Courtesy Agudath Israel of America
Courtesy Agudath Israel of America
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The Novominsker Rebbe, My Cousin

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who died of the coronavirus at 89, was a person of deeds who wanted to inspire us. How can we emulate him?

Susannah Heschel
May 12, 2020
Courtesy Agudath Israel of America
Courtesy Agudath Israel of America

With the tragic death of each great rabbi, the Mishnah Sotah teaches, all Israel is diminished and bereft: We lose the unique gifts of that individual person who has taught and guided us. Yet it is not the same view from heaven: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:14).

The Novominsker rebbe, zz”l, died from the horrific COVID-19 plague, and we are diminished by the loss of an extraordinary person, a rebbe who guided us, uplifted us; a bridge builder and a model of how to be a Jew. His grandfather and my grandmother were twins, back in Warsaw. Their pictures are on my living room wall, his picture hangs above my desk, and a small photo of his father is in my wallet. How odd, some might think, that the grandchildren of these twins would lead such divergent lives.

Since his death, many have written about private meetings with the rebbe and the ways he helped them—with a show of public kindness for a young boy who felt alienated from his peers, with generosity and sympathy for a husband or wife who had lost a close family member. Together with the rebbetzin, his home was open, and he was always available to listen, console and advise. From him I learned that human kindness brings people to deeper devotion to God.

The Novominsker came from an extraordinary lineage of Hasidic rebbes, including the Rizhiner, the Kotzker, the Chernobler, and Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. His grandfather, Alter Shimon Yisroel Perlow of Warsaw, had established the first Hasidic yeshiva in Poland. An illustrious lineage can leave some people overwhelmed and intimidated, while others rebel; what is extraordinary is how the Novominsker took his distinguished heritage and extended its significance.

Rare among Hasidic rebbes today, the Novominsker had a university education and studied under the very distinguished rabbinic authority, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zz”l, director of the Chaim Berlin yeshiva, which embodies the Lithuanian school of Talmud study in New York City. Subsequently, the Novominsker taught at the modern Orthodox yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois, and then the Samson Raphael Hirsch yeshiva in New York, which represents German Orthodoxy’s Breuer community.

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow in 2019

What was his message? To build bridges. When he established the Novominsker yeshiva in Brooklyn, he declared “The Beis Halevi and Kedushas Levi will sit side by side on the shelf, equally cherished.” That is, the works of both Brisk and Berdichev that had been worlds apart would now be studied in concert. His yeshiva brought together the punctilious observance of mitzvot based on the intensive Talmud study cultivated by the methods of the Lithuanian yeshivas with the piety, kavana, and gentleness of Hasidic practice and tradition.

Appointed head of Agudas Yisroel and the president of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in 1998, he brought profound Talmud learning—he authored the Eidas Yaakov, a commentary on the Talmud—as well as a wide view of the world to that august position. I could talk with him about the latest scholarship in Israel in Jewish studies just as easily as family matters.

This unusual combination of learning was clear in his many speeches to gatherings of Agudas Yisroel and Torah Umesorah: He was deeply learned in rabbinics and sharply intelligent, but he also had a tenderness of heart and a capacious soul. To hear his speeches was to realize that he didn’t simply speak for himself but embodied his family heritage. At the Agudos Yisroel gatherings, his speeches included calls to overcome division: Jews must pray for all Jews, “acheinu klal Yisroel.” When the editors of the new Haredi magazine, Mishpocha, went to the Novominsker for a brocha, he told them its focus should be “Ahavas Eretz Yisrael,” to “show the chein and kedushah of Eretz Yisrael.”

At the same time, his speeches often included diatribes against innovations; he was opposed to “open Orthodoxy” and to many of the changes brought about by the Jewish feminist movement, and he also rejected state interference in Jewish religious life, including efforts to stop metzitza b’peh at the bris. I didn’t always agree with him any more than I expected him to agree with me, but I respected him, and I looked for common ground. Most of all, I felt inspired by his courage and his kindness.

But he did not always reject the state, nor did he disparage science or medicine. On the contrary, in a video he recorded shortly before his death, he warned us that we are now confronted by a terrible disease, COVID-19, and we have to close our synagogues and yeshivas, though prayer and learning continue. He was firm: “We must know the facts from the infectious disease specialists … And it is Halacha, Jewish law, to obey the doctors and stay home to save lives.”

As the leader of Agudos Yisroel, the Novominsker concerned himself with all aspects of Jewish life. He worried about those who had given up the observance of mitzvot but also worried about those Haredi Jews who might have lost their way, whether mired in personal unhappiness or losing the ruach and kavana in their observance. To him, we were all one, all Jews as a family, and for the Novominsker, family was all-important.

From his mother’s Kotzker heritage, the Novominsker knew that the Kotzker rebbe had taught that our Judaism must be authentic to who we are; to be Jewish in imitation of others would be spiritual plagiarism. The Kotzker transmitted a teaching of Simcha Bunam: Though the Torah was given but once, it must be received every day. The giving of Torah was offered in equal measure to all of Israel, but the acceptance of Torah was not the same for everybody, since each individual acquires it according to his spiritual capacity.

While the Novominsker never endorsed changes in Jewish law or observance, the Kotzker’s views are reflected in his understanding and love of his extended family. He accepted those of us who fall outside the Agudos Yisroel framework: Family must be close and caring, he said at the funeral of our cousin, Miriam Rabinowicz, the daughter of the Bialer rebbe who had become an artist.

There are many people in the world to admire: Brilliant scholars who dazzle us and write important books with all sorts of new insights. There are pious Jews whom we respect for their devotion to God and Torah. But the Novominsker was different. He was brilliant and he was pious, certainly, but he was not the sort of person to be placed on a pedestal and admired from afar; rather, he was a person of deeds who wanted to inspire us. How can we emulate him?

The Novominsker was the head of Agudas Yisroel, the international organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews, while I am professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a place of limited Yiddishkeit. I am not a rebbe but I have met rebbes and I think of them and try to incorporate something of their values in my life. I think of the Novominsker, of his immense learning, his self-discipline, his intellectual acuity, his effort to know the world and not shy away from it. More important, I am inspired by his warmth and kindness; he was a true Hasidic rebbe who opened his heart to all who came to him seeking advice and comfort, and he listened, offered understanding and support, gestures of kindness that brought them closer to God, Torah and mitzvot.

How can I transmit some of the Novominsker’s rebbeshe qualities to my students? I give them lectures on Jewish history, they read and memorize the facts, repeat them on the exams, and master the material. But what of the essence? What I want them to know is something of the Jewish spirit that, for me, has been revealed to me by the Hasidic rebbes I have known. My father used to say that schools do not need more textbooks, they need more text people—teachers whose qualities of spirit the students learn to emulate.

Shimon bar Yochai teaches, “Honor the mitzvot, for the mitzvot are my deputies, and a deputy is endowed with the authority of his principal. If you honor the mitzvot, it is as if you have honored me; if you dishonor them, it is as if you dishonored me.” At times, Jews can fall victim to a focus on the Shulchan Aruch that obscures our vision. We can think that as long as our observance of Halacha is strict, we are good Jews. The Novominsker came to remind us of Shimon bar Yochai’s teaching, that the mitzvot are deputies of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, prayers in the form of a deed, vehicles to bring us closer to God’s presence and to expand God’s presence in our world.

Blessed is the life of the zaddik; precious to God is his soul.

Susannah Heschel is a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.

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