Dr. Yitzchak Levine
One of the most interesting rabbinical personalities to immigrate to America during the first half of the 20th century was Rav Chaim Avraham Dov Ber Levine Hakohen (1859/1860-1938), who was known as the Malach (angel). He was born in the town of Ilya in Russia. His father, a rav in Krisleva, was a follower of the Mitteler Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Dov Ber, and subsequently of his son the Tzemach Tzedek.
Although a follower of Chabad, Rabbi Levine was also close to a number of Litvishe gedolim, something most unusual at the time. The Malach was recognized as an outstanding talmid chacham, and at a young age obtained semicha from Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector (1817-1896) at a young age. In addition to being famous for his Torah brilliance, he was also known for his ascetic tendencies.
“In Europe the Malach had been held in high esteem by Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920), the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Sholom Dovber had selected him to tutor his own son, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950), who was destined to succeed his father as the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. The honor brought the Malach disappointment and frustration and led to his estrangement from the Rebbe.”
In 1923 when the Malach’s son, Reb Rifoel Zalman, immigrated to America, the Malach came with him and became the rav of a small Lubavitcher congregation at Washington Avenue and 169th Street in the Bronx.
The Malach was indeed angel-like. He was a large man with a flowing white beard and piercing eyes. He measured his words, investing each one with an aura of significance.
Since he was an eminent sage known for his piety and learning, the Malach attracted a great deal of attention. Visitors came to hear him express his thoughts on the conduct required of a religious man; others came to seek his judgment in business disputes or his advice on pressing family matters.
The Malach was not in favor of studying secular subjects and, when he discovered that his son Rifael had acquired knowledge of biology, he nearly had a stroke. He became white and trembled so violently his family feared for him. He made his son promise never to study biology again.
Included among the Malach’s many admirers was Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, which was then located in Williamsburg on Wilson Street. It was founded in 1914 by Orthodox Jews who wanted to match their religious beliefs to the demands of the new environment. Rabbi Mendlowitz had arrived in the United Stares in that same year. In 1921, at the age of thirty-four, he was appointed principal of Torah Vodaath. It was under his leadership that the yeshiva rose to its position of prominence.
“An innovator and driving force in religious education, he started a mesivta (high school) to continue the education of students under his care, and in general helped to upgrade the level of yeshivah learning in the United States. While still a student in Europe, Rabbi Mendlowitz had become a follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the advocate of the Neo-Orthodox movement in Germany, who welcomed the integration of Western European middle-class culture into Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Hirsch’s philosophy was summed up in the phrase Torah Im Derech Eretz [Torah with worldly learning].
“While Orthodox religious principles were maintained at Torah Vodaath, the yeshiva was intended to enable the students to compete successfully in the professions and in the marketplace. The goal was to eliminate educational barriers to the acceptance of Orthodox Jews as full-fledged American citizens. In keeping with that goal, Torah Vodaath offered classes not only in traditional religious subjects but also in secular subjects, and the students divided their time between religious and secular spheres.
“It was Rabbi Mendlowitz’s practice to bring his students into contact with the religious leaders in the community. Each week he escorted a small number of students of the high school to visit the Malach. Although Rabbi Mendlowitz was not a chassid, he was learned in chassidus (chassidic philosophy) and he considered the two religious figures most influential in his life to be Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.
“Rabbi Mendlowitz taught a class in Tanya himself, and he welcomed the opportunity to hear the Malach’s commentary on the holy tracts for his own pleasure as well as for the education of the students. Primarily the visits provided the opportunity to introduce his students, all of whom had been born in the United States, to an example of the ‘living Torah.’ ”
Almost everyone in Torah Vodaath went to the Malach, who was considered a spiritual mentor. However, “it had not occurred to Rabbi Mendlowitz that the Malach would become a living icon” to some Torah Vodaath students. As time went on, the Malach “began to exhort them concerning their personal beings, instructing them to allow their beards and peyes to grow longer, to give up wearing ties and other frivolous and gentile attire. He convinced them of the desirability of wearing distinct dress, such as black kapotes [coats] and hats, and of forgetting about secular learning completely. They became absorbed with the requirements of kashrut (dietary laws); intense prayer and study were the primary concern of their existence. Their abrupt adherence to chassidic ways was a revolutionary turn in belief and conduct.”
He told the boys who were attracted to him that their beards would cleanse the atmosphere in the streets of New York and that their long coats and Yiddish conversations would create a holy new reality and would have reverberations for years to come.
“This radical change [in these students] left Rabbi Mendlowitz in dismay. The student followers of the Malach stood in direct opposition to his philosophy and to the standards of the yeshiva. He worried about their possible effect on the other students in the yeshiva. The members of the yeshiva governing board and most of the parents seemed to agree that the ultra-pious students set a dangerous example. They undermined the balance of secular and religious studies, and they contradicted the modern perspective of the yeshiva. Parents feared that their sons too might be influenced to return to the European manners that they on their own had so willingly discarded.”
Rabbi Mendlowitz called a meeting of the Board of Directors and “it was decided that those who insisted on continuing to go to the Malach weekly would not be permitted to attend classes. In 1933 the followers of the Malach were expelled from the yeshiva.” In 1936, the yeshiva of the Melachim, Nesivos Olam, was founded.
The Malach passed away in 1938 on the first day of Shavuos. He was laid to rest at the Riverside Cemetery in Lodi, New Jersey.
The Malach had one son, Rifael Zalman (1900-1992), who was born in Ilya, a small town located on the outskirts of Vilna. Reb Zalman was a child prodigy and trained by his father in Torah and memory development based on the Maharal’s approach to education, which emphasized mastery of basics before moving on to advanced study.
Prior to his study of Gemara, Reb Zalman was required by his father to complete the study of all of Mishnayos. Even after his son achieved recognition as an accomplished scholar who had mastered Gemara and halacha, the Malach continued to emphasize to him the need to continuously update the integration of basics into advanced study.
At an early age the Malach helped develop his son’s memory by asking him several times a day to take five minutes to remember in detail everything that had transpired since the last five-minute period. Once he began to read, he was asked to picture the pages he had read and to recall them from memory. These exercises led to Reb Zalman’s possessing an extraordinary memory.
Later Reb Zalman studied under some of the Torah greats of his time, mastering the entire body of Torah and halacha. Rav Eliezer Rabinowitz, known as the Gadol of Minsk, said Reb Zalman had “greatly worked and toiled” in Torah during his youth. Rav Rifoel Shapiro, son-in-law of the Netziv and a rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, wrote that the young Reb Zalman was “filled with Gemara and poskim.” He received semicha from a number of prominent rabbonim – including, in 1918, Rav Chaim Soloveichik, three months before Rav Chaim passed away.
From 1919 until his departure for America in 1923 Reb Zalman was a student of Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz. Reb Baruch Ber was one of the foremost students of Rav Chaim Soloveichik, and thus had mastered Rav Chaim’s deeply analytical approach to the study of Gemara. This approach was transmitted to Reb Zalman by Reb Baruch Ber, whom Reb Zalman considered his rav hamuvhak. His rebbi likewise thought highly of Reb Zalman.
In 1923 Reb Zalman, together with his father and a sister, immigrated to America (his mother had passed away a year and a half earlier). In 1929 Reb Zalman married the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Yaacov HaLevi Horowitz, the Rav of Albany. He remained in Albany for the rest of his life. His father suspected that living in Albany was just far enough away from his own residence in the Bronx to permit his fiercely independent son to live a “worldly” life.
When Reb Baruch Ber came to America in 1929, he spent ten days in Albany visiting Reb Zalman. The two Torah giants spent hours discussing a variety of Torah topics, some of which went well beyond subjects normally dealt with in Lithuanian yeshivas.
Reb Zalman developed relationships with a number of North American gedolim. Beginning in the late 1930s he consulted primarily by telephone with Rav Moshe Feinstein. However, sometime in the early 1950s Reb Zalman went to visit Reb Moshe, who asked him about a recent chalitza in Albany about which he’d received a phone call. The person who called from Albany did not identify himself and Reb Moshe naturally assumed he was Reb Zalman. Reb Zalman told Reb Moshe he knew nothing about the matter. After that incident Reb Zalman would deal with Reb Moshe only in person.
After Reb Zalman’s wife, Fannie, passed away in 1973, he began to accept invitations from some of his friends in Albany for Yom Tov meals. Later he started spending Yom Tov with relatives who did not live in Albany and with some Malachim who were original followers of his father. Finally, he began to spend some Yomim Tovim at kosher hotels that catered to a strictly Orthodox clientele. At one of these he met Rav Pinchas Hirschprung, the Rav of Montreal. Rav Hirschprung was a brilliant talmid chacham endowed with an eidetic memory that enabled him to memorize hundreds of volumes of rabbinic literature verbatim. He and Reb Zalman were kindred spirits and became close friends.
Reb Zalman was not a talmid chacham who cut himself off from others. Indeed, he often demonstrated a special sensitivity to people, as the following stories illustrate.
When the patriarch of a certain family living in Albany passed away, the family felt it had no further need for the deceased’s Shas, Mishnah Torah, and Turimand insisted that Reb Zalman take these sefarim, despite his protests. A few days later Reb Zalman drove to the Lower East Side with the intention of selling the sefarim to Goldman’s Otzar HaSefarim bookstore. That way the volumes would be purchased by someone and put to good use.
As he exited his car he encountered Rav Rifael Reuven Grozovsky, an old friend from Europe. After the two men spent some time updating each other on their lives, Reb Zalman asked Rav Reuven what brought him to Goldman’s bookstore. Rav Reuven said was looking for a Shas or a Rambam or a Tur he could afford. Reb Zalman told Rav Reuven about the sefarim from the family in Albany and said he could think of no more fitting owner for them than Rav Reuven. He and Rav Reuven drove to Rav Reuven’s apartment, and the two of them carried the sefarim up the stairs. When Rav Reuven went to look for money to pay for the three sets of sefarim, Reb Zalman quickly left before he could be paid anything.
There was a shul in Albany that had remained strictly Orthodox since the middle of the nineteenth century despite attempts by some to move it into the Reform camp. Sometime around 1940 the shul announced that since teenagers generally had no money to donate to the shul, they would be given aliyahs only at their bar mitzvahs and not after. Reb Zalman protested to the officers of the congregation, telling them that young people were the future of the shul. Apparently the shul officials did not agree with him, and Reb Zalman began attending another shul.
When Reb Zalman sat shiva for his sister (who lived past the age of 100), a steady stream of talmidei chachamim came to be menachem avel. One day a well-known mechaneches came to express her condolences. However, she had trouble getting close enough to speak to him due to the large number of men present. Reb Zalman noticed this and had the men step aside so she could approach him. He treated her with special graciousness and related to her stories of gedolim he knew she would find especially meaningful.
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Zalman Rifael Levine worked full-time for the State of New York (overseeing the disbursement of checks received by state workers) for many years, finally retiring at age 84. However, his job was not the real focus of his life – limud haTorah was. He devoted large amounts of time and great effort to Torah study. He awoke each morning at 4:45 so that he could learn before going to work. At about 7 p.m., after returning from work and eating dinner, he would give a private shiur on the works of the Maharal. After that there followed the study of other sefarim.
Visitors came from all over to learn from him, to study with him, and to consult with him. One can find students he influenced living in Monsey, Monroe, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and many other places. In his later years, whenever he traveled to Monsey and Monroe he was welcomed not only as the Malach’s son but as a formidable and revered Torah scholar in his own right.