Approaches to Torah education

In an attempt to ensure that the Chasidic influence should not prevail, my husband’s opponents brought two Rabbis1 from other cities to Yekatrinoslav.

Contentious issues concerning Jewish education soon arose in the city. They concerned the curriculum for a yeshiva, whether studies should follow new-fangled educational approaches or the traditional one. This was during the era when chadarim metukanim (“amended Torah schools”), as they were known—and the method of Ivrit b’Ivrit2 (learning Hebrew by total immersion in the language)—were being widely introduced.

Those supporting this new movement were the majority, particularly the wealthier Jews. They established a yeshiva where all studies followed the new method.

I recall how my husband called a meeting for the purpose of establishing a large Torah day school, to include also higher grades that would study Talmud with Rashi’s commentary. The children would learn the Alef-Beit with the nekudot3 (vowel points)—a method considered in modern circles at the time to be pedagogically unsound.

One of the committee members attending that meeting was a tailor who just couldn’t comprehend the difference between the two methods. My husband hoped to attract his support, and wanted him to understand the issue.

“Tell me, R. Avraham Itche,” my husband asked, “when pressing a garment, which iron works better: an old-style iron press heated intensely to retain its heat for long, or a new-style steam iron that has to be opened and closed repeatedly to supply it with coal?”4

This analogy perfectly clarified the issue for the tailor, who replied firmly, “Certainly the iron press, old-style.” He joined the group that voted for the traditional teaching method: Hebrew reading based on Alef-Beit, and study of Chumash and TaNaCh without skipping anything—not shortened selections of “Scriptural stories”5 or Scriptural excerpts considered positive, while omitting other parts considered unnecessary.6

Writing about all this is not all difficult. But what a difficult struggle it was at the time!

Erstwhile opponents become closer

At the new yeshiva that had been established, studies followed the new method, and it was administered by those opposing my husband. Nevertheless, some of its supporters advocated that Schneerson pay occasional visits for Shabbat prayers so that he could speak to the children. One of the activists, however, wouldn’t allow this under any circumstances. He wanted neither Schneerson nor his ideology to exert any influence there. He was already past his youth, and was a member of the “bourgeoisie,” as it was called.

Some time later, as I recall, he fell ill and sent his son—who, as a younger person, was less religious—to my husband, with the following message: “I’ve come to you, Rabbi, in my father’s name. He appeals to you to forgive him. He’s ill, and requests that you wish him a recovery. When he didn’t allow you to visit the school, he didn’t intend to undermine your honor, but it was for other reasons…,”etc.

The shochet comes around

The shochet mentioned above was by no means an ignoramus, but had considered himself an opponent of Chabad Chasidism, as he expressed it. Later, however, after the uproar over his temporary suspension died down, he began to attend my husband’s Chasidic discourses every Shabbat afternoon. This inspired him to start studying Chasidus and, as a Torah scholar, he understood it well. He now said that the unpleasantness he had suffered was all worthwhile for the sake of becoming an adherent of Schneerson, as he was now!

It was evident that, despite Schneerson’s young age, his authority and the influence of the Chasidim were extensive. Accordingly, his opponents sought new means to limit his influence.

I remember an article that appeared in a local Russian newspaper decrying the new Rabbi appointed in town, and mentioning his descent from the Tzemach Tzedek, who had been outspokenly opposed to Haskalah (secular “enlightenment”) at the government-sponsored meetings in which he participated.7 Therefore, the writer insisted, every Jew who cherished civilized culture was obligated to do everything possible to ensure that Schneerson should have no influence in the city, for he represented a danger for progress, and his influence could cause the forces of reaction to become stronger.

About a year later, however, the same writer wrote another article in which he “confessed” to his sin of not having realized in what high esteem Schneerson should be held, and saying that his opponents didn’t understand even his “casual conversation.”8 Schneerson’s activities, he said, should be supported, not undermined.

Efforts to limit Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s influence

It was evident that my husband’s sermons in the shuls, usually on Yom Tov, and his activities in general, were attracting large numbers, and his prominence continued to grow. His opponents, who had not expected this development, continued to seek new means not to let it progress further.

The point had been reached where it was no longer possible simply to discount Schneerson as insignificant. It became necessary to employ more “diplomatic” maneuvers. At community council meetings, his opponents regularly raised various issues for a vote, using legitimate and illegitimate means to get a majority vote passed against him, with the intention of demonstrating that he was only the secondary rabbi, not the city’s main rabbi. This, they reckoned, would limit expansion of his power so that his influence would be mitigated.

They held a special meeting for this purpose, but their plan failed. They drew up a contract appointing him as Rabbi, but employing wording preferred by his opponents, and brought it to the home of each committee member to sign. Naturally, it was signed by those supporting that wording.

But then they brought the document to one of the members, a banker, to sign. Although not too familiar with the meaning of the Hebrew, he read the language well enough to realize, according to the names already signed and those missing, that something was not quite straightforward. He told those who brought it that he would sign only after Sergei Paley would sign. [Realizing that their stratagem wouldn’t work,] the contract’s sponsors decided to destroy it.

A few days later, a meeting was held of just three individuals, the two leaders of each camp9 and a third, neutral member, an attorney who was highly esteemed in the city.

The leader of the opposing camp demanded that Schneerson receive a salary at least ten rubles a month less than the other rabbi, or that his signature on official and legal documents always be the second one, not the first.

When the lawyer asked for a justification for these demands, the opposing leader replied that the other rabbi was a greater scholar. The man giving this opinion about the two rabbis’ relative scholarship was himself a total ignoramus. Paley, on the other hand, was well-versed in Torah scholarship, but didn’t want to embarrass the other. Calling him by his name, he politely observed, “Massei Yudevitch,10 neither of us know Hebrew, so how can we express an opinion on which rabbi is a greater scholar?”

The attorney, too, was no simple person. He declared that he had spoken with both rabbis, and it appeared to him that Schneerson was a greater scholar. Accordingly, the issue failed again.