change the world.

At that same spot, Moshe climbed to the summit and received a physical manifestation of the Revelation, the Tablets of Stone – and, at that very same spot, things went awry. The people panicked; it seemed to them that too much time had passed, and Moshe had not survived his encounter with God. Rather than putting their faith in Moshe’s unique capabilities or in God’s express commitment, they allowed fear to overtake them; they sought out an alternative to Moshe – and the golden calf was formed. How quickly they regressed! They had heard God Himself speak to them only 40 days earlier, but they managed to forget both the experience of that Revelation and its content. The roar of the frenzied crowd, the beating drums and rhythmic chants of the idolatrous orgy, drowned out the sights and sounds of the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.

Moshe’s descent from the mountain, with the Tablets in his arms, should have been cause for celebration; that day should have been known for all time as  “Simchat Torah,” a day of rejoicing with the Torah. Instead, Moshe’s return to the camp went unnoticed by the people below, who were too busy worshipping the golden calf to pay any attention to him or to the gift he had brought down to them. And then, at that very same spot, Moshe, who had no part in the inconceivable sin, prayed and pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of the nation. At that very spot, the detour began, and it is the narrative of that detour that comprises the next two books of the Torah - a long, arduous, 39- year trek that should have taken only 11 days.

When we stood at Sinai, we had been heartbreakingly close to our destination, but we lost track of time. We concerned ourselves with Moshe’s tardiness, and paid no attention to the fact that we had, in fact, lost our grasp on time itself, and turned an eleven-day journey into decades of wandering.

Rashi offers a fascinating insight into this eleven-day distance: When we finally made the journey in earnest, it only took three days. (Rashi on Devarim 1:2)

In fact, this peculiar, kaleidoscopic time-line is more relevant to our lives than it might seem at first glance. Time is a strange and slippery concept: Often, there are life-lessons that normally take years to learn, which can be acquired in a flash, in a lightning-bolt of clarity, in what is known as an “ah-hah! moment.” On the long and winding road, a short and direct route is suddenly illuminated.  Other times, we see the light yet repeatedly ignore the message; repeating the same mistakes over and over, we force ourselves to take unnecessary detours and to expend our emotional, intellectual and physical energy going around in circles.

Our normal perception of time is linear and constant; we are, by and large, “captives on a carousel of time,” unable to break through, to transcend. Yet there are some people (and some situations) who manage to break these boundaries. Unfortunately, it often takes a cataclysm to grab our attention. We are only shaken out of our reverie by personal or national crises – or worse. This is the lesson of the first few words of the Book of Devarim: It took the Jewish People thirty-nine years to achieve what we should have accomplished in eleven days, but when we were finally ready – spiritually alert, attentive, and willing to take step up to meet our destiny - the eleven-day journey was completed in three days.

All these years after the destruction of the Temple, it is clear to us that we have taken a two-thousand-year detour. But it should be equally clear to us that we are – and always have been – heartbreakingly close to our destination. The final distance can be achieved in days, minutes, perhaps even seconds – when we are finally ready to take those last few holy steps.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

                                       Echoes of Eden 

Audio and Lectures Parashat Dvarim and Tisha B’Av

Audio and Lectures Parashat Dvarim and Tisha B’Av
Parashat Dvarim – Tisha B’Av 5775 -It’s About Time
The Price of Hatred
Special for 5th of Av Yahzeit of the AriZal
Safed (Tzfat)
with Hebrew –
Feeling Small
with Hebrew –
The Words of Moses
The relationship between the 17th of Tamuz and Tisha BAv
Playing Hide and Seek with God (Tisha Bav)
Sources of Hatred
Belief in God's Words
Moshe's words
Dynamics of Prayer

Tisha B’Av
Bava Ben Buta; The Blind Man who saw the Impending Churban
3 Sins Of Tisha Bav
9 Bav
9 Days Part 1
9 Days Part 2
Kol Vyad TishaBav
The Churban
Giants and Grasshoppers
The Carpenter The Apprentice And His Wife
Tisha Bav 08 Hebrew
The Source of Hatred
Tisha Bav 5767 Hebrew
Tisha Bav 5767  the sin of the spies
Tisha Bav 5769 Chillul Hashem And Churban
Tisha Bav Laws of mourning
Tisha Bav -Two brothers
When Tisha B'Av Falls on Shabbat (are marital relations allowed)
5772-When Tisha Bav falls on Shabbat the fast is pushed to Sunday - Are there any laws of Tisha Bav on Shabbat? Are laws of private mourning intact? Are sexual relations allowed? Is the fast on Sunday a "bona fide" Tisha B'Av?

לימוד וליבון הסוגיע "שבת שחל בט' באב" דין של שבת ושל צום נדחה
Rabbi Tzadok; Feeling the Pain of the Community
Playing Hide and Seek with God (Tisha Bav)
Tisha Bav as a Holiday or Moed, sin of the Golden calf and the repercussions. Finding God in sorrow
Tisha Bav , the 17th of Tammuz and mistaken calculations
were the city walls breached on the 9th or 17th of Tammuz? strange answer in the Yerushalmi  shiur in Hebrew
Tisha Bav 5773 Because of a Rooster and a Hen
the destruction of Tur Malka as told in the Gemara in Gitten, a town that lost its identity.
The Sins which caused the Churban
5774-The biblical antecedents to the sins which destroyed the Temple
Sources of Hatred
5774-Biblical antecedents to the idea of Hatred.
Tu Bav
The idea behind an obscure holiday