Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Gustman, and the Legend of the Milkman

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Gustman, and the Legend of the Milkman

Rabbi Ari Kahn

For years there has been an urban legend circulating about a chance meeting between two great Talmudic scholars. The story is usually told as follows:

During the Yom Kippur war, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Harav Aharon Lichtenstein ZT”L, felt compelled to help in the war effort. His students were fighting valiantly at the front, and he felt the need to pitch in. Rav Aharon approached the Home-Front Command (or, in some versions of the story, the Jerusalem Municipality) and volunteered his services. A local milkman had been called up as an IDF reservist, and Rav Aharon gladly took over his delivery route.

One of the people he met on his route was the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Rameilis - Netzach Yeshiva, Rav Yisrael Ze’ev Gustman ZT”L. During this serendipitous meeting, the two Talmudic titans began discussing Talmud. Rav Gustman had no reason to believe that the clean-shaven milkman was, in actuality, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva. Duly impressed, Rav Gustman later remarked to one of his students how lucky he was to live in Jerusalem – where even the milkman is a “baki b’shas” (well-versed in the entirety of Talmud).

There are several problems with this story, the most serious of which is that the meeting it describes never happened. Here are some historical facts to consider:
·      Rav Aharon never volunteered as a milkman.
·      Rav Aharon and Rav Gustman were well acquainted long before this story supposedly transpired. When the Lichtenstein family moved to New York they lived in close proximity to Rav Gustman; Rav Aharon first met Rav Gustman when the former was still quite young. If memory serves me well, I was told that Rav Aharon  “inherited” his approach to some of the laws of blowing the shofar from Rav Gustman. Rav Aharon accepted as authoritative the sounds he had heard in his youth in Rav Gustman’s Beit Midrash.
·      Rav Aharon was well-known throughout the yeshiva world as a prodigy. Having grown up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where Rav Gustman lived and taught, it is highly unlikely that Rav Gustman did not know who Rav Aharon was. Additionally, Rav Aharon was a leading student of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, who was a very close friend of Rav Gustman; it is unlikely that the two Roshei Yeshiva did not discuss Rav Hutner’s brilliant young student.
·      My brother, Rav Yair, told me that on one occasion he went to speak with Rav Gustman about a complicated Talmudic passage. Rav Gustman asked him where he learned; when he informed him that he was a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rav Gustman responded, “Your Rosh Yeshiva is a great Talmud Hacham. Why are you asking me? You should be asking Rav Aharon.”
·      I personally recall seeing Rav Gustman at the Bar Mitzvah celebration of one of Rav Aharon’s sons.
·      Rav Aharon’s son told me that on Simhat Torah in 1973, while the Yom Kippur war was still raging, Rav Aharon took him and his brothers to the Netzach Yisrael Yeshiva for Hakafot. (As a Hesder yeshiva, Rav Aharon’s Yeshivat Har Etzion was empty: all the students were at war.)

All of these facts would seem to indicate that the story is no more than an urban legend. On the other hand, I was told many years ago that during the Yom Kippur war Rav Gustman had volunteered in a local hospital. The hospitals were short on staff, and Rav Gustman would spend his nights in the hospital, lending a hand and doing whatever he could to help out. This was his way of taking part in the war effort in a constructive way.

As I heard it, Rav Gustman came to the hospital every night. He helped change sheets, transported patients to and from operating rooms, and whatever else was needed. Before long, Rav Gustman struck up a friendship with one of the other young men who had come to volunteer, an earnest yeshiva student from overseas. This young man brought his Gemara, and when there was a lull in activity, he opened his Gemara and started to learn. Glancing up from his book, he noticed the elderly volunteer and asked if he would like to learn with him. The young man then proceeded to “teach” Rav Gustman Gemara during those precious moments of down-time in the hospital.

A few weeks later, this young yeshiva student received a warm recommendation from a fellow student, who told him about an exceptional Talmudic genius who had survived the Holocaust and was currently a Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The scholar, he was told, had been a dayan in the Beit Din of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski; in fact, he was the youngest scholar ever appointed to the famed Beit Din of Vilna.  The young volunteer seized the opportunity and went to hear a shiur from this great scholar. When he entered the Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Netzach Yisrael, he was shocked to see that the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva was none other than his chevrusa from the hospital.

Both of the stories repeated here are plausible, possible - and in the case of the second story, actually true – because they share one underlying element: the unassuming bearing and immense modesty of both Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Yisrael Zeev Gustman. I consider myself profoundly fortunate to have studied with both of these great men.

But what of the milkman? Recently, when I visited the home of the Lichtenstein family to pay a condolence call, I expressed my skepticism regarding the veracity of the milkman story, and asked Rav Aharon’s family if they had any idea how this urban legend got started. Was there another unassuming, clean-shaven baki b’shas wandering the streets of Jerusalem?
I was given the following answer:

When Rav Aharon Kotler came to visit Israel (where his father-in-law Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer was a leading rabbinic figure), there was some pressure placed upon him to stay and take on a post as a Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rav Aharon (Kotler) responded that he had met a milkman that morning in Jerusalem, and the man was proficient in all of Shas. Rav Aharon opined that in Lakewood, where the public is generally ignorant, he would be able to be a Rosh Yeshiva, but in Yerushalayim, where even the milkmen know all of Shas, he feels out of his league.

Apparently, “Rav Aharon” (Kotler), the protagonist in the original milkman story, was exchanged for Rav Aharon (Lichtenstein) in the later version of the milkman story; such is the nature of storytelling. Whether there ever was such a milkman or not – only Rav Aharon knows.


ari kahn said...

someone wrote me -with something he heard from R Benjy Levine on one of his walking tours of Nachlaot.
"During the time of the old yishuv, there were two very great talmidei chachamim, Reb Levi Yitchak gazman who supplied gas to the occupants of Jerusalem, and Reb Betzallel Milchiger, who supplied milk. it was said that when the two met in the street, they would inevitably engage each other in learning, and on such days Jerusalemites would have no milk and no gas.
When Rav Reuven Bengis arrived in Jerusalem to become Av Beis Din, he was involved in a complex halachic matter which he discussed with his colleagues which had them all stumped. Meanwhile Reb Betzallel arrived with the milk, heard the problem, and answered immediately to the effect that it was a Tosafos somewhere or the like. Rav Reuven was so awed that he wanted to resign from his post as he felt inadequate to be an av beis din of a city where even the milkmen were bekiim beshas. His colleagues on the beis din had to mollify him by assuring him that Reb Betzallel was no ordinary milkman. I think that is the origin of the urban legend. Perhaps it was attributed to Rav Ahron because of his similarly unassuming manner. who knows?"

ari kahn said...

Someone who learned with Rav Gustman wrote:
I heard this milkman story a few times during the past week and even told ... I don't believe it. However, there was a somewhat similar story told in the yeshiva about Rav Gustman and a Yemenite street cleaner who knew a tremendous amount of Torah, who Rav Gustman engaged in conversation outside the yeshiva shorty after his aliya and then commented upon in the way the legend reports him commenting upon Rav Aharon. While your surmise about the story of Rav Aharon Kotler may also provide a piece of the puzzle, it sounds to me that this story about the unknown learned street cleaner has been spruced up and transferred to Rav Aharon. The fact is that the original story is more edifying, since it refers to a truly anonymous, poor and unrecognized Jew whose Torah knowledge and accomplishments were prodigious. It isn't a story about mistaken identity and Rav Aharon's humility while allowing a laugh at Rav Gutman's naive error, but a true comment on how there is no necessary connection between a person's wealth and social position and his Torah, and that there really have been serious talmidei hakhamim in Jerusalem working at garbage collection.

I don't remember the original story with enough precision to repeat it to you, but could make inquiries if you want me to.

Again thank you for taking upon yourself to stand up for truth and to debunk this apocryphal story, and may we all continue to learn and improve from the Torah and the truly simple and heroic middot, yosher and ideals of moreinu v'rabbenu Harav Aharon zt"l.

ari kahn said...

another email...

"A few years ago (12 years or so) at a Purim party at his house Rav Aharon Lichtenstein was asked about the validity of a number of different stories.
He said that the milk man story with Rav Gustman never happened.

Rav Lichtenstein's daughter, Toni Mittelman, told some fellow talmidim the following story about the Yom Kippur war:
Rav Lichtenstein went to the army to volunteer. He was asked what he can do, to which he answered, "I have a doctorate in English literature and I can teach Torah."
He was then asked what else he could do that could be of use, and he answered "Home electrical repairs."

Rav Lichtenstein was sent to the Civil Defense Command. When Rav Yehuda Amital heard what Rav Aharon was doing he told the army that Rav Lichtenstein could be 'useful' doing other things. Rav Lichtenstein then went around giving shiurim and chizuk to the soldiers,"

(I heard about Toni's narrative from a fellow talmid at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yitzchak Bart.)

Sholem Hurwitz

ari kahn said...

Yisrael Dubitsky
to me
5 hours agoDetails
Re your correspondent's "memory" of Rav Gustman zt"l and the learned Yemenite -- while such stories may have happened numerous times to numerous individuals, there is (at least) one such story that has been published, ostensibly first hand :

ברצוני כאן לדון בעדה יחידה ומיוחדת במינה, בעדה התימנית, ומעשה שהיה כך היה. לפני יותר מארבעים שנה לימדתי במוסד תורני חשוב ובו שמש תימני. יהודי זה גר במרתף וניזון בקב של חרובים מערב שבת לערב שבת. ואף אותו קב לא מספיק לו אלא בצירוף עבודה שנייה במוסד אחר. לא היה סיפק בידו למלא תפקידו כראוי... ביום מן הימים הזמנתי אותו לחדרי והתריתי בו, שאם לא ייטיב את דרכו הנני רואה אותו כמפוטר. לא קבלתי תשובה, ומאותו יום ואילך מילא תפקידו באמונה ובדיוק, אלא הפסיק לדבר אתי, וכשברכתיו לשלום השיב לי בשפה רפה... הזמנתיו שוב ושאלתיו למה הוא רוגז עלי, הרי מלאתי את חובתי כשנזפתי בו. שתק שעה קלה והשיב שאמנם צדקתי בעצם הדבר, אלא שלא נהגתי בו כמדת תלמידי-חכמים, והוסיף: "אצלנו אין נוהגין כן באדם שיודע משנה ורמב"ם על פה". פתחתי ספר משנה תורה שהיה מונח על שולחני, קראתי בו הלכה אחת, והשמש סיים על פה את השאר. לא האמנתי למשמע אזני. שהרי אף בליטא, מקום מרכזי התורה, לא ראיתי שמש שמתנהג כיהודי פשוט בקי במשנה וברמב"ם על פה"
(פרופ' שאול ליברמן זצ"ל, בתוך: יהדות תימן; פרקי מחקר ועיון. העורכים: ישראל ישעיהו, יוסף טובי. ירושלים: יד יצחק בן-צבי, תשל"ו, עמ' שמט)

ari kahn said...

another writer: Eliahu Misgav
- לפני כמה וכמה שנים בהיותי בישיבה כתבתי את הסיפורים בעלון 'שבת בשבתו'. אחד מתלמידי הישיבה סיפר לי את סיפור החלבן. נגשתי לרב אהרן זצ"ל לשאול לנכונות הסיפור לפני פרסומו. הרב אמר לי ש: "אני לא זוכר סיפור כזה, אמנם התנדבתי במלחמה אך לא כחלבן, וגם הרב גוסטמן הכיר אותי טוב טוב עוד מארה"ב - אבל אני לא זוכר..."

ari kahn said...

Isaac Chavel wrote:

Just found your blog on the story, so I am a bit late to this party.
My son Simi told me the story when he returned from the Gush years ago;
he knew I would love it as I had learned by Rav Gustman in the Crown heights days.
I have known for a very long time that it was apocryphal, but it was great apocrypha
as it had captured both personalities so beautifully.

But I heard the Sha'are Zedek story from a young man who worked one night
with Rav Gustman at the hospital. When Rav Amital made his first trip to the US
after the Yom Kippur War, he stayed in Riverdale for a Shabbat, and they put
together a Shabbaton for boys who learned in the Gush. One of the fellows stayed
with us for Shabbat, and when he returned from Rav Amital's "tisch" Friday night,
I mentioned to him, over tea, that I had learned with Rav Gustman, he then told me
that he volunteered through the war at Sha'are Zedek (he parents would not let him enlist)
and his partner one night was Rav Gustman (to him Rav Gustman was just an older man --- he had no idea
who he really was). At about midnight, things quieted down, and Rav Gustman turned him and said, "It's quiet,
we ought to sit and learn." The young fellow told me he looked at Rav Gustman as though he was … . Rav
Gustman asked him, "Have you learned Kiddushin?" He said, "No." Rav Gustman told him to relax. He taught
him the first Mishna and sugya ten times by-heart, with all the Rashi and some of the Tosafot. Then he said a
chiddush. The young man concluded, "Then we davened Kvatikin."

So this may a story different from the one you mentioned. Sorry, but I completely forgot the young man's name.

Best regards, and kol tuv,