Monday, August 11, 2008

Not Your Average Hagiography

I greatly enjoyed reading the recently published biography of R. Shlomo Freifeld, Reb Shlomo. I had heard only a little about him in the past, but everything was good. The book is not the standard Gedolim biography but not for the reason you might assume. It does qualify as an hagiography: According to the book, R. Freifeld always had the right thing to say, never made any error in judgment, seemingly accomplished the impossible, was perfectly pious and a brilliant scholar. It's a bit much for me. I simply don't believe it. Rather, the author chose -- perhaps subconsciously -- to only include stories about R. Freifeld that had a happy ending or that could be portrayed in such a light. The net result is to make R. Freifeld seem larger than life, a role model whom none of us mortals can ever reach and certainly not surpass.

However, despite this, I found the book enjoyable because it is not a biography. In fact, after reading the book I still don't have a good picture of his life chronology. He was a student of R. Yitzchak Hutner who founded Yeshiva Sha'ar Yoshuv in Far Rockaway. That's about all I know.

Click here to read moreRather than being a biography, this book is a collection of stories about R. Freifeld, arranged by topic. R. Freifeld was not your ordinary "Gadol". He was unique in his welcoming attitude to unusual people and his acceptance of people who do not fit the typical Charedi mold. Many of the stories in this book serve to undermine some prevailing negative attitudes in our community regarding conformity and exclusivity. I believe that this book is a welcome remedy to the spirit of the times that can serve to inspire those who need uplifting.

Here is a representative story (pp. 163-164):

His chinuch methods dictated that he work with his talmidim on their terms, on their levels, in their language.

A talmid recalled the evening in 1970 when he learned of the death of a well-known rock singer, Jimi Hendrix. He was a big fan of the musician and mourned his death intensely. He was suffering, but didn't think that it was appropriate to share the depth of his pain with his rebbi.

He was surprised when Reb Shlomo called him over to invite him to the house that evening. "And bring along a record, please," Reb Shlomo told him.

That evening, the talmid entered his rebbi's house, the Jimi Hendrix album in his hand.

Reb Shlomo sat down near the record player and together they listened. Reb Shlomo sat quietly, totally lost in the experience of listening, his eyes closed. After it was closed, Reb Shlomo smiled apologetically. "I need to think for a little bit; would it be okay if we put on some of my music now?"

Reb Shlomo turned on a beautiful album of classical music, a rousing, exhilarating symphony that lifted their spirits.

Reb Shlomo was obviously lost in thought as the notes swirled around them.

Finally, he spoke. "Now I understand why Jimi Hendrix is so popular; the music defined a generation in turmoil. You should that it's disturbing music, indicative of struggles and discontent."

"That was all he said," remembers the talmid, "but his message penetrated."

Here is a story that is relevant to a discussion we recently had in the comments about a then-young rabbi who interrupted a speech by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik to protest what he considered an insult to the Chazon Ish (pp. 268-269):
Reb Shlomo was once at the chasunah of a talmid and was asked to speak. He was in a particularly jovial mood and made a comment that could have been misconstrued as an insult to a certain rebbe.

A chassid of this rebbe jumped to his feet and began to shout at Reb Shlomo, accusing him of all kinds of terrible things.

Twenty years later, Reb Shlomo's talmid, R' Chanina Herzberg, spoke at a certain event. After his speech, a fellow approached him and asked if he was a talmid of Rabbi Freifeld.

When he affirmed that he was, the gentleman said that he had a story about Reb Shlomo that he had to share.

"Twenty years ago, I was at a wedding and I heard Rabbi Freifeld say something that I felt was offensive to my rebbi. I immediately responded, behaving in an insulting manner toward him.

"A week later, I received a letter from Rabbi Freifeld. 'I got your address from the ba'alei simcha,' it began. 'I want to clarify something about what happened last week. Though I never meant offense to your rebbe, you clearly thought that I did. For that reason, you took offense at my words and stood up for the honor of your rebbe.

"'Ashrecha! One must always be ready to defend one's rebbi's kavod, at whatever cost. I also have a rebbi, and it's a wonderful thing. I would also go to war for his honor. Chazak ve'ematz!'"

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