Rabbi Israel Salanter
Posted 4/20/2005
By Shlomo Friedman

Title: Rabbi Israel Salanter
Author: Menahem Glenn
Reprinted by Yashar Press
Reviewed by Shlomo Friedman

A picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the non-existence of any picture of him is more than a thousand words: it confirms his humility, his total abnegation of himself, of externals. Although Reb Yisroel, recognized as one of the gedolim of his time, living in the most cosmopolitan areas of Europe � Vilna, Koenigsberg, Paris � died some 40 years after the advent of the camera, more than 20 years after Brady photographed Lincoln, he never posed for a photograph, but he left an indelible imprint of his personality on Jewish history.

In a scholarly and well written biography by Menahem Glenn, first printed in 1952 and now reprinted by Yashar Press, Reb Yisroel`s extraordinary character and mission are woven together by contemporary accounts of his students and other witnesses. Although, he lived in a time of fierce conflicts between mithnagdim, hasidim and maskilim � all admired him for his unwavering probity and sincerity.

Reb Yisroel is regarded as the founder of the mussar movement, a movement that stressed reflection, self analysis, and ethics. According to Glenn, Reb Yisroel`s emphasis on mussar was to counter the influence of haskalah. The threat of the maskilim to Reb Yisroel was their self-delusion that the European governments would grant Jews equality if they would only make reforms to "fit in." Reb Yisroel thought that attempts of European governments to bestow rights on Jews for concessions in education and dress was a trap, a lure to bring Jews closer to assimilation. Mussar, with it`s emphasis on the demolishing vanity and ego, would enlighten an individual from within as opposed to the maskel who believed enlightenment was to come from the external world. Reb Yisroel did not view the threat of haskalah in it`s pursuit of science, on the contrary, he would travel to seek the advice of doctors and scientists to elucidate the Torah.

Indeed, history proved Reb Yisroel right � even the maskilim started to concede by the late 19th century that their reforms to placate the European governments achieved little by way of equality and mainly resulted in assimilation and the corrosion of Jewish life. Max Lilienthal, one of haskalah`s main proponents, left Russia in disgust when it became obvious that the czarist government`s intentions was to slowly chip away the identity of its Jewish citizens. Hence, the Zionist movement was born out of the failure of the maskilim to achieve the acceptance they believed would follow their modifications to Judaism.

Reb Yisroel`s emphasis on mussar was criticized by some of the leading luminaries of his time, but it was impossible for any of them to attack him personally because he was entirely without ulterior motives. As the more popular co-rosh hayeshiva of a yeshiva in Vilna, he resigned his position rather than attempt to oust the other dean of the yeshiva when it became clear that ideological differences would mean only one of them could remain at the helm. Living in poverty, he refused a generous offer to head a rabbinical institution. He refused to be the Kovno Rav, recommending a younger scholar instead: Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Specktor. He was critical of rabbonim because they associated themselves with men of means while ignoring the poor.

The small stipend he received from a supporter, he regarded as stolen money � it pained him deeply � as he once explained to a guest who partook of his meals that although the food was purchased with stolen money it was halachically permissible for another to eat the food purchased with it since it had been transformed

Many books about gedolim have anecdotes attesting to the greatness of their learning or character. Unfortunately, many of the same anecdotes are told about different gedolim, leading to doubt whether the story truly happened and if it did, who can it be attributed to? Dr. Glenn, however, has meticulously culled his inspiring stories of Reb Yisroel from contemporary accounts, many that were eye-witnesses to his character. These aren`t bubbe masses (old wives` tales). It was Reb Yisroel, a contemporary account writes, who missed Kol Nidre in order to care for a crying child that a mother had left behind with a young sister. It was Reb Yisroel, when he saw the dilapidated condition of the poor house in Kovno, who made it his residence, refusing to leave, until a chastened community pledged to make it a more hospitable place for the indigent.

He spent some of his last years lecturing university students and attempting to spearhead a project to translate the Talmud. The Torah should be accessible to everyone, he believed. He made himself accessible to everyone. He was a truly embedded gadol. V`chai bahem � live with them, was his mantra, live with the Torah, but it has to be made alive in order to keep it. V`chai bahem, too, is what led him to confidently issue a decree to eat on Yom Kippur when a cholera epidemic was raging throughout the city of Vilna.

He had no retinue, no handlers, no official position and he left no possessions, except for a lone pair of tefillin, when he died. His disciples established yeshivas that would be seared in minds of yeshiva students as the zenith of European Torah and mussar study: Slabodka, Kelm and Novardok

Like many Mussar Seforim, Dr. Glenn`s book is not very large: only 212 pages, including copious footnotes and a translation of the Reb Yisroel`s Iggeres Hamussar. And like a mussar sefer, this book, a biography of an ish emes, has to be reread several times to absorb the lessons of how only the examined life is worth living. We are painfully bereft of such leaders today. As a maskil wrote of Reb Yisroel, "Where are you Rabbi Israel, you who rule the spirit of our people?"