Rav Henoch Leibowitz, 1916–2008

By: Rabbi Yair Hoffman – 04/17/2008
Reprinted by permission from the Five Towns Jewish Times.

Naflah ateres rosheinu. On Tuesday of this week, Klal Yisrael lost one of the last great rashei yeshiva and ba’alei mussar of the previous generation, Rav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l. The loss is indescribable.

Rav Leibowitz was the only son of his saintly father, Rav Dovid Leibowitz, zt’l, founder of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yisroel Meir HaCohen, commonly known as Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. The yeshiva was first established in 1933 by Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz, a nephew of the Chofetz Chaim. On December 7, 1941, Rav Dovid Leibowitz passed away, and his son would take over at the helm of the yeshiva.

Rav Henoch Leibowitz molded the yeshiva in the image of the great yeshiva of his father’s rebbi, the Alter of Slabodka. Indeed, Rav Mordechai Shulman, zt’l, a rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael who had intimate knowledge of the Slabodka Yeshiva, commented, “Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim is Slabodka.”

Slowly but surely, Rav Henoch Leibowitz shaped and molded his talmidim to be talmidei chachamim as well as mentchen. He imbued them with a sense of mission to do and work for Klal Yisrael. The greatest achievement for one of his talmidim was to merit to be a marbitz Torah in Klal Yisrael.

And harbatzas Torah they did. Rav Henoch Leibowitz’s talmidim opened up high schools across the nation and beyond—in Miami, Los Angeles, Rochester, Milwaukee, and Ottawa, to name just a few. Rav Leibowitz nurtured his talmidim and the mosdos they set up. Soon, Chofetz Chaim became a major force in American Judaism. Entire Torah communities were to spring up around the Chofetz Chaim branches. These communities yielded fruit. Many graduates of the Chofetz Chaim schools entered harbatzas Torah themselves, in every capacity. The attitude of Rav Henoch’s talmidim created a major turning point and shift in the field and in the public perception of Jewish education, which affected all other yeshivos, as well. A career of harbatzas Torah became a lofty profession, something that the elite should aspire to achieve.

Rav Leibowitz focused his efforts on developing his students in three major areas.

He felt that mechanchim—indeed, everyone—should strive to achieve the highest level of iyun (in-depth study) possible. Toward this end, Rav Leibowitz spent countless hours with his students, teaching them how to unfold the latent processes of reasoning in a Talmudic text. He taught them to highly esteem the words of the Maharsha and to home in on the essence of an argument between the Maharam and the Maharsha. And he taught his talmidim to appreciate the words of the Acharonim, too.

He taught them to focus very closely on the shift between a text’s initial supposition and the turning point in its final conclusion. “What is the shift between the havah amina and the maskana?” was a question he often asked. Most importantly, he taught his students the notion of “muchrach”ism, that each and every piece of Torah they spoke had to be both textually and logically compelling. He eschewed the methodologies of baseless chakiros (logical inquiry and differentiation) and the standard use of “reid” when understanding Torah texts. The yeshiva was well known for the thorough manner in which the talmidim examined the texts they were learning. Shiurim were not just heard once; they were worked on for days and sometimes weeks, so as to understand and appreciate every nuance. (This slow pace, however, was limited to the morning iyun seder. Indeed, for the afternoon and evening bekiyus sedarim, the rosh yeshiva instituted a quota system, where a minimum number of blatt had to be learned each week.)

The second area in which Rav Leibowitz “grew” his talmidim was in the area of mussar thought and texts. Talmidim were taught how to develop a genuine mussar insight, either in psychology or midos or some other area of Torah growth. Such insight, of course, also had to be logically and textually compelling. The true “Slabodka shmuess” was not a d’rush-filled exposition of any Torah thought that comes into the talmid chacham’s mind; no—it had to be derived from a previous Torah text: a Ramban, a Seforno, a Rashi, a Midrash. Otherwise, the integrity of Torah could be compromised, if people’s own ideas were read into the text and represented to the world as Torah.

Thirdly, Rav Leibowitz imbued his students with a sense of mission toward Klal Yisrael. His talmidim were in the forefront of chinuch and the revitalization of Torah throughout North America. His students opened Torah institutions and branches in many cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis, Cherry Hill and Manalapan (New Jersey), Cedarhurst, Huntington, Monsey, New York City, Vancouver, Ottowa, Phoenix, and Dallas—and in places in Eretz Yisrael, too.

He personified the midah of emes, as well. Once, for example, a wealthy individual gave a $10,000 donation that was doubled by his corporation’s matching-funds program. The problem was that the donor’s check did not clear. Rav Leibowitz promptly refunded the corporation’s money. Any behavior otherwise was sheer anathema to him. He was a genuine Torah sage in every way, and he would never countenance any form of dishonesty, chalilah.

Rav Leibowitz had a warmth and a smile that conveyed his love for each member of Klal Yisrael. He also had a great sense of humor, which he utilized to connect with talmidim, baalei batim, and other members of Klal Yisrael. Once, when my mother, aleha ha’shalom, met him, she asked him to compile the Kabbalistic writings of her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. For the next four weeks, he playfully teased me about it, but it was a loving, playful tease that served to connect. When I, a boy from California with no family in New York, had surgery during my first year in yeshiva, he and his rebbetzin put me up in their house to recover. His rebbetzin, zt’l, served me her nurturing kasha, chicken soup, and kosher jello, and Rav Leibowitz patiently sat and learned with me.

Rav Leibowitz personified the idea of sensitivity toward others and making sure that people realized what it means to cause anxiety to others. A typical shmuess of Rav Leibowitz involved examining Rashi’s comments regarding the person who cursed the name of Hashem, found at the end of Parashas Emor. The pasuk says, “Vayanichuhu ba’mishmar,” they placed him under guard. Rashi comments: “Alone—and they did not leave the person who gathered [sticks] with him.” Why? Rashi explains that even though they both committed their sins during the same time period, one of them, the gatherer of sticks, incurred the death penalty; they just did not know which particular death penalty. But regarding the one who cursed G-d, they did not know what his punishment was to be at all.

Rav Leibowitz asked, how does this difference explain why these two prisoners were housed separately? He answered that they were placed in separate locations to avoid the additional anxiety that the one who cursed G-d would feel if he observed that they housed him with someone who incurred the death penalty. How sensitive we must be to each tzelem Elokim, if even a criminal deserves this sensitivity. The lesson is even more profound when we examine the words of the Da’as Zekeinim. From there we see how particularly heinous the blasphemer who cursed Hashem actually was. And yet we see that we should be sensitive to his anxieties.

Rav Leibowitz, zt’l, was one of the gedolei ha’dor who personified the highest ideals of the Torah—in his words, deeds, teachings, and actions. His impact on Torah in America will be felt for centuries to come. The loss to all of us is most profound.

One comment on “Rav Henoch Leibowitz, 1916–2008

  1. the loss of the rosh hayeshiva is so great. Anytime I have occasion to even picture him tears come to my eyes. May he be a meilitz tov for all of us, that we should be matzliach in all we undertake for klal yisroel. And may Hashem help us to be zoche to have many such opportunities.

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