Jacob B. Ukeles

Remembering a Great Man

Yesterday was the yahrzeit of my beloved teacher, Rav Yehuda Gershuni Z”L.

My rebbe was a passionate man. Most of all he was passionate about Torah: he personified  תורה לשמהhe loved Torah for its own sake. He was passionate about the land of Israel and the state of Israel. He loved the Jewish people and adored his children and grandchildren. But he was also passionate about life – as it is written, ובחרת בחיים  — choose life, even though personal tragedy sometimes made it seem as if life has not chosen him.

Rav Yehuda Gershuni, Z”L, was born on שמחת תורה in Grodno, Poland, probably in 1908. As a child he studied Talmud with his grandfather, Rabbi David Bublik. It soon became apparent that the child was a prodigy, and by the time he was eighteen he was famous in the yeshiva world of Europe as the Grodner Illui – the genius from Grodno. He studied for five years with the famed Talmudic scholar, Reb Baruch Ber Leibowitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Kaminetz yeshiva. In 1933, he went to Eretz Yisrael to study with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel and great scholar, philosopher and mystic. Rav Gershuni soon became one of the bright lights of the yeshiva. It was Rav Kook who encouraged him to hebraize his name – he decided to change it from Sorokszabel to Gershuni – son of Gershon, his father’s name.

His passing, 22 years ago, marked the end of an era – he was the last surviving student of Rav Kook. He was a Torah giant who was so secure in his knowledge of, and commitment to, Torah that he never, ever, ever looked over his shoulder to see what those on the religious right of him would say. He always formulated a halachic position based on what he believed to be true –without arrogance, without pomp and circumstance. His highest halachic accolade was  שכל הישר— straight thinking. He never tried to make the halacha fit a predetermined answer. He typically followed a halachic orientation towards   קולא(leniency). But he was a liberal in halachic decision-making not because he looked for the easy way out, but because he believed   “”דרכיה דרכי נועם  — the ways of the Torah are pleasant. Halacha should be humane, and the Torah is a path for living. He never spent a day in college but received an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University.

Beyond his scholarly achievement, he had a great vision for Judaism. He believed that Judaism was about the struggle to develop big answers to big questions, such as: the meaning of life; the relationship between the finite world we live in and the infinite one; the role of humankind on Earth; what it means that humankind was created in the image of God; the tension between free will and predestination; the nature and meaning of Clal Yisrael; the tension between obligation and choice in Judaism.

While fully observant, he believed that the obsession with the minutiae of halachic practice was not authentic Judaism. When confronted with the latest חומרא (stringency), he would snort derisively and dismiss the new prohibition as “frumkeit” (excessive piety) or “dinimlach (minor regulations). He felt that attaching too much importance to the details of practice diverted one’s energy and attention from the important questions, demeaned our religion, and was disrespectful to God the infinite one.

He did not associate himself with the incorporation of right-wing Orthodox practice into modern Orthodoxy. He pointed out, for example, that the wives of great Torah scholars in Lithuania did not covert their hair. He viewed Glatt kosher meat as an arbitrary grafting together of the more stringent aspects  of Ashkenazi and Sephardic halachic traditions that have evolved over nearly a thousand years. Like many Torah greats in Lithuania and Poland he was clean-shaven and wore regular clothes. He did not need to be bearded or to wear 18th century clothing to be one of our greatest Talmudic scholars. In Meah Shearim, his books were used but hidden under the table. They could not resist his scholarship but would not acknowledge it because he was a Tzioni (Zionist).

Like his revered teacher, Rav Kook, he believed deeply in the literal one-ness of the Jewish people.  He was patient with lack of practice, and sympathetic in the face of questions about belief. He felt that questions about belief were a sign of a religious struggle, but ignorance of Jewish texts and Jewish history saddened and angered him.

He had a great feeling for the underdog. When grievously underpaid yeshiva teachers wanted to strike for minimal pay, the leadership of the yeshivot persuaded Rav Moshe Feinstein to forbid it. The teachers turned to Rav Gershuni who promptly wrote a תשובה (responsum) explaining why a strike was permissible.

During the years that I had the privilege of studying with him, the full range of traditional Jewish scholarship was on the table. Whoever had the best ideas and insights would be cited – right wing, left wing, first century, 20th century – it was all grist for the mill.  The Zohar – the ultimate Jewish mystical text was just as likely to be quoted in a discourse as  the Chazon Ish, the 20th century right wing scholar and decisor.

But we had our heroes – Don Isaac Abarbanel, the Maharal of Prague, Rav Chaim Volozhin, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), and of course, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. These figures represented authentic Jewish scholarship of the highest degree in the context of an openness to the world. The Aruch Hashulchan was our halachic guide because  it is a code of Jewish law where the evolution of the halacha is transparent.

Rav Gershuni had an astonishing grasp of the depth and breadth of Talmudic literature, was incredibly creative in deriving modern applications from traditional sources and was absolutely fearless in pursuing truth as he saw it. When he would share an insight from the Torah, it was as if he were suffused with light – you could feel him soar and he would take you along,  so generous, so loving. And he is so missed.

About the Author
Jack Ukeles is the president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a planning, policy research, and management firm for Jewish communities and organizations in the US, Israel, and world-wide.