Please join me in praying for the health of my great mentor, Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) Belsky of New York City, an energetic man in his late seventies. He has been experiencing a downturn in wellness, and some concern is in order.
Although I studied under several great teachers, including several who have departed the Land of the Living, Rabbi Belsky may well be the most instrumental in inspiring me to be here with you today, to contribute as a proud Jew in the public arena, and compete in the marketplace of ideas.
I first encountered the good rabbi in summer camp. My father sent me to an Orthodox Jewish camp in the Catskills, where Rabbi Belsky oversaw the religious studies program. I was only eleven years old that first summer, and we did not study more than 90 minutes a day, yet I was captivated by the tall rabbi, six foot four or so, who seemed equally at ease giving learned lectures in the morning, and playing a mean game of handball in the afternoon. His manner was complaisant and he was seldom ruffled. I found him to be utterly compelling. Each summer I came back, still a frivolous, playful kid, but always watching the rabbi, studying his demeanor, listening to his conversation when I could get close enough.
Turning fifteen ended my eligibility as a camper, but there was a special program for “diligent” boys my age. I was a noted goof-off in school the year round, and none of my teachers could use the word “diligent” with my name in a single sentence, unless modified by “not.” But Rabbi Belsky surprised everyone by accepting me into this coterie of motivated students.
If he thought for a moment he could change me within a month or two in a relaxed environment, the moment soon passed. I gave him a run for the money all summer, coming late, missing classes, taking unauthorized voyages off camp grounds. He patiently contended with my monkeyshines, although he asked me to stop leading my peers into joining my little adventures.
At seventeen I was back in camp again, this time as a Counselor. I was anxious to find some time to slip away from my responsibilities to attend some lectures by Rabbi Belsky. My Junior Counselor, Solomon Ross, cut a deal with me where I gave him certain breaks in return for him covering for me so I could study. It was an absolute delight to hear the Rabbi once again, this time at an age where I could appreciate his ideas in more depth.
Forty years later, I still recall a beautiful thought he delivered in one of those classes:
The Talmud asks: what is the proper blessing to be recited when enjoying persimmon oil? It quotes Rabbi Judah of Babylon, who says one should recite “Blessed is God Who creates the oil of our Land.” Apparently persimmon oil was a particularly celebrated product of the Land of Israel. The Talmud rejects this view, saying it could not be trusted because of Rabbi Judah’s inordinate love of Israel. Instead it adopts the view of Rabbi Johann, who suggests this text: “Blessed is God Who creates sweet oil.”
It is unheard of for a scholar’s legal view to be rejected based on imputed bias. We always trust the great scholars to rise above self-interest or emotional attachment to deliver an objective view. This instance is a total outlier: Rabbi Judah is so madly in love with Israel that any legal position he takes favoring it is not reliable. Who do we trust instead? Rabbi Johann, who apparently does not suffer from excessive devotion to the Land.
Now what do we know about Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Johann? Elsewhere in the Talmud we are taught that Rabbi Judah lived in Babylon his entire life and never had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land. On the other hand, Rabbi Johann took pride in the fact that he was born in the Land and never left it even for a brief time.
This shows us that even the great love for the Holy Land can be flattened by familiarity. Rabbi Johann, who was used to being in Israel, was not nearly as enamored of the Land as was Rabbi Judah, who never got the chance to actually behold the object of his affections.
This teaching has sustained me in my life, reminding me not to let habit blunt idealism, not to become inured to the blessings which surround me, nor to stop fighting for our vision of virtue and valor.
His erudition across a wide range of disciplines is awesome. I once sat in the back seat of his car for several hours driving from Brooklyn to the Catskills. In the front passenger seat was a history buff, who kept quizzing him about Jewish life in France in the Middle Ages. I sat spellbound as Rabbi Belsky described each French monarch and his relationship to the Jews, then outlined the geographical and cultural shifts that accompanied the political activity. All this was delivered with a fluency suggesting he had just delivered a paper on the subject at the Sorbonne.
He was a member of the Editorial Board of the first magazine I edited, back in 1977. It was called the Forum, and it was published by a national Jewish organization for distribution to Yeshiva students. He would fight for my articles, which tended to be fiery and activist. There were more temperate voices on the Board who counseled moderation above all, but the Rabbi had my back. Now it is our turn to have his back, by praying he recover his full health and vigor.