MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN RABBI:
THE TROUBLED LIFE OF RABBI TZVI HIRSCH FERBER PART THREE
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber (1883-1966) was a Lithuanian-born Torah scholar who spent most of his adult life as the spiritual leader of a small community in the West End of London. He remained there for over 50 years, struggling to maintain his dignity and his principles in a setting that was completely indifferent to the things he found important. His relationship with the lay-leadership of his community, as well as with his fellow employees, was fraught with difficulty and tension, as they were all people devoid of any sensitivity to Jewish ritual law and they tended to run the synagogue as a moneymaking operation, without taking Jewish law or the rabbi into consideration.
In the first two article of this series, Rabbi Dunner began to tell the story of Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs, which he began writing as a cathartic literary project following the death of his wife in 1934. The memoirs were not published during Rabbi Ferber’s lifetime, despite the publication of numerous other books he had authored, and despite the great effort he put into compiling the memoirs over many years. Initially Rabbi Dunner had no thoughts of publishing the memoirs; his interest in them was purely curiosity. But once he had read them and it became evident how important Rabbi Ferber’s personal story was, he decided to prepare the memoirs for publication. There were still a few hurdles and considerations, however, and in this article Rabbi Dunner describes the process that has led to the memoirs being published for the very first time.
Before sharing the memoirs with you, let me first share with you some concerns and housekeeping matters that needed careful consideration before the memoirs were published.
As I read through the memoirs I noticed numerous repetitions, but rather than becoming an editor who ruthlessly excludes any material that renders the narrative too verbose, I decided to keep editing down to an absolute minimum. Only where a change was needed for a sentence to flow, or on the rare occasions where a word was illegible, I stepped in to make sure the narrative flowed properly. I decided that it was not appropriate to turn this unique composition into a scholarly publication of some ancient manuscript. The memoirs were not written by Rabbi Ferber to be dissected and analysed by a bunch of university trained academics, to then be published so that a handful of other intellectuals could read it and then use a few choice quotes for their obscure articles in academic journals. Absolutely not! Rabbi Ferber wrote the memoirs so that all those who could benefit from reading them would have the chance to do so. And I saw my job as the editor to ensure that I would carry out those wishes properly.
But there was one issue that I really grappled with as I prepared the manuscript for publication – whether or not to include the names of Rabbi Ferber’s antagonists. It is clear from the original manuscript that Rabbi Ferber himself was unsure how to proceed on this point. In many cases he included only the first and last letter of a name. In other instances he added a missing name into the text at a later date. Often names that are hidden from the reader in one chapter are explicitly included in the following chapter, sometimes in relation to the same event. Obviously, many of the names of his antagonists will mean nothing to the contemporary reader. They are the names of long forgotten individuals who were in positions of power within Rabbi Ferber’s community, and who abused that power often to the detriment of Jewish law and community life. On other occasions, however, the names he mentions are of distinguished rabbis who to this day are held in high regard. Indeed, it is often in the case of this latter category that Rabbi Ferber purposely writes the full names! It was this fact and a chance piece of luck that helped me decide how to proceed on this point – whether to include names or whether to delete them completely.
Some years ago I wrote a letter that was published in the letters page of the Jewish Chronicle, a newspaper in London that caters for a wide spectrum of the Jewish community. I appealed for anyone with relevant information, or photos, or other material that I might find helpful in the publication of the Ferber memoirs, to get in contact with me. The letter resulted in a great response, and I was deluged with excited emails from people who remembered Rabbi Ferber or his family. But one of the replies was different from the others. It was from Rabbi Ferber’s great-grandson, who informed me that he was about to publish the memoirs of Rabbi Ferber’s son-in-law, Chaim Lewis, who had recently passed away. I eagerly inquired if Chaim had written anything about Rabbi Ferber in his memoirs, and was informed me that he had, and shortly afterwards I received the book, which included a whole chapter about Rabbi Ferber. The chapter was fascinating, as was the entire book, and having known Chaim Lewis well, I found that his autobiography truly encapsulated his fascinating character and shed light on his interesting and eventful life.
What particularly struck me within the chapter on Rabbi Ferber was in relation to the names inclusion dilemma, as it emerged out of an episode that almost resulted in the publication of the memoirs during his lifetime:
The rabbi, gentle and forgiving in most things, was implacable in his opposition to those who sought to ‘modernize’ Judaism. Any brand of Reform was anathema to him. He insisted that Judaism represented God’s way to man and man’s way to God – a rule of the spirit on which the whole order of Jewish existence depends. It was not to be treated as a human artifact for tinkering with. Those who did so had no understanding of its mysteries. He scorned the notion that Judaism must be made relevant to modern times – ‘relevant to the vanities of our day’ – ‘havlei ha’zeman’ – was how he dismissed it. ‘God stood above time – and his Torah, like the order of nature, was His immutable will revealed to us.’
He held fast to this conviction even to the point of severing relations with scholars for whom otherwise he had a great personal regard. One such scholar was a Professor Finkelstein from America – he pronounced the name ‘Finkelshtein’, Yiddish-fashion. He had first met the Professor at prayer in his synagogue. He was obviously a visitor and the Rabbi, as was his custom, extended a friendly word of welcome to such visitors. Week by week the Professor would attend the service, taking particular pleasure in the Rabbi’s drosha which followed the sabbath afternoon service.
Out of these brief encounters there soon ripened a friendship between the two scholars. From time to time the Rabbi would tell the family at home of a remarkable scholar he had met in ‘shul’. He seemed as much taken by the Professor’s family background as by his Judaic learning. He gloried in genealogies. Mention a family name and the place of origin – it might be some obscure shtetl in the backwoods of the Jewish Pale – and he would have the details of whatever distinction that family can lay claim to. Rabbis and other notabilities however far back in the family line were for him a cause for due pride. He likened the noble Jewish family – the ‘mishpocha’ – to the cedars of Lebanon; they were the proud bearers of the Temple of Judaism.
The Professor apparently spent all his summer vacations in London. They were working holidays for him, given over to research at the British Museum Reading Room. I can only presume that he found in the Rabbi of Soho a happy distraction from his labors. He was his sabbath retreat and delight. There were occasions, I learnt later, when on his visits to the Rabbi he brought with him some of his distinguished students. They had only history’s report of the image of a Rabbi in the great Lithuanian tradition – here was its living exemplar.
When the Rabbi was in hospital recovering from an operation – it was his first experience of hospital life and the devoted work of the nurses who tended him – the Professor would come to visit him, bringing him a basket of fruit and the shared joy of scholarly discourse.
For a long time I never troubled to look into the credentials of the Professor. For all I knew he might have been a Professor of Sanskrit. I was glad that the Rabbi had found a kindred spirit in him, one sharing his Orthodox faith and devotion to Judaic learning. Because of his short stays in London I never had the good fortune of meeting him on any one of my regular visits to the Rabbi. I was particularly happy to learn that the Professor who had a publication fund in his gift had volunteered to publish one of the Rabbi’s works. The Rabbi was a prolific writer; his works alone took up a shelf of space in his vast library – mainly commentaries on the Bible and other homiletic and Halachic works. He had just completed his autobiography and it was this manuscript that the Professor had agreed to sponsor. [My underlining. P.D.]
It was only then that it dawned on me that the Professor ‘Finkelshtein’, in the Rabbi’s pronunciation of the name, was none other than Professor Louis I. Finkelstein, the distinguished Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He was the author of a number of notable works on the Pharisees. I was familiar with much of his writing and was greatly impressed by it. However his obvious links with the Conservative faction of Reform would distress the Rabbi. Should I now tell him of this and disturb what basically was an innocuous friendship? In the meantime the Professor had sent an advance towards the publication of the Rabbi’s manuscript.
Chance now takes a hand. The London Jewish Chronicle of that week had just arrived; it was a festive bumper number. As a rule the Rabbi took little interest in its pages. He got his news of the Jewish world through the Hebrew and Yiddish press. He had only a basic knowledge of English. This time for no apparent reason he picked up the Jewish Chronicle to scan its headlines. As he flicked through the pages he caught sight of a large portrait picture of the Professor and the article accompanying it. His curiosity was aroused. For all his meager English he guessed the drift of it and discovered for the first time to his profound sorrow that the Professor was one of those who in the Talmudic phrase ‘had learned and strayed from the path’. There and then he went to his desk, drafted a formal letter of thanks enclosing the check he had received. It marked the end of a truly disinterested friendship.
There is so much in this short episode that truly describes the greatness of Rabbi Ferber – his unconditional love of every Jew, his ability to connect and communicate with those so distant from his own perspective, and his absolute integrity when it came to his principles. How he had toiled on his memoirs. How happy he must have been when his American friend agreed to finance their publication. And how disappointed he must have been when he had felt compelled to return the money to his benefactor. But return it he did and, as we know, he never got to publish his memoirs in his lifetime.
But the fact that he wished to publish his memoirs during his lifetime, and in particular during the time that he was friendly with Professor Finkelstein, which must have been in the mid-to-late 1950s, is particularly revealing with regard to the names he had obscured in the text of the narrative written until that time. The names that were left out were all of his employers and colleagues at the synagogue of which he was the rabbi – the names of the president, the board, the cantor, the secretary – all of whom might have caused terrible problems for him and endangered his livelihood had they been explicitly named in uncomplimentary ways in the memoirs – and nothing written about them was complimentary!
So Rabbi Ferber decided that although it was important to publish in full detail the stories of the terrible behaviour of the employees and their supporters at his synagogue, and even if there was no transgression of the Jewish laws of slander in naming them, his livelihood was certainly more important than mentioning their names. The first and last letter of their names would be enough and would not get him into trouble. The names of those unconnected with his livelihood, however, even if they were important people, considered by others to be from the most prominent rabbis and communal activists of the time, were not to be spared – they could be named and shamed, and this is why he left their names in, clearly and explicitly.
So it was clear to me what I should do. Rabbi Ferber deliberately included the names of those who he criticized, unless the mention of their names would affect his livelihood. As none of the people he mentioned in this context could affect his livelihood anymore, it being fifty years since he died, and as Rabbi Ferber clearly felt there was some positive benefit in mentioning the names of his antagonists, not only was there no longer any reason to leave any names out, I believed it was my obligation to include each and every name.
So this is exactly what I have done. No one can be offended if the names of long forgotten desecrators of Jewish law, enemies of Torah and its obligations who tried to undermine Rabbi Ferber every step of his career, are included in his published memoirs. But there might be those who are critical when they read long forgotten negative facts and stories about rabbis and strictly observant Jews who in some way crossed swords with Rabbi Ferber, and whose names he felt ought to be mentioned with reference to whatever the matter was. But I have nevertheless chosen to remain faithful to Rabbi Ferber himself, who clearly meant for the names of all his antagonists to be published for all to see – and as I have relied on Rabbi Ferber’s own wishes, on his Torah wisdom, I am sure that even those critical of this decision will hold their peace.
There is one more thing that I wish to mention. It relates to the omission of some names and stories, omissions so remarkable and startling, that I am not sure myself how to interpret them. I will leave it as a riddle for you to puzzle over and try to understand. There are quite a few episodes of consequence that Rabbi Ferber simply leaves out of his narrative. These were matters of importance which must have been known to him, and about which he must have had some opinion. The one that is most obvious to me, as I am writing a separate book about its protagonist and his life, is the infamous episode of the London based Rabbi Joseph Shapotshnick and his spurious dispensation for Agunot, also known as ‘chained wives’, to remarry, endorsed by what turned out later to be the forged signatures of several prominent European rabbis.
Six hundred of Shapotshnick’s rabbinic colleagues from around the world, including the leading rabbi of Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, and the leading Polish Hasidic leader of the era, the Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter, signed a public declaration against Rabbi Shapotshnick in 1928. A number of English rabbis were amongst the signatories on the anti-Shapotshnick declaration. But not Rabbi Ferber. Nor does he mention the whole episode in his memoirs, despite the fact that it rocked the rabbinic world at the time. It is hard to know why – I simply mention it as an example of a noteworthy omission.
But this, and any other omission pale into insignificance in relation to an omission that occurs in the very first few pages of the memoirs. In these pages Rabbi Ferber describes in great detail, and with great enthusiasm, the town of Slabodka in which he grew up. He talks about the history of the Jewish community in Slabodka, and of course Kovno – the neighbouring larger town. He recalls great events. He details the positive and negative attributes of the various rabbis who lived in Slabodka. It seems that he leaves nothing out, until you realize that he has left out the one person who the world – to this day – most identifies with Slabodka – the man known as the “Alter of Slabodka”, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the founder and spiritual mentor of the Knesset Yisrael Yeshiva, which moved to Hebron in 1924, where its students were massacred by Arabs in 1929.
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel lived in Slabodka before Rabbi Ferber was born and left Slabodka long after Rabbi Ferber had moved to England. The whole of Slabodka was made up of a few insignificant streets – it was a tiny little town. Rabbi Ferber even mentions the Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Finkel’s yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, and in the same connection he mentions Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. But Rabbi Finkel’s name is not mentioned once.
As Rabbi Ferber himself makes clear, he studied at the rival Knesset Beit Yitzchak yeshiva in Slabodka, so he obviously belonged to the ‘anti-mussar’ faction in the famous dispute he describes that led to the fateful split in Slabodka yeshiva. His reverence for Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, the rabbi of Kovno, who was universally recognized in his day as the world’s leading rabbi and after whom the yeshiva was named, as well as for Rabbi Spektor’s son and successor, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinovitch, is evident from the narrative. But this, and his allegiance to Knesset Beit Yitchok, does not explain the omission of Rabbi Finkel’s name. Furthermore, it is obvious that Rabbi Ferber was not in principle ‘anti mussar’. He describes how Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, a devoted disciple of the founder of the mussar movement Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, made a strong impression on him, and elsewhere he mentions how he used mussar in his own homilies and public addresses to exhort and influence his audience. Moreover, he was married to Rabbi Salanter’s great-niece, as he mentions with great pride on a number of occasions.
So can we draw the conclusion that the ‘anti mussar’ faction in the Slabodka yeshiva in fact an ‘anti Rabbi Finkel’ faction? Is it possible that this controversy was primarily due to personality clashes rather than a clash of principles? And whatever the answer to these questions, did Rabbi Ferber decide not to mention Rabbi Finkel because he did not want to mention anything bad about someone widely considered – at least by the time the memoirs were written – as a great and revered leader, even if this was not Rabbi Ferber’s own view? Or did he not mention Rabbi Finkel because he felt that saying nothing about his role in the dispute would be dishonest, and that as nothing negative could be written about him, even if it was true, it would be best not to mention him at all? Or was there some other reason why Rabbi Ferber did not mention him? Whatever the reason, the omission of Rabbi Finkel from the memoirs is a puzzle worth considering and I leave it to you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions.
With these words I can wrap up my introduction and begin to share Rabbi Ferber in his own words. The actual memoirs were written in Hebrew and will be published in full with copious footnotes when the editing process – currently in full swing with the help of an international team of scholars – is complete. The translation offered here in the columns of this newspaper will be extracted and somewhat abbreviated, arranged in such a way as to give you a taste of Rabbi Ferber’s troubled and eventful life.
NEXT TIME: IN RABBI FERBER’S OWN WORDS – “MEMORIES OF MY YOUTH IN SLABODKA, AND THE HISTORY OF THIS UNIQUE JEWISH COMMUNITY”