Another great paragraph, about authentic Litvak rabbinic culture:
My shver was uniquely sensitive to society. Despite what they write in all the books about him, my shver never failed to read the Yiddish newspaper – either the Tog in the early years or the Morgn-Zhurnal later on – cover-to-cover every single day. People publish that he would walk down the street and avert his eyes when he passed by newspaper stands. There are a thousand talmidim of his who will testify, “I bought the paper and handed it to him in the lunchroom in the yeshivah,” but it does not make a difference for some people – they do not want to hear that. Even when he was not well and the doctor insisted that he must lie down to sleep for an hour, he would go home, put on a bathrobe, and smuggle a newspaper into the bedroom so that his wife would not see it. He sat there reading the whole time, rather than sleeping. I used to ask him, “Why do you read this chazeray (junk)?” He would respond to me, “Dos iz mayn vinde” – this is my window [to the world]. He understood society and his piskei Halachah show that. He used to say, “People think that because I’m aware of society, I became a meikel (lenient decisor). What do they want me to do – paskn incorrectly? I’m not a meikel – I paskn the way it has to be. The Halachah takes into account societal factors.” This willingness to be exposed to society made his teshuvos more meaningful and more acceptable.
His success as a posek, I think, also stems from how hard he worked on every teshuvah. He first wrote a given teshuvah on a piece of stationery, then recorded it in a composition notebook, then copied it into a big ledger, and finally reviewed it and sent it in for publication with notes and additions in the margins. His hard work paid off. During the last months of his life, he said to me, “Baruch Hashem, I’ve never had to retract a teshuvah.” He did a better job than most in that respect.
Also, he was a very nice man. There was a lady upstairs where he lived who would often receive letters from Russia, but she did not read Russian. So she would come down and knock on the door while Rav Moshe was writing a teshuvah and asked that he please translate the letter, and he did so. Similarly, one Erev Shabbos, a neighbor criticized him because she saw him being picked up by car and taken to the yeshivah for davening after she had already bentshed licht (lit Shabbat candles). So he wrote in a teshuvah subsequently that even though it was muttar, he promised, beli neder, not to do it again. He was just a very nice person with virtually no hang-ups, no shtik, and was extremely accessible.
Rav Ya’akov Kamenetzky, zts”l, was also an interesting case. He was a neighbor of mine and, you will pardon the expression, a liberal Jew. He just loved everyone. My shver would come to us in Monsey on Motsa’ei Yom ha-Kippurim and stay until two weeks after Simchas Torah. That was his time to himself, when no phone calls or visitors were allowed in. Only one person was allowed into the house on Chol ha-Mo’ed Sukkos and that was Rav Ya’akov. He would come in and sit with my shver for two hours chatting and laughing the whole time like two little boys – not talking about Torah or politics, but rather reminiscing about the Old Country together. Then, twenty minutes after Rav Ya’akov left, my shver would come to me and say, “M’darf geyn bazuchn Reb Yankev” (We have to visit Rav Ya’akov). We drove over and my shver would come in and wish him a gut yontef and then leave. Why? It was part of rabbinic protocol: you came to me, so I have to go to you in turn. Hitler did not kill all the Jews, but he destroyed our culture. There is no remnant of that old-time European ethos in this generation.Read the rest in the new Kol Hamevaser.