Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ridvaz-Kashrus in America-a repeat performance

A Fascinating Historical Feature Highlighting the Formidable Hurdles, Particularly in Kashrus, Faced by American Jewry at the Beginning of the Last Century

The Ridvaz on Kashrus in America -by Avrohom Birnbaum -This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is posted here with their permission

A Fascinating Historical Feature Highlighting the Formidable Hurdles, Particularly in Kashrus, Faced by American Jewry at the Beginning of the Last Century

This week is the week of July Fourth, America’s Independence Day. America has been a profound medina shel chesed. It has served as a haven of freedom for oppressed Jews, affording them the opportunity to rebuild their lives, free of oppression. We, as Torah Jews, must continually be thankful to this country for serving as a refuge. Nevertheless, the “freedom” of America has not come without a price, especially in the early years of Jewish immigration. During that period the prevailing feeling among immigrants was that being an American was in direct contrast to being an observant Jew. It was for this reason that most of the children of immigrants did not remain observant. The areas of chinuch and kashrus were almost always the first casualties on the path to assimilation.

Currently, the America in which we reside, is one in which we can even find a hechsher on bottled water on paper plates. There was a time, however, in the not so distant past when it was all but impossible to keep kashrus in American even when buying food bearing a hechsher. Boruch Hashem, despite the occasional kashrus issues that crop up, today’s kashrus situation is far more organized and trustworthy than it was at the beginning of the 1900s. Then America Jewry was comprised primarily of immigrants who were struggling to financially establish themselves and therefore neglected to invest the requisite time, effort and resources into ensuring proper kashrus and chinuch for the children.

A fascinating, first-hand account of the situation facing observant Jews in America in the early 1900s was written by one of the geonei hador, the Ridvaz. The Ridvaz, Rav Yaakov Dovid Willowsky, came to America in the early 1900s and was primarily based in Chicago. While in America, he published a sefer entitled “Nimukei HaRidvaz” on Chumash. In the introduction to this rare sefer, the Ridvaz records an enthralling historical account of religious life in America and documents the difficulties facing observant Jews with regard to the kosher food industry that was rife with corruption and ignorance.

What follows is a free translation of excerpts from the Ridvaz’s firsthand account of the spiritual state of early 20th Century American Jewry as written in the introduction to his sefer “Nimukei HaRidvaz”.

Chief Rabbi of Chicago and Zekan Harabbonim of America.

The Ridvaz, Rov of the famed Lithuanian city of Slutzk, first visited the United States in 1900 for the purpose of raising funds for the publication of his monumental commentary of the Talmud Yerushalmi called the “Ridvaz”. It was then that he got his initial taste of the deplorable kashrus situation in New York. He visited Rav Yaakov Yosef, famed Chief Rabbi of New York and found the great gaon and tzaddik to be a broken, forsaken man. Rav Yosef suffered terribly as a result of his unsuccessful attempts to regulate the kosher meat industry in New York. The Ridvaz spent five months in American during which time he visited almost every major Jewishly populated center of the country.

In 1903 he returned to America and settled in Chicago. He was appointed Rov of several shuls there and was called the Chief Rabbi of Chicago. In addition, the Agudas HaRabbanim gave him the honorary title of “Zekan HaRabbanim of America.”

It was in Chicago that the Ridvaz set out to try and organize the kashrus standards amongst the slaughterhouses and the butchers. At the outset, the Ridvaz refused to accept a salary or even allow the kehilla to pay his rent saying, “Until I feel that I am able to make improvements with regard to Torah and yirah, why do I need the Rabbanus or the salary that goes with it? I did not settle in this country in order to earn a living. I was not lacking for anything back home.”

The Root Causes of the Kashrus Problem in Early 20th Century America

The Ridvaz incisively pointed out the root causes of the complete chaos that characterized kashrus and organized Yiddishkeit in America. He explained that the reason so many people are eating non-kosher meat in America is because “America is a country comprised of immigrants from all four corners of the earth. No one knows who the other immigrant is; no one knows his situation; no one knows what he was in his home land and what he did there; and no one knows how he was viewed in his community back home. Many people who, in their hometowns were known as Jews who had cast off mitzvah observance, came to America and grew beards in order to fool unwitting people who have no way of checking into their past. These charlatans with long beards and rabbinic garments deliver public drashos and display semicha documents ostensibly written and signed by great European Rabbanim.”

In a candid admission on how European Rabbanim unknowingly and unwittingly contributed to the problems facing American Jewry, the Ridvaz continued, “The masses in America do not know that one cannot rely on semicha documents issued in Europe over the past few years. European Rabbanim now give semicha to practically every young man who requests it. They are well intentioned when granting such semichos. They feel that by granting semicha they are thereby encouraging their petitioners to come closer to Torah. In truth, over the last years that has been a strengthening in Torah learning in Europe as a result of the more liberal distribution of semicha documents. It is for this reason that every avreich who knows a bit about the first section of the Yoreh Deah order of Shulchan Aruch, receives semicha. I too granted many such semicha documents. I did not even dream that these people were far removed from Torah and yiras shamayim. These people were eventually thrown out of their co mmunities in Europe because they were found to be involved in unfavorable conduct. They then fled to America where they came to shuls and began to deliver drashos. If they were good orators they were employed by the shul to deliver the Shabbos sermon. They then pulled out their semichos and called themselves Rov of the shul. There are many such “Rabbanim” throughout the country’s shuls.”

Then, with great passion and consternation, the Ridvaz decries the resulting kashrus problems emanating from the relationship of such ‘Rabbanim’ with evil butchers. He writes, “Similarly, reshoim gemurim, absolutely evil people came from Europe to America and assumed the role of butchers who sell “kosher” meat to Jews. These ‘Rabbanim’ have teemed up with the wicked butchers. For a substantial fee, the butcher retains the ‘hashgacha’ of the ‘Rov’ and then earns even more money by feeding tarfus to fellow Jews.

“In addition,” writes the Ridvaz, “The ‘shochtim’ come from homes completely ignorant of Torah. They know how to wield a knife and shows a ‘kabalah’ that authorized them to shecht, but in truth, they are kal shebekalim – they are people who make extremely light of all that is holy and display a cavalier attitude to Torah observance. This can clearly be seen by all. For example they will go to the theater even on Shabbos Kodesh and the like!

‘The Jews, however, show no interest in clarifying who their butcher is and who is the Rov who is being mashgiach over him. They rely on the well known advice, “Az mi ruft ehm Mendel, meg men essen fun zan fendel – if they call him Mendel, one can eat from his pot…”

“Everything is Kosher”

The Ridvaz explained that not every Rov in America is guilty of the above mentioned transgressions but the G-d fearing Rabbanim are powerless to stop the diabolical bond between the corrupt Rabbanim and the butchers. “I cannot deny that I also find Rabbanim in this country who are true Torah scholars and possess much yiras shamayim and there are even shochtim and butchers who are upright Jews. They, however, do not have the power to help. The reason is that due to the unscrupulous conduct of many “Rabbanim,” the honor of the rabbinate is at a low. The simple Jews cannot distinguish between one “Rabbi” and another, between one shochet and another, between one butcher and another and they have therefore lost their trust and honor for all Rabbanim making it all but impossible for the trustworthy among them to have any influence. It is impossible to discern which meat is kosher and which is not because every store window flaunts a sign that “kosher meat is sold here”. Everywhere one walks, one sees bold signs touting basar kosher to the extent that one cannot find anywhere in the country that sells treif. Everything is kosher!”

“The G-d fearing Jews who know about Torah and know what Torah learning means are broken hearted when they see how difficult it is to actually obtain kosher meat. Unfortunately, they are helpless against the masses who have gathered from the four corners of the world and do not care one bit about kashrus! Those masses already ate tarfus on the ships that brought them to the United States and they have no interest in the chareidim’s efforts to institute safeguards that would guarantee that meat claiming to be kosher is actually kosher. Their ‘Rabbis’, their ‘shochtim’ and their butchers’ help them sell meat for cheaper prices. This then is all about cheap meat – cheap meat at the cost of the kashrus. Thus the ehrliche, Torah true butcher cannot even compete with them. He too, must lower his prices and he cannot make a profit…”

A Shochet That Is So Tired -  He Can Not Raise His Hand

The Ridvaz goes on to explain that not only is the lack of Torah observance of most of the Rabbis, shochtim and butchers in the meat industry a problem, but the actual way that the slaughterhouses are run and set up make it very difficult to have kosher meat.

“I have seen in this country another terrible thing that causes the hair to stand on end. The chicken shochtim have the job of plucking the feathers of the chickens that they slaughter. There are shochtim who shecht on Thursday and Friday close to 2,000 chickens and also pluck the feathers. They are so exhausted that on Friday night they cannot even raise their heads to eat. In some cases, family members have to spoon feed them because they simply do not have the strength to eat with their own hands. In such cases their shechita is complete neveilah and the utensils used to cook and eat the food become prohibited.

“Either way, as a result of this situation, untold numbers of Jews are consuming treife food, rachmana letzlan. Chazal teach that if a person wants divrei Torah to penetrate, he should daven that no forbidden food should ever enter his body. Once forbidden food is absorbed into one’s system, it drives out the spirit of Yiddishkeit and enables the forbidden desires to increase, r”l. As a result, a person becomes attracted to all kinds of abominations in a way that makes it difficult to do teshuva. All of this is caused by the fact that this country is such a gathering place for all types of people, good and bad, from lands throughout the world and no one is able to differentiate between good people and bad people…”

The Ridvaz also writes several horror stories that he himself witnessed and as he put it, “were nevalah, travesties of which we have never heard from the time of Mattan Torah up until today.”

He writes about a sly, immoral person who came and claimed to be a Rov, with rabbinic garments who then joined forces with non-Jewish owners of some of the largest slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants in the entire United States. Without the supply of animals from these slaughterhouses there would be no meat in the entire city [of Chicago] and would affect the amount of meat available in the entire country. This ‘Rov’ decided that he would drive away all the Rabbanim from the slaughterhouses so that there would be no true rabbinic supervision and he would be the only ‘Rov’ responsible for all of the kashrus in the four biggest slaughterhouses that supply large parts of the country with meat. Under the threat of losing their jobs, he forbade the shochtim from showing their shechita knives to any Rov other than him and declared that he would be the only person responsible for the kashrus in those four slaughterhouses.

“Gather together and listen bnei Yisroel to what this base individual did. Rend your hearts and not your garments upon hearing this. Have you ever heard of such a nevala?! Have you ever, in your days or in the days of your forefathers, heard that in the largest slaughterhouses and plants in the world where many thousands of workers are employed that there should be three shochtim for an entire plant?! All in all there are 12 shochtim for 4 plants, three of whom are also given the duties, in addition to shechita, of checking all of the organs and marking each piece of meat with a seal. They must check and mark the feet, the intestines, the livers, each one separately. They must sharpen and check their knives in between each shechita, they must blow up the lungs and they cannot rest for even one second because if they are in any way delayed, hundreds of slaughterhouse workers will be waiting for him to shecht. If these workers see the shochet delayed in coming to shecht they ju st kill the animals themselves [and call it kosher].

The Ridvaz concludes this chilling, heartbreaking story about that ‘Rov’ saying, “What did this sly, wicked man do? He prevented all Jews from keeping kosher and he caused Jews from across the United States to transgress the prohibition against eating treife meat from the slaughterhouses under his “supervision”. It is possible that one person could accept upon himself such a veritable mountain of aveiros? To forcefully prevent Jews from keeping kosher and then to boast about the brilliant move he had made!”

The Plan to Save American Jewry

Despite the terrible situation and complete chaos on the American scene, the Ridvaz initially did not give up. He hoped and planned to plant Torah in America in a way that it would grow and flourish. The Ridvaz wrote, “In an old sefer we find how a Rov from Germany who corresponded with a Rov in Poland and with regard to a certain halachic issue he writes, ‘that although I have ruled with leniency with regard to a certain issues, you should not rule this way in Poland because they are not bnei Torah in Poland.’ Eventually,” the Ridvaz continued, “Virtually all of German Jewry ended up moving to Poland and because Poland became the Torah center of the world. Who knows? Perhaps it is Hashem’s plan that one day Torah will flourish in this country too.”

The Ridvaz writes something akin to a prophecy. “Who knows? Perhaps one day Hashem will perpetuate the Torah and it will find a dwelling in this country. Let the future generations know what transpired in America at the time that [the Ridvaz] resided there. Let them know that among the Rabbanim and baalei batim there were both good and bad people…”

The Ridvaz then proposes a plan on how to have serious Torah learning and living take place in America. He goes on to say that he talked with many well meaning Jews who felt very shattered and broken at the increasingly precarious spiritual welfare of American Jewry. They desperately wanted that something should be done by the Ridvaz to stem the tide.

The Ridvaz wrote, “I answered their cry and responded to their foremost request and decided to live here in America and see what could be done. I was afraid to disregard their pleas because I saw that they wanted the situation rectified with every fiber of their hearts and souls.”

“The only approach that may save this country is if I would establish a yeshiva gedolah here and bring young great talmidei chachomim from Europe. Perhaps if I would open a yeshiva and begin to deliver regular shiurim, young talmidei chachomim would come to listen and thus we would be able to bring Torah into this country in a way that would begin to repair the breaches.

“This is not something that has never been done before. In the past Torah has been brought to an entire country through the efforts of one individual or several individuals. The Rambam is a prime example of one individual that injected Torah into an entire country.”

This was not the only foray into chinuch made by the Ridvaz. Another story that took place during the Ridvaz’s two year sojourn in America before his move to Tzefas was told over by Rav Moshe Kliers, Rov of Tzefas, who heard it directly from the Ridvaz.

“One day,” Rav Kliers related, “The Ridvaz read in a newspaper that a founding meeting was to be held for a new “progressive” Talmud Torah in one of the city’s shuls. His name was one of the names printed as a speaker slated to address the assemblage. Of course, that was the first time he had heard about this meeting and his name had been publicized as a supporter of the school and a speaker at the event without his knowledge. However, being that his name was on the roster of speakers, he felt a responsibility to attend and tell them what he truly felt about such a school. Immediately upon entering the shul, instead of going to sit next to the scheduled speakers, the Ridvaz went straight to the aron kodesh, pulled off the paroches and threw it on the floor, all the while wailing, “Torah, Torah, chigri sak – Torah, Torah, don sackcloth, bury yourself in the dust. The people here are doing nothing more than burying you in the ground and making a mockery out of you!”

Then, the Ridvaz, in a thundering voice, punctuated by sobs and tears, explained the churban that the “Progressive” people establishing this school wanted to wreak on the children. His powerfully strong speech made such an impression on the assemblage that many burst into tears. As a result of the Ridvaz’s uncompromising stance the founders were forced to desist.

In truth, however, despite the Ridvaz’s best efforts, powerful personality, despite his uncompromising position with regard to halacha and his world class stature as a gadol hador, he soon realized that it would be impossible to affect the change that he so wanted to implement in America. The hefkeirus, the freedom combined with the varied interest of unscrupulous leaders, both rabbinic and lay leaders, soon brought the Ridvaz to the realization that he would not succeed – not with regard to kashrus nor with regard to chinuch habannim.
The Ridvaz sold most of the new edition of the Talmud Yerushalmi with his commentary that he published. With the proceeds he was able to leave America and journey to Eretz Yisroel where settled in Tzefas and opened a yeshiva in which the best minds from Eretz Yisroel came to drink from his fountains of knowledge.

In spite of the Ridvaz’s failure to change the nature of Jewish observance in America at that time, without a doubt his influence and hashpaa planted some of the spiritual seeds for the burgeoning yeshivos and vibrant Yiddishkeit that exists today in the former treife medina of the United States of America.
*All translations of the words of the Ridvaz are ‘free translations’, not literal translations.  Sources: Nimukei Haridvaz, Olam Hachassidus, vol. 164

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