kosher bookworm

Rav Yisroel Belsky: Multi-dimensional gadol


He was one of the greatest leading rabbinic figures of the last century; learned and polite, well versed in the codes; brave, direct and an effective communicator of G-d’s sacred teachings. His name, Rav Chaim Yisroel HaLevi Belsky, zt’’l. This week’s essay is devoted to his life’s sacred mission and purpose.

The book under review is “Rav Belsky, The Life of a Multi-dimensional Gadol: Rosh Yeshivah, Rebbi, Posek, Genius, Adviser, and Friend” (Artsroll-Masorah), written by the leading biographer and historian, Rabbi Shimon Finkelman.

What follows are the biographer’s replies to a series of questions I submitted. The first query was direct and to the point: What is your take of your book?

“Some people contend that all gedolim biographies are basically the same. I do not believe that is true, and certainly not in the case of Rav Belsky. As the subtitle of the book states, he was a ‘multi-dimensional gadol.’ He was an absolute genius who was absolutely down-to-earth, friendly, warm, caring. His chesed, his great heart, was something incredible. With regards to his Torah learning, he did not rely on his genius; rather, he studied diligently, reviewing his learning again and again throughout his life. He was a rebbi, a rosh yeshivah, a great posek and av beis din and, perhaps, the greatest expert of his time in the field of kashrus.

“He was the rav of a summer camp where he would devote himself heart and soul to leading and teaching a large group of bachurim who dedicated much of their summer vacation to limud haTorah. He took them on hikes, to Niagra Falls, played paddle ball with them … certainly not the typical gadol biography.”

My next question: What do you intend to accomplish with this book?

“It is said in the name of the Chazon Ish that a biography of a gadol is a mussar sefer, it is an instruction manual for how to live as a Jew in this world in accordance with the Torah’s teachings. In the case of Rav Belsky, who was born and bred in America, his story is especially instructive for our generation.

“Yes, he was a genius, but that does not preclude our learning from his selflessness, his ahavas Yisrael, his love of G-d and his Torah, his constantly seeking to see the greatness of Hashem in this beautiful, wondrous world that He created. In a nutshell, reading about Rav Belsky should inspire us to become better people and better Jews.”

Now, my final questions. First, what role in our people’s history has Rav Belsky played, and what will be his lasting legacy?

“A number of today’s great askanim in klal Yisrael are talmidim of Rav Belsky. His impact in the field of kashrus, his innovations and rulings in that area will have a positive effect for generations to come. But as he once said in the last years of his life, his greatest legacy will be through the scores of talmidim who passed through Room 206 in Mesivta Torah Vodaath in the half century that he was rebbi of his talmidim. Each talmid, whatever his walk of life, impacts on his family and community and in that sense, Rav Belsky and his teachings live on. And my hope is that through this book, thousands who never knew this great gaon and tzaddik will learn from his ways as well.”

In their heartfelt dedication to this sacred work, Yaakov and Ilana Melohn shared with us the following sentiments, which will conclude this week’s essay.

“For over 42 years, Rav Belsky, zt’’l, was not only my beloved rebbe, chavrusa, best friend, and confident, he was also like a father to me, and a grandfather to my children. … He made us what we are. No family could have had a greater privilege. …

“He did not have a free moment — but for anyone in need, he had endless time. He was a precious treasure of klal Yisrael — who can replace him?

“The story of Rav Belsky’s life will inspire generations to increase their ahavas Yisrael, study of Torah, and their service to G-d and of all klal Yisrael.

“May He be a meilitz yosher for all his family and our entire nation.”