Friday, September 29, 2006

Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, ztz”l: Some Recollections of a Great Man

Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, ztz”l: Some Recollections of a Great Man

By Natan Slifkin

When I moved to Israel fourteen years ago, I was very keen on meeting Rabbi Aryeh Carmell. He had taught Gemara to my father in Yeshivas Dvar Yerushalayim many years earlier, but what excited me was his role as editor of Challenge, first of the Torah/science genre. I visited him one Shabbos, and he was glad to answer my questions. Thus began my relationship with him.

Click here to read moreOver the years I benefited from many discussions with him in which he mentored me in my approach to Torah and science. His frankness and intellectual honesty was a breath of fresh air. At the beginning, I myself was very conservative in these issues, due to a fairly limited education in Jewish philosophy. Some of what Rav Carmell told me therefore seemed shocking, but I gradually discovered that everything was grounded in the thought of authentic Torah sources.

Rav Carmell reviewed many of my manuscripts in a way that set him apart from other Torah scholars. Most rabbonim who review books do so in a relatively casual way; in some cases they don’t even read the books before writing an endorsement. With my books, because they dealt with sensitive issues, I made sure to show them to rabbonim who would review them carefully. But Rav Carmell took “carefully” to a whole new level. When he finished, there would be dozens upon dozens of incisive comments written in the margins, which he would go through together with me. If there was something that he really didn’t like, he would refuse to write an endorsement unless it was removed, or he would qualify his endorsement to reflect that which he disagreed with. This was a grueling process, but since, aside from his being my personal mentor, he was widely acknowledged as a great authority in this area, it was an honor to subject my work to it.

His breadth of knowledge was spectacular. Not only did he master the standard areas of Torah knowledge, but he was also expert in Jewish philosophy and theology. And he was also fluent in science; not only having a “feel” for it, but also being conversant with the latest literature, even in his eighties. Rav Carmell also stood out in the breadth of his vision. His wonderful but sadly little-known book Masterplan was a modern day version of Hirsch’s Horeb, showing how Judaism deals not only with the narrow concerns of the individual, but also for society and the environment.

Rav Carmell was perhaps most famous for being a longtime disciple of Rav Dessler. He published Rav Dessler’s teachings in the five-volume Michtav Me-Eliyahu which he translated into English as Strive For Truth. For me, Rav Carmell exemplified the concept of striving for truth. He lived by Rambam’s maxim of “Accept the truth from wherever it comes.” I was once discussing an extremely difficult Torah/science problem with him, and he gave me an answer which made me very uncomfortable. When I expressed my discomfort to him, he replied, “I dislike it just as much as you, but the evidence leaves us with no choice.”

Rav Carmell also taught me the corollary of “Accept the truth from wherever it comes,” which is “Reject falsehood from wherever it comes.” About twelve years ago, he rejected a halachic explanation that I had written in a manuscript on the grounds that it simply didn’t make sense. I protested that I was simply presenting the view of one of the Acharonim. Rav Carmell replied that one must be very wary of accepting something merely on the grounds that it was stated by a great authority if it does not make sense. As it happens, I went back and checked the sefer again, and it turned out that I had misunderstood what it stated. But the lesson remained with me; and I recently noticed that Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in his commentary to Pirkei Avos, comments that even if one’s own rebbe states something that does not seem to make sense, it is forbidden to accept it.

Rav Carmell’s intellectual honesty was matched by his integrity and courage. When some of my books were condemned by certain rabbonim, Rabbi Carmell was not intimidated. He wrote a polite but firm letter to one of the distinguished opponents to my work, relating a private communication that he had with Rav Dessler which justified my approach. He also wrote a public letter stating that he had carefully considered the matter and maintained his endorsement of my works. Then, after the opposition to my works widened yet further, he wrote an essay in support of my works entitled Freedom To Interpret.

Despite his intellectual honesty and courage, Rav Carmell was nevertheless very sensitive to the principle that “Not everything that one thinks should be said, not everything that should be said should be written, and not everything that should be written should be published.” His overriding concern was for the strengthening of Judaism; if something would not contribute to that, he believed that it was best not stated publicly. Simultaneously, he was acutely aware of what people were capable of comprehending and what would merely cause confusion, and when things should be limited to certain audiences. I only realized how far he took this when one of his sons, who had taken a more right-wing path, expressed strong opposition to something that I said, with no knowledge that I had heard this point from his own father! When Rav Carmell had discussed this particular issue with me and told me to be circumspect with it, I had not appreciated the extent to which he himself had been circumspect – not even discussing it with his own sons.

The image of Rav Carmell in my mind’s eye, though, is not of his intellect or philosophy, but of his extraordinary demeanor. To put it simply, Rav Carmell was an incredibly cheerful person. He possessed the charming habit of laughing as he spoke, with the sheer joy of communicating information.

When I finished my latest book a few months ago, I wanted to show it to Rav Carmell, but I was unsure of his state of health. I called his wife, and she told me that unfortunately he was in no shape for the task. In sadness, I hung up the phone. Then, a few minutes later, it rang. It was Rebbetzen Carmell, informing me that Rav Carmell heard what I had phoned for and was very enthusiastic to see the book! Unfortunately, when I visited him the next day, I realized that he was truly far too unwell to read it. It was painful to see how his health had declined so much. But, in some ways, he was still the same – beaming with pleasure on realizing that someone had come to see him.

I will miss him greatly.

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