Arts & Culture

Fiction: The Rov’s Legacy

"Your life takes precedence." Jacob Lamdan looked up from the heavily used volume of Gemara, the Babylonian Talmud, lying on his desk. "That’s it. Your life."  Jay stared across the desk. "I know. It’s a famous Gemara, but…." Jay boyishly … Read More

By / September 11, 2009

"Your life takes precedence." Jacob Lamdan looked up from the heavily used volume of Gemara, the Babylonian Talmud, lying on his desk. "That’s it. Your life."  Jay stared across the desk. "I know. It’s a famous Gemara, but…." Jay boyishly scratched his hair, the looping brown curls at the top of his forehead yielding to the straightness of the rest of his closely cropped locks. His teacher, sensitive to the nuances of his protegee’s voice, looked up from the page and focused his sharp blue eyes on Jay. " ‘Ein ha baishan lomed. The shy one will never learn.’ What’s your question?" Jay gazed at his book, its ink less than ten years old, in contrast to the century old ink on Lamdan’s full set of the Vilna Shas. Jay’s volume had been purchased at the end of the two years he spent learning at Yeshivat Shalvei Olam, in the Etzion bloc. Jay remembered his nervousness going into the bookstore on Me’ah Shearim together with one of the guys on his program. They knew that the ultra-Orthodox owners would look down on them in their modern garb, and would withhold their best deals. The proprietor told them it was bad luck to buy for yourself; a Shas is what a father-in-law should buy when a bocher becomes engaged. Lamdan’s Gemara was from a different part of the world. A few years ago, he had decided to take his three children and their families back to his hometown in Hungary. They had wandered into an antique store near the town, and there was the same edition of Gemara his grandfather had owned. Lamdan had to have it, though the shipping cost more than the volumes, it was a tangible remnant of his pre-war life. The books were covered in sumptuous brown leather with gold lettering; the print was clear, the pages still crisp and white. "It just seems selfish, not trying to save someone else. Honestly, Rav Lamdan, if I were in that situation I couldn’t sit and watch someone else die while I drank my water." "Don’t you see, he can’t save the other person if he doesn’t take care of himself. They can’t both live with that amount of water, better for one to live than both to die." "It doesn’t feel right." Lamdan raised his eyes from the volume and waited for Jay too, to look up from his text. "Jay, I would like you to go see Rabbi Stone. I believe he can tell you something that may interest you." Jay gave Lamdan a quizzical look. "Stone? I don’t need another job, I have a fellowship. He began to worry, does Lamdan not think my work is good enough to finish my dissertation and get an academic job? "Just go. Call his secretary for an appointment." Lamden scribbled a phone number on a piece of legal paper, tore it off. "Are you going to tell me what it’s about?" Jay asked anxiously. "Talk to Stone. Now let’s learn, nu? Read the Tosafot please." Monday morning, after his teaching assistant duties for an Introduction to Judaism class, Jay pedaled his bicycle north on Princeton-Kingston Road to the Institute for the Legacy of Rov Firesztein. As Jay rode, he could hear Lamdan saying in his kind but firm Hungarian accent, "Hashem gave us these capacities, mind and body. For what? To use. We must use our bodies as much as our minds." In his sixties, Lamdan still swam four times a week. As Jay progressed north, he grew agitated. Would he find the place in time for his meeting? As he rode his bicycle further and the homes grew larger, their grass visibly greener in relation to the ministrations of better paid and more highly skilled landscapers, he felt more and more out of place. In this part of Princeton, no one rode bicycles. His stood out, black with chipping paint and the orange electrical tape his roommates put over the frame one weekend when he was away. The black of the frame was a faded and lackluster color that looked worse next to the brilliant hue of orange tape. But the orange and black, Princeton colors, jazzed the bike up. Jay looked again at the numbers on the houses. The magisterial homes in this part of town were set so far back from the street that it was impossible to see house numbers. Finally, he saw the house numbers stenciled on the curb for the benefit of ambulances and deliveries; they were already larger than the one he’d been given. Jay turned his bicycle around and retraced his steps. The numbers began descending closer to the address he’d been given. As he turned back en route, he began thinking about how a big part of the life of a graduate student was not knowing where one was going. Was it to a life of one year positions, moving from place to place in the hopes of eventually securing a tenure track job? Or, even with outstanding publications, references, and teaching evaluations would it be to the eventual defeat of law school, the need to make a living and get married prevailing over the desire to have an academic career? As he pedaled back in the direction of Rabbi Stone and his Institute, Jay remembered Lamdan’s saying that what Stone had to say could help him. Princeton was full of these institutes, for this or that person, all coveting the 08540 zip code. They all hoped to be mistaken for "The Institute," Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, where the Rov had been a fellow the last ten years of his life, after his wife passed away. It was unusual for a religious figure to be at the Institute, but Rov Firesztein, also had a doctorate in philosophy, and like his French counterpart Emanuel Levinas, was a pre-eminent figure in both the philosophical and literary worlds. After the Rov died, a number of his students asked his disciple, Rabbi Stone, to open an institute dedicated to him. The Advanced Institute declined to allow Rabbi Stone space to continue the legacy of their deceased fellow, believing that continuing the work of another, even an Institute Fellow, was derivative. It was decided that Princeton was the appropriate locale both because it was the last place the Rov had lived, and because all his books and papers were there. It was also, conveniently, the home of its main funder, who quickly made some phone calls, got pledges and bought a piece of property. The Institute was born. When Jay arrived, he wiped the sweat from his brow with a towel he’d stashed in the backpack. Where to lean his bike? There was no bike rack in front of the formally landscaped house. He positioned it carefully in front of the manicured hedges without disturbing any other plantings. He went in the heavy wooden front double door to a space that was a collision of public and private. The foyer was the central area of the house and arrayed around it were different rooms. In front of him was a large desk, which seemed to signal a reception area though there was no one sitting in it now. The desk was in front of a set of mahogany doors, more elaborate than the ones on the outside of the house. Jay thought there was something menacing in their heft; they appeared heavy enough to crush a person. A slight, petite woman walked behind the desk and sat down. "An appointment here?" "Jay Epstein." She ushered him through the doors into the office, where she gestured at a maroon leather upholstered chair. Jay seated himself, the leather stiff and uncomfortable against his back, though it appeared comfortable to the eye. He faced Rabbi Stone across the immense expanse of his large executive desk, strewn with books and papers. There was no computer. Through the picture window, Jay could see a magnificent backyard, lush flowers in bloom despite the unseasonable coolness of the autumn day, and a fountain with an abstract modernist statue. Rabbi Stone said to Jay, "Baruch ha ba. Thanks for coming." Jay began, "Sorry I’m a bit late. I got slightly lost." "In Princeton, one can get lost. There aren’t so many frum Jews here. The closest thing to a Jewish presence is the George Segal statue of the akedah in front of Firestone library. Goyim see it as invoking Vietnam, the fathers sacrificing the sons. What a misunderstanding of the true test of Avraham, his mesiras nefesh, what he felt when he knew what he must do,…. And to tell his son Yitzhak….the most difficult thing." "It is what Hashem wanted." "We don’t know the meaning of Hashem’s requests. Maybe Avraham failed the test, because he was able to criticize Hashem for destroying S’dom but didn’t protest when it came to his own son? We accept, but can’t know." "I’m in graduate school because I accept the tradition, but I want to examine the texts critically. That’s what the Rov taught, the quest for truth." "May his memory be for a blessing. Jay, what’s your Hebrew name?" "Yitzhak." "Yitzhak, the Rov gave me everything – a soul, a field of study, a career, he even introduced me to my wife." Jay Epstein knew the broad outlines of Aaron Stone’s life – he had lived in Washington Heights in New York, but not in a religiously observant family. Stone went to Dartmouth and studied with a philosopher who had known the Rov in Paris in the early thirties, when they were getting doctorates in philosophy. This Dartmouth philosopher recommended that his student should go meet the Rov, the subject of Stone’s senior thesis. Stone went, stayed at the Rov’s school, got ordination, took a congregation, worked on his PhD and wrote a number of books. Jay kept listening, waiting for the point to this conversation. He didn’t think it was like Stone to ramble. Stone was usually careful, some might even say stingy, with his time and words. "I’m very ill," he began. "My heart, an abnormality. A tendency to calcification. I’ve had some symptoms, irregular heartbeats. If I were to have a heart attack it would likely be fatal." "You need to take good care of yourself."  "My wife, a physician, is researching all the latest treatments. I need to be careful about overwork. I don’t want to die without finishing my book on the Rov’s legacy. Or knowing that I have someone I can trust who can finish it." "Im yirtzah Hashem, you’ll be granted a long life." Rabbi Stone exhaled slowly and carefully, as though measuring his breath. "Koheles teaches that the day of death is better than the day of birth. I’ve never understood that entirely. Maybe it means one is sure then of what one’s legacy is, what one has truly completed." "Chazal says only on the day of death can one know for sure whether one has been righteous, because we can sin at any time." "Very good." Rabbi Stone beamed, looking carefully over his desk at Jay. Gone was the look of the proud parent; now the eyes were those of an appraiser, perusing the merchandise shrewdly, making his calculations about how to bargain with the owner. "Jay, I have spoken with Professor Lamdan and Professor Sokoloff. They tell me that you have a fine career ahead of you, and a neshama. You want to live a Torah life." Stone leaned forward as though being physically closer to Jay would bring them mentally closer as well. He looked pleadingly at Jay, as a person would who was making a declaration of ardor, even if he knew it might turn out unrequited. "I want to know whether you would agree to take over the work of the Institute in the event of my death. You don’t have to answer now, just think about it. You would have my office here, my personal secretary, anything you’d need." "I….. I…. don’t know what to say. Rabbi Stone, it’s an honor and a privilege to be asked but … . I’d really have to think. I’m beginning work on my own dissertation. God-willing, you’ll live a long life and none of this will be necessary." "I know this is a surprise to you." "But surely there are other people, people outside of Princeton. The Rov has students all over the world." "You’re here. You could pick up where I leave off. I could train you." "My advisors approve of this?" Rabbi Stone smiled, "They gave me your name. I wanted to ask you myself. Think too, what this could do for your career, to have access to all the Rov’s papers, be the expert on him, even at your young age. You’ll receive calls, emails, from all over the world, be asked to speak at conferences, to contribute to scholarly anthologies…." Jay, flustered, jiggled his right leg up and down, a nervous habit left from junior high school. He felt like a kid, out of place in this palatial setting. "I’ll let you know."  As he cycled back to campus, Jay was in turmoil, his insides churning as fast as his wheels. An office, a secretary – all luxuries any grad student would kill for. This position editing the Rov’s papers would give him security, a steady income. The isolation of writing a dissertation, being entirely involved in a project and world of his own making, would be lessened. The many students of the Rov and those who knew of him by reputation alone would want to read his work. He would have an instant and devoted audience. Jay dismounted from his bicycle, locked it in the rack and entered Firestone Library. He went through the grand foyer entrance, with its plaques and portraits, to his carrel. He made his way down the steps, around the maze of bookshelves, into the warren of carrels. Suddenly, he felt disoriented. Hadn’t he turned right, toward the BM section where the tomes on the development of rabbinic Judaism were kept? Where was his carrel? Now Jay was in the BX section of the floor, Christianity. How did he get here? He thought he had taken the route he always took. Twice in one day he had gotten lost. What did this mean? Did he still want to find his own carrel, or should he go work for Rabbi Stone? As soon as he could see his carrel, he felt constricted. He opened the door to the narrow space, basically enough room to sit at the desk and stand up, moving his chair back six inches, the size and feel of an airplane bathroom. And the same fantasy common to both – what would it be like to have sex in this space? Jay remembered his last meeting with Rivky, her long silky brown hair, perfectly straight and smooth, her ice princess blue eyes, gazing raptly at him as though from behind intelligent glass, her lovely perfectly formed tits…he felt the beginnings of an erection. How much longer could he stand it, having sexual thoughts without being able to act on them, to retain appropriate behavior for a young unmarried Orthodox guy? Without a secure job he’d never be able to marry; no self-respecting modern Orthodox woman would marry a man who wasn’t willing to give her a certain material lifestyle. Would she talk to him if he took this job? At their last meeting she told him that she liked him, he was intellectual and funny, modern but frum, everything she was looking for. "But my parents want me to meet someone else, he’s about to make partner in his firm. They’re right. Much as I like you, it doesn’t make sense for me to date someone who can’t take care of me." Then she got up from the table, leaving money for the food she ordered but wouldn’t stay to eat. In his tiny carrel, he slowly got his books and laptop out of his backpack and began making notes for his dissertation. That Friday, Jay got on his bicycle again, back to Rabbi Stone’s office. It was pouring rain. He was getting soaked through his rainsuit. He pedaled, and despite the downpour, continued to enjoy the sensation of bicycling, getting somewhere by not relying on anything but his own energy. As the gradual drizzle accelerated into a torrential downpour, Jay’s feet remained steadily on the pedals advancing north on Nassau Street. He thought about the role of water in his life. It was easier than trying to formulate exactly what it was he was going to say to Rabbi Stone because he still wasn’t sure. Jay remembered, feeling almost submerged by the sheets of rain now pelting him, the time he submerged himself in the mikvah before Yom Kippur when he was at Yeshivat Shalvei Olam. He had davened mincha, and then gone to the ritual bath. He went into the water, naked as he was when he came into the world. One of the rabbeim at the yeshiva had given a drasha, a talk, about its use before Yom Kippur and Jay and some others decided to go. He went into the water, dipped his head under so that he was entirely covered, and came up. He remained in the water by himself, dunking a second and then a third time. He felt alternately strong and weak, rising up, dunking down. When he came up finally for a third time, he felt okay to be himself, in his body, and to use his strength as he wished, to go back to college in the States, and pursue an academic degree. It was his second year at the yeshiva and he was one of the strongest American students, so many of the rabbis were persuading him to make aliyah and join the hesder program combining army service and learning at the yeshiva. Jay was conflicted, but at the end, he felt strongly that he couldn’t be as much in control of his life using a foreign language, living in Israel. Some of the rabbis made him feel guilty, but the rosh yeshiva, son-in-law of Rabbi Firesztein, had told him that it is a mistake to force individuals into only one mold because Judaism places great value on each individual soul. Jay parked his bike outside the Institute and entered, removing his wet rainsuit in the foyer. "Jay, good morning." Rabbi Stone looked up from his desk with a gleam of excitement in his eye. Without giving Jay a chance to respond, Stone continued, "I’ll start showing you my notes, how I work. You can help me with this sugya. I’m not sure which of the three different places where this text appears the Rov was thinking of." "Rabbi Stone," Jay said haltingly. "Can we speak for a few minutes first?" . "Of course, my boy, as you wish. I am getting ahead of myself ," Rabbi Stone said with an expansive smile, the smile of one who feels assured he has escaped the constrictions of a narrow place to the relative freedom of a broader one. "I’m sorry, Rabbi Stone." Jay began. "I …. don’t ……" He caught himself hesitating, and then stated "I don’t think I can accept your offer. I’ve just finished my own dissertation proposal. I want to do my own work." The rabbi stared. His face was whitening, growing paler by the moment. The ebullience that had been so present a moment earlier left no traces on his face. Jay continued, "I’d like to help you, I can’t. Do you remember our discussion about Yakov’s ability to work all those years because of his passion for Rahel? I need that kind of desire to work on a lengthy project." "Yakov had two wives. He had passion for Rahel but ended up with Leah, buried next to her for all eternity. You can have both, my project and your own." "Jacob, Yakov aveinu, could. He was also able to stay shalem, whole, all those years in the house of Laban. I don’t think I can." Rabbi Stone stared hard at Jay and gasped. "I’m…speechless." Jay inadvertently said, "Vayidom Aharon," quoting the biblical verse about the response in silence of the high priest Aaron to the deaths of his sons after they offered strange fire to the Lord. Stone looked at Jay and clenched his fists tightly together so the knuckles were almost entirely white. "Aaron was responding to the deaths of his two sons. I, to the loss of seven years’ work. Lehavdil, it’s not the same, but I need someone to continue my work. You know perhaps, Yitzhak, some of the things the meforshim say about the deaths of Aaron’s sons? "They offered strange fire because they were intoxicated." "Think," Stone said threateningly, "about the midrash. They were killed not, davka, for the fire itself, but because they dared to decide halacha in the presence of their teacher, Moshe Rabbenu. Think about that, Yitzhak." "I told you my decision," Jay responded. "How can you undermine my legacy like this!" Stone pounded angrily on the desk. "You could live a long time yet. No one knows the day of his death." "No, but we must live each day as if it is our last. This is the Rov’s legacy. Not me, not you, the Rov! " "I can’t exchange my life and work for someone else’s. You know the story in Bava Metzia, the one who owns the water must drink it. I have to use my own life." The color returned to Stone’s face. "How dare you imply that I have wasted my life on someone else’s life? I’m glad you’ve refused – you aren’t worthy of the legacy of the Rov. He would never have countenanced such selfishness. Who are you to come in and speak to me like that?" "I’m sorry, really." "Please leave. Now. Just go." "I wish you luck too Rabbi Stone. May you have many healthy years ahead of you to complete the Rov’s legacy. Ad meah ve’esrim. I’m sorry we couldn’t work together." Jay stood up and added hopefully, "Really. I am." Jay extended his hand over the wide mahogany desk to shake Rabbi Stone’s. The rabbi clasped his hands in his lap and said, "Go." "Thank you for the offer. And good Shabbos," Jay added holding his backpack. This time Stone did not speak. He flicked the back of his hand at Jay in a gesture meant to signify, go away. At mincha/maariv that Saturday afternoon at the Princeton Center for Jewish Life, the shiur between the afternoon and evening service was dedicated to the memory of Aaron Stone. Jay incredulous, asked Jacob Lamdan, what had happened. Lamdan told him, "He went into cardiac arrest yesterday afternoon. His secretary found him in his office. When the ambulance came it was too late." Jay shuddered. "I was the last one to see him alive." "I guess you’ll have to revise your dissertation proposal now. Poor Aaron, olav hashalom. He wasn’t even 65." "I’m not going to revise my proposal. I told him I wanted to do my own work." "Really?" Lamdan gave him a cryptic smile. "I thought I was doing the right thing, I should have discussed it with you, but I didn’t want to do someone else’s work. Do you think he died because I said no?" As soon as the question was out of his mouth, Jay knew it was foolish to have asked. "Do you have an obligation to lie to someone with a heart condition if you know the truth will harm that person?" Lamdan started thinking, Jay could see he was mentally making lists of sources, texts citing the arguments of various halachic authorities. "I didn’t know that he would die." "No one would ever hold you responsible." "My words upset him." "Come, let’s learn. We’ll go upstairs and come back when they daven maariv." They walked upstairs, down a hallway, past offices and bulletin boards, past the library filled with the volumes in English behind sterile glass doors for the liberal Jews, to the very back of the building, the Beit Midrash, house of study. As they entered the room filled with books huddling together, cozy, the letters on their spines only Hebrew, Lamdan reached for two volumes. They seated themselves next to each other at the large round table. Lamdan refrained from opening his volume and faced Jay over the closed texts. "You felt you had a responsibility to yourself, Hayekha kodmim, your life takes precedence." "How did you know that’s what I told him?" Jay said excitedly. "We were learning it last week. You said then that you couldn’t drink and watch someone else die, no?" Lamdan raised his eyebrows over his blue eyes, still a remarkably clear color even at his age. "People, even my sons, often ask me if I have survivor guilt, why should I have survived when someone else did not? I didn’t do anything to cause anyone else’s death. I tell people who ask, so, if I hadn’t survived? What then? You must live without harming others, and without harming yourself. If you couldn’t take the job, so, okay." "What is the halacha? Am I culpable for his death?"  "Let’s learn. Sometimes in life there is a before and after, and what you do needs to change in response to it. This death, lehavdil, is not like my experiences, but you must respond to it. Aaron, zichrono lebracha, didn’t quite know how to respond to the death of his rebbe, Rov Firesztein. He wanted to do what he could to perpetuate him, but wasn’t sure how to respond to the changes that the Rov’s death created. He wanted things to be static, to feel as if the Rov remained with him. Maybe the stress of trying to keep things so rigid had an effect on his heart?" "Why did he want things static?" "Why does the past have a hold on some and not on others? Why was my response to the Shoah to continue to learn, but in a new way, to see the text critically? Why did others feel they had to recreate the world of their ancestors but with an added punctiliousness, substituting pious interpretations for the actualities of history, creating a more stringent Ultra-Orthodoxy, denying that in the past yeshiva students read novels?" "If I’d said yes, do you think he’d still be alive?" "Maybe, but what about you?" Lamdan got up and walked over to the shelves in the back of the room where there were volumes in English by rabbis on particular halachic topics. Though the room was filled almost exclusively with only primary texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, a few select volumes in English had made their way here. Next to the writings of the Rov’s father and grandfather, translated to English, were two volumes of essays and speeches Rov Firesztein had given over the years. Lamdan, with practiced hands, removed the volume, Dwelling in the House of the Lord: Rav Yakov Firesztein and the Quest for Truth from the shelf. He returned to the table where Jay was sitting and flipped the pages. He read, "When students come to me wanting guidance on a question or decision, if there is no clear cut halachic issue, I can only tell them what the consequences of each path are. I cannot impose my will on another human – that is the job of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, not a mortal. If both options are correct, I can only counsel about options, not make a decision for another. The decision is the individual’s, ‘hayekha kodmim’ it is the life of that student, no one else’s. No one should live for another no matter how great the other is. Each individual must use his strength for the Torah, not rely on the strengths of others." Jay looked at his teacher, grateful and imagined the title page of his dissertation. "Strength for Torah: Individual and Communal Responsibility in the Tractate of Bava Metzia." *********

Beth Kissileff, a visiting assistant professor at Carleton College, writes the Sabbath Voices column for the New York Jewish Week and  is finishing her first novel, Questioning Return. 

 

Image courtesy the Unorthodox Jew