Anyone familiar with Jewish history knows it is a breathtaking saga of triumphs and tribulations, heroes and victims, survival and perseverance, that makes even the most dramatic fiction pale in comparison. But what some may not know is that despite the many lands the Jewish people have ‘wandered’ in, the multitude of cultures we’ve adapted to and languages we’ve learned to speak, there has always – since our inception as a nation – been a single, unifying force at our core. A force we have lived for and often died for. A force that has driven us, strengthened us and, ultimately, defined us. This force is the Torah. The body of knowledge, wisdom, laws and secrets, revealed by G-d at Mt. Sinai, that have been guarded and treasured by countless generations of Jews since time immemorial.
According to the famous 10th century rabbi and philosopher, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the defining characteristic of the Jewish nation, what makes us a people – more than blood, more than language, more than shared experiences – is our Torah. While many of us revel in the glory of the famous ‘benchmark’ miracles in our history, often marked by shared celebrations, what we sometimes fail to appreciate is the very miracle of our survival as a people and, even more astonishing from a historical perspective, our success in preserving that same Torah, intact and alive, through thousands of years, across thousands of miles, despite insurmountable odds. The story of the Jewish People and their Torah, beginning at the foot of a mountain 3,331 years ago in the Sinai desert, still playing out today, in 2019, in Dallas, Texas and so many other communities around the world, is nothing short of miraculous. Miracles, of course, are G-d’s handiwork. But the dedication and devotion of so many people over so many millennia, stepping up to stand in the breach and be worthy of miracles, has left us with a legacy that is nothing short of inspirational.
The Bible recounts in great detail the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan, in fulfillment of G-d’s promise to their forefather Abraham, the founding of King David’s dynasty and the building of the First Temple by his son and successor, King Solomon. In the year 420 B.C.E. the army of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed that Temple, conquered the land and led the Jewish people to exile in Babylonia. When Persia replaced Babylonia as the world power, the Jews found themselves living under Persian rule. The Persian King Cyrus then issued an edict permitting the Jews to return to the land of Israel. After 70 years in exile the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland. This marked the first time in history that an exiled people were able to return to their original country. Only 50,000 chose to go back to the land of Israel, with the majority choosing to remain in Babylonia. This was a new reality for the Jewish people. What we take for granted in our time, was unheard of before this turning point. For the first time, there were two major Jewish communities living apart from each other, in separate lands.
The Jewish community that returned to the Land of Israel rebuilt the Temple with the permission of their Persian overlords. They spent the next 200 years living under a succession of foreign empires. First Alexander the Great when he conquered the Persian empire, and then the Selucid Greeks after the death of Alexander. In the year 168 BCE, the Selucid king Antiochis IV Epiphanes began a campaign against the Jewish religion. Jews were no longer free to practice their religion and study the Torah. They rose up against this oppression in what was to be known as the Maccabean revolt. Pious and learned scholars became dauntless and fearsome warriors. Judah the Maccabee led the Jewish people to victory in battle over their Greek oppressors and founded the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled Israel for over 100 years. This victory culminated in the miracle of a small flask of oil burning for eight days in the newly reconquered and rededicated Temple in Jerusalem. This miracle is commemorated by Jews in the holiday of Chanukah to this very day. What is often lost in recounting the story of Chanukah is what the Jews were fighting for. They were not fighting for political freedom. They had lived under foreign domination for over two centuries and never rebelled. Nor would they have rebelled to throw off the tyranny of Greek domination. They rebelled because the arrogant Greeks attacked that which the Jews will always defend. The very heart of their Jewishness. The Torah. It was only the threat to their Torah and its way of life that led the Jews to risk their lives and attack the mighty Greek army.
The Hasmonean dynasty ultimately crumbled due to internal strife, civil war, and usurpation. The Herodian dynasty was founded but this brought Israel under the domination of the Roman Empire. In the year 66 CE a group of Jewish agitators known as the Zealots began a rebellion against the Romans. This led to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70. Thousands of Jews were killed, thousands more enslaved and still thousands more were exiled throughout the Roman empire. Despite these incredible upheavals, which obviously disrupted every aspect of daily life and routine, Jewish learning and scholarship survived and even thrived. When the sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was granted an audience with the conquering Roman General (soon to be Emperor) Vespasian, he asked that the Romans spare the academy of Yavneh and its sages. To the mighty Emperor (and the rest of the world) this must have seemed like a foolish and meaningless gesture. But through the lens of history we now see the vaunted Roman empire buried in the sands of time, while the teachings of the sages of Yavneh are studied and treasured daily by Jews around the world. Against the backdrop of upheaval and instability, Rabbi Judah the Prince redacted the Mishnah, and the analysis of that Mishna was completed some 150 years later in the Jerusalem Talmud. The Jews in Babylonia were also at the height of their creative activity, culminating in the Babylonian Talmud which was completed around 500 CE.
Through all these trials and tribulations, there were always great leaders to study and teach Torah among the Jewish people, carrying it with them through the exile. From the prophet Ezekiel carrying Torah to Babylonia at the destruction of the First Temple, to Ezra the Scribe who led the Jews back to rebuild, to men like Rabbi Akiba who lovingly taught Torah, and ultimately was killed for it, during the worst of the Roman barbarities, there were always great men who recognized the eternal spark of the Jewish people and dedicated themselves to preserving that spark for the next generations. They always seemed to face insurmountable odds, and yet miraculously the chain remained unbroken, adding link after impossible link.
One particularly interesting example of G-d’s hidden hand in the transmission of Torah is the story of the four captives. Through the personal tragedy of four great scholars, that could have seemed like the end of an era, a new age of Torah dawned in Northern Africa and Europe. History tells us of the story of four great Rabbis, Rabbi Shmariah, Rabbi Hushiel, and Rabbeinu Moshe ben Enoch, (the name of the fourth rabbi is not known), who were traveling together on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea when their boat was overtaken by pirates. The pirates boarded the boat and took all the passengers as their hostages. The captive rabbis were eventually redeemed by various Jewish communities in North Africa. In gratitude to these communities, each of them stayed and founded great centers of Torah learning. These great men were G-d’s instruments to bring Torah from the great academies of Babylonia to the Jews of North Africa. No one would ever have suggested such a move. No one could have predicted it. But ultimately it set the stage for the next link in the chain. The center of Torah had shifted yet again.
As the North African Moors conquered western Europe, the Jews and their Torah moved with them. The great Sephardic communities of Spain and Portugal became the central bases for Torah scholarship under the leadership of such luminaries as Nachmanidies and Don Isaac Abarbanel. At the same time, Jews from elsewhere in the ancient Roman empire were migrating to France and Germany. The legendary Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) and his family and students, the Tosafists, founded houses of study that were to last for hundreds of years.
After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jews were once again in search of a home. They found refuge in the country of Poland. At the time, they said of Poland, “”Po Lin (Hebrew for “here we can rest”). They had hoped to find a country where they could finally find respite from the never-ending exile. But it was not meant to be. While the Jews were able to survive in Poland, it was a precarious and tumultuous existence at best. Upheavals like the Cossack revolution of Chmielnicki brought devastation and destruction to these communities. Yet through all this, against all odds and defying all logic, the study of Torah could be heard in the great Torah academies of Europe. From Volzhin to Brisk, from Slabodka to Kaminetz there were always scholars dedicated to the preservation and transmission of Torah.
There were many persecutors and agitators, but all faded into memory after the all-consuming fire of the Nazi Holocaust, marking the near-total destruction of European Jewry. And yet, even a Holocaust could not break the chain of Jewish heritage. From the ashes of Europe, a few great men brought Torah study to the shores of a new world. Some had left before the war for personal reasons, some escaped during the conflict and yet others survived the inferno and resolved themselves to rebuild, carrying their teachings to Jewish communities outside Europe. Out of the charred remains of the once-vibrant Torah landscape of Europe, they came to the barren spiritual desert of the ‘new world’. And yet again, against the odds, despite the obstacles and impossibilities, they sowed the seeds for what is now the vibrant, thriving new world of Torah study we see today both here in America and in Israel.
The founding of the modern State of Israel is yet another miracle in the history of the Jewish people. It has never happened in world history that a nation has been conquered, routed, exiled, and then later returned to their original homeland. Something that is a historical impossibility, has been accomplished by the Jewish people- twice! And after 2,000 years of exile! We have defied the laws of nature, sociology and history! G-d promised our father Abraham, all those centuries ago, that He would never allow us to disappear from the Earth. He would never allow us to be absorbed into another nation and lose our national identity. He would never allow the Torah to be taken from us. That promise may have seemed minor at the time. But it seems unfulfillable in retrospect. Yet that promise has never been broken. Neither has the eternal chain of Torah. It has kept the Jewish people connected to the Torah, to the Land of Israel and to each other beyond all rational predictions.
One of the great men who carried Torah to the shores of America was Rabbi David Leibowitz. A student of the famous Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, he was charged by his mentor and uncle, the famous Chofetz Chaim, to be a teacher of Torah. He saw in the United States fertile ground for this mission. Torah study in 1930s America was almost non-existent, and Jewish connection to the Torah was waning. Many assimilated American Jews told him these ideas were obsolete and this ancient way of life could never take root in modern, enlightened times. Undaunted, he founded the Rabbinical Seminary of America, naming it Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim after his illustrious uncle. It was only the third Yeshiva in America, founded in 1933 during the height of the depression. He was told he wouldn’t last 10 days. And by all logical accounts it shouldn’t have. But he knew the strength of the unbroken chain. He was certain that if he stayed true to the ideals and lessons he had carried with him from his predecessors, he could not fail.
In the next installment of this article, we will learn how Dallas has become home to one of the most prestigious branches of the Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva!
Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman is one of the founding Rabbis of Texas Torah Institute and, with Rabbi Daniel Ringelheim, heads the TTI Bais Medrash program. He received his Smicha Yoreh Yoreh / Yadin Yadin from the Rabbinical Seminary of America, Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, and has been teaching since 1996. Rabbi Kaufman’s keen insight and personal warmth have made him a very popular teacher among his TTI students and within the greater Dallas community, where he lives with his wife Shifra and their children. Rabbi Kaufman can be reached at (972) 250-4888.