Poland Thoughts: Part Two

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Travelling in Poland is emotionally moving and exhilarating at the same time. In the morning after minyan, Rabbi Michael Shudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, spoke to our group. He immediately began by addressing the question of why Jews live in Poland today, and by extension, why a rabbi would move from America and spend his working life in Poland. The short answer is that while 90% of the Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, 10% or some 350,000 Jews (more than the current Jewish population of Canada) survived. And while many left, many did not. As long as there are Jews who remain in Poland, we need to provide services to them. 

While no one knows exactly how many Jews there are in Poland today, more and more people are discovering their Jewish roots. For example there are people who, after many years, are willing to admit to their Jewishness, and children who find out only after clearing out their parents' home after they pass away that they are in fact Jewish. Some come because the community offers subsidized education, camp programs, meals, and the like. To get their children into these programs, parents will begin to openly identify as Jews. One feels most comfortable walking in the street wearing a kippah--something one cannot say, for example, about walking the streets of France. 

We then visited the Museum of Polish Jewish history, which opened just this past November and chronicles, in a most creative fashion, 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. (Over that time, Poland included parts of what today are Russia and Lithuania). Interspersed throughout the museum are biographies of many of the important figures of Jewish life in Poland. One such exhibit featured the Vilna Gaon, the towering rabbinic figure of the 18th century. This giant mastered the entire breadth of Torah like no other. It was here that I saw, for the first time, an actual copy of his book on geometry, Ayal MeShulash. The Gra, as he is known,  is quoted by his student Rav Yisrael of Sklov as saying that for every aspect of science that one is missing, one will be missing ten times that amount of Torah. Torah requires mastery of all knowledge, and all knowledge is part of G-d's creation. 

What I found so beautifully ironic is that the person featured just adjacent was none other than the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidut. The influence of these two--to put it mildly--very different personas is incalculable. The Gaon raised the level of Torah learning to unprecedented heights and it was his students who created the modern Yeshiva movement. His influence is likely greater today than it was in his actual lifetime, during which he never held any official rabbinic position. Yet, almost by definition, learning was meant for elite and it was the Besht, as the Ba'al Shem Tov is known, who brought Torah to the masses--through prayer, song, food, and connection to a Rebbe. Nearby was a quote that reflected the tensions of the times that I paraphrase "if only the Vilna Gaon, the Besht, and Moshe Mendelssohn--the 18th century founder (or shall we say, precursor) of the Haskalah movement--if they could have cooperated..." If only we would learn to take the best of Lithuanian Torah scholarship, Chassidut, and Haskalah, the Jewish community would be so much better off.

From Warsaw, we travelled to Lublin, stopping in the cemetery that dates from the mid-16th century (and is much, much smaller than the cemetery in Warsaw). There, we were introduced to Rav Yaakov Pollak[1]. While his name is unknown to many, his influence is felt by all. He arrived in Poland in 1492 after a dispute with the beit din in Prague. While we associate 1492 with the Spanish expulsion--and Columbus' voyage to America (two events that may themselves be related), very few of us associate it with the beginning of Polish Torah Jewry. While Jews had lived in Poland for a few hundred years prior, it was Rav Yaakov Pollak who brought serious Torah learning to Poland. It was he who introduced the method of learning known as pilpul (one the Vilna Gaon strongly opposed). Buried nearby, was his student, Rav Shalom Shachna, the Rebbe and father-in-law of the Ramah, Rav Moshe Isserles, the great codifier of Ashkenazic law and Chief Rabbi of Krakow (where we look forward to spending Shabbat). By this time (and in no small part due to the Ramah), Poland was the centre of Torah learning in the Jewish world. 

A little further on was the kever of the Maharshal, Rav Shlomo Luria, whose comments on the Talmud appear at the back of the standard Vilna Shas. His magnum opus, the Yam shel Shlomo, is a detailed analysis of the Talmudic sugyah, in which he clarifyes how he arrives at his halachic decisions. The Mapah of the Ramah, as his comments to the Shulchan Aruch are known, and the Yam shel Shlomo offer two contrasting and competing approaches to rabbinic commentary, following later day codes vs. going back to the sources, a balance that is in constant tension. Clearly, in this particular "debate", the approach of the Ramah won out, and the Yam shel Shlomo is not often studied, while the Ramah is almost the last word in Ashkenazi p'sak. (Though the Yeshiva movement of today follows the approach of the Maharshal even at times ignoring codes of law.) 

Despite his different approach to that of the Ramah, it is in reference to Rav Moshe Isserles that Rav Luria wrote "from Moshe to Moshe, there arose none like Moshe". 

Moving into the "modern period", we stopped at the grave of Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, better known as the Chozeh of Lublin, the Seer of Lublin. It was he who brought Chassidut to Galicia (southern Poland--and where many of my roots lie) in the early part of the 19th century. 

Moving from the 19th to the 20th century, we arrived at our hotel, better known as the Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin. And what an absolutely beautiful and modern yeshiva it was. An architectural contest was held to determine the design of the building. Thousands--including Polish government and army officials--attended both the groundbreaking in 1924 and dedication of the building six years later. 

The Yeshiva was to be the centre of Torah leadership around the world, with its students specifically trained to become leaders. The entrance exam alone required one to "memorize" 400 pages of Talmud. One of the fascinating items of the daily schedule was the requirement at 10:00 each evening for students to write down the chiddushei Torah, novel Torah insights, they thought of during the day--and if they had none, to at least write chidushim they heard from others. Unlike the traditional yeshiva where students had to find places to eat and even sleep, the yeshiva was built complete with a dormitory and chadar ochel.

The yeshiva was the culmination of the vision of Rav Meir Shapiro, the young dynamic leader of the Agudah who, as mentioned in our last post, was a member of the Polish Sjem as the representative of Agudath Yisrael. Still in his thirties, he came to the Agudah Convention in Vienna in 1923 and proposed the radical idea of Jews around the world learning the same page of Talmud. When on the following Rosh Hashanah, the Gerer Rebbe began learning Masechet Brachot, daf yomi was born. To sit in the beit midrash he founded and learn daf yomi is a special feeling. 

Sadly, Rav Meir was barely able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He died in 1933 less than three years after the yeshiva was dedicated. Much more tragically, the yeshiva would last a mere nine years as the Nazi invasion of Poland put an end to the yeshiva. In 1930, no one could imagine what would happen less than a decade later, a most sobering and scary thought.  

[1] The identity of his tombstone is based on the scholarship of Professor Meir Balaban  who occupied the one and only chair in Jewish studies in all of Poland before the war. We "met" him at the cemetery in Warsaw.