How Should We Relate to the Passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky?

How should our broader modern orthodox community relate to the death of Rav Chaim Kanievsky?  He was the Sar HaTorah (Prince of Torah) of the Charedi camp and he was different than someone like Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach or Rav Ovadia Yosef.  The latter three Gedolei HaDor (Torah giants) were communal leaders and routinely issued halachic guidance on so many contemporary issues from which our community benefits.  Other than those who went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky for brachos, there seemed to be less to connect with Gadol HaDor  than to other Gedolei HaDor affiliated the Charedi community.  How then do we connect to Rav Chaim Kanievsky?

First, we connect to him on a personal level as someone who was a walking sefer Torah.  He knew all the Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Midrashim and major works of halacha by heart.  He made a siyum every year on all of Zohar, Tanach, Mishna Berura, Rambam, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Shas Bavli, Tosefta, Shas Yerushalmi, Midrashim, Kisvei HaAri and Kisvei HaRamchal.  Every day he studied eleven pages of Zohar, ten chapters of Tehillim, eight chapters of Tanach, ten Simanim of Mishna Berura, eight chapters of Rambam, ten Simanim of Tur and Shulchan Aruch, eight pages of Talmud Bavli, eight pages of Talmud Yerushalmi, eight chapters of Midrashim, eight pages of Kitvei HaAri and eight pages of Kitvei Ha’Ramchal.  Then he would write his Torah insights.  He did this day in day out for decades.  With his passing, there absolutely is nobody alive who can even come close to his breadth of knowledge of our holy Torah and there is nobody who can match his diligence.  Yes, we lost a literal walking sefer Torah.

In Masechet Brachot 34b, there is a famous Talmudic debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as to whether we should earn a living and learn the Torah or just learn Torah all day and rely on God to provide for us.  Rabbi Yishmael espouses the former view and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai espouses the latter view.  Abaye makes a sociological comment that many people tried to follow Rabbi Yishmael’s approach and succeeded and many people tried to follow Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s approach and did not succeed.  However, the Biur Halacha (Siman 156) points out that even though most people were not successful adopting the Torah-only model, some individuals were successful in adopting this model.   Rav Chaim Kanievsky was the embodiment of this approach.  He lived in a simple home with modest accommodations and he lived and breathed Torah day and night.

Notwithstanding his unparalleled mastery and commitment to Talmud Torah, I can understand why many in our community may not feel connected to this loss.  He represents a world that may seem foreign to us.  He represents a world of intensive Torah study for men but not for women.  He represents a world of a Torah-only and not a Torah u’Madda approach and all that that distinction entails.  For me, his world is not a foreign world.  It is a world of Beit Shammai versus Beit Hillel.  Even in areas where I disagree with the Charedi world, I often am able to understand the sources Charedi Poskim rely upon for their approach.  I recall reading an article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein where he pointed out that whereas he supported the Hesder Yeshiva movement, nevertheless, the “non-Hesder/Torah-only” movement is backed by Torah leaders, also has a religious tradition, and is also legitimate.  He wrote that “hesder is at least as legitimate a path as any other.  It is to my mind, a good deal more; but surely not less.”  His disagreement with other Torah leaders about the Hesder Yeshiva movement essentially became a classic debate similar to the debates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.  Disagreements that I may have with this community come from a sense of a shared Torah tradition.  Therefore, to me, the loss of Rav Chaim Kanievsky represents the loss of a leader of the broader Torah world of which I am a part.

Perhaps his loss hit home for me in a very real way because this past Shabbat I visited my brother-in-law’s community in North Miami Beach for my nephew’s bar mitzvah.  My brother-in-law is the Rosh Kollel of the North Miami Beach Kollel, which is a classic Lakewood Kollel.  My brother-in-law and I have a different perspective about a whole host of hashkafic topics.  At the same time, I have tremendous respect for all that he has accomplished in that community where he has created an atmosphere where Torah study is more than a mitzvah.  It’s a lifestyle, and people are running for more and more opportunities to study Torah.   I am reminded of the famous debate in Menachot 99b as to whether we should tell people that they can fulfill the mitzvah of daily Torah study through the recitation of Keriat Shema or not.  Will informing them of that fact that discourage them from studying any more Torah than the minimum or will that encourage them to study more Torah than the minimum? This debate reflects a concern of how to best teach people the preciousness of Torah study; to convey that it’s not simply a mitzvah but it’s the engine that drives our religious life.

I recently had a discussion with someone who suggested that maybe Torah study is not for everyone.  I disagreed based on the belief there is something for everyone in Torah study.  We just have to work hard until we find it. While not everything that Rav Kanievsky represented may resonate with each of us, there is no question that his attitude toward Torah study is something to which we should all aspire. Rav Chaim Kanievsky was the physical embodiment of what it means to live and breathe Torah in all ways.  In this way, this loss is enormous for all of us.

Yes, in our modern orthodox community, we believe that both men and women should engage in intensive Torah study and women should not be content to simply support their husband’s diligence in Torah study.  And maybe we also believe that most of us need to follow Rabbi Yishmael’s model and earn a living alongside Torah.  And maybe we also believe in the value of a secular education for its own sake.  Even with all that, Rav Chaim Kanievsky represents someone who showed all of us how much potential we have as human beings to push ourselves in Talmud Torah and how important it is to constantly grow in our Torah study.  It may be hard for us to translate those values into our world when both men and women are expected to study Torah intensively, when we are expected to work and when we are expected to value secular education, as well.  But the memory of the Sar HaTorah has perhaps shown us that maybe we can view Torah study as a lifestyle, not just a mitzvah, and maybe, going forward, we can push ourselves to learn a little bit more each and every day.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.