Monday, December 24, 2007

A Taste of the Past

R' Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was known to have felt a strong connection to R' Hayyim Heller, in part because R' Heller had studied with RYBS' own great-grandfather, the Beis Halevi, with the Netziv, and other greats of the late-19th-century Yeshiva world. He was a link with the past, making the past real for the present.

Similarly, my camp rav R' Bernard Berzon z"l had met my great-grandfather's brother, Joseph H. Cohen, who subtly influenced the shape of American Modern Orthodoxy.

I had such a moment today, at Biegeleisen's bookstore in Boro Park. I asked for David Zohar's recent reprint of R' Chayim Hirschensohn's Malki Bakodesh Vol I, a responsa collection. R Hirschensohn has recently drawn a good deal of attention, not least because his books were put online. His program of working out the halachic background for running a modern democratic state started a conversation that, by the time of Dr. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, seems to have disappeared, on drawing halacha out of a ghetto mentality into its full flowering as the legal system of a Torah-based state.

The store is run by two old men, brothers I think, I don't know their names. The shorter one's ears perked up when I mentioned "Malki Bakodesh, the one by the rav of Hoboken"

"You mean Hirschensohn? Wait just a few minutes, I have some of his old books. You interested in the originals? I have one with his signature. Wait, have a seat." He does some business, goes in the back, digs around, and comes out with two books: Malki Bakodesh Vol 3-4, and vol. 1 of Eleh Divrei haBrit, on the various types of covenants in the Bible. He shows me the signature in the teshuvah collection: "That's his John Hancock! Maybe I have another, let me look."

He goes back, I start reading through the book, it has correspondence with all the greats of the early 20th century - fascinating stuff on running a modern business, political realities, apparent conflicts between civil and religious law. R' Adam Mintz has noted that part of Hirschensohn's program was to show how halacha and modern life don't necessarily conflict, as most other rabbis posit, rather, halacha goes with modern life, they work together.

He comes out, I chat with the taller brother about the dedication in one of the books to Hirschensohn's son-in-law R. Dr. David de Sola Pool, later to author the RCA Siddur, rabbi of the Spanish/Portuguese Synagogue in New York. My mother remembers Dr. Pool as a tall, dignified somewhat forbidding character, very much the old Spanish grandee.

"You know, he used to shop here!" "Hirschensohn?" "Yes, I remember when I was a boy, he would come into the store." Wow. "Here, let me figure out a price, if you want it, or not, if you want it later, I'll put it back for now."

Not only did I buy a book by an interesting rav, I found a memory of him in the store. The people in the past are not gone as long as people remember.


Ha-historion said...

I didn't know that R' De Sola Pool married R' Hirschesnon's daughter. Thanks for that tidbit.

Anonymous said...

So nu, how much :)

Modesta said...

You write very well.