Interactions with Rav Belsky, zt“l – Redefining the Word “Irreplaceable”

Rav Belsky in action at OU Headquarters

Rav Belsky in action at OU Headquarters for his weekly p’sak session, bedazzling captivated listeners with his Torah, wit and genius. Photo credit: Rabbi Eliyahu Ferrell

Ever since my first encounter with Rav Belsky at OU Headquarters, where I had the zechus (privilege) to present shailos, halachic questions, about sensitive kashrus matters to Rav Belsky for almost two decades and to gain from his immense wisdom, I have been spoiled, as have been all of my colleagues at OU Kosher who came to Rav Belsky during his Thursday sessions at the OU to pose important shailos pertaining to the food manufacturers whose accounts they handle. We have been so spoiled.

We have been spoiled by having a first-class technical master who knew the processes, equipment, relevant science and issues far better than anyone. Rather than having to first explain to Rav Belsky the metzius, the facts on the ground about the issue for which we came for guidance, Rav Belsky would instead give us a lesson on it as we began each discussion. Usually, one needs to laboriously present a posek (halachic decisor) with the technical intricacies of each shailah, and perhaps repeat and break it all down several times so that it can be understood, before the posek is confident that he has the information clear. With Rav Belsky, this was not necessary. It was like a student asking a top-tier math professor a simple math question or an acclaimed physicist a basic physics question – there was no need to explain to Rav Belsky about the technology and science, for it was all on his fingertips. This uniquely elevated the halachic discourse to unparalleled levels of ease and sophistication, and gave us, the rabbinic coordinators, the luxury and comfort of interacting with someone who fit so naturally into our world of kashrus and technical processes. In fact, Rabbi Genack told me on several occasions that food company executives related to him that Rav Belsky, after visiting factories for kashrus purposes, understood the equipment and processing mechanisms better than they themselves did, and taught them things about their own operations of which they were unaware.

We have likewise been spoiled by having a top-notch rosh yeshiva and lamdan, an in-depth Torah scholar, serve as posek. Every time we asked a shailah, we received a mini-shiur (lecture) on the topic, a detailed explanation of the mechanics of the metzius, and an answer that was so compelling that we knew it was pure emes – pristine truth – and not something based on an “ukimta” (limited presumption) or an approach that we felt was subject to question. The answer reflected Rav Belsky’s profound understanding of the sugya (topic), evincing sophisticated and developed s’varos (logic) that emanated from the depth and bedrock of the Halacha as only a rosh yeshiva can grasp it. Answers were never superficial or based on a “cheshbon” (tally) or less masterful approach, such as deciding an issue based on the number of mekoros (sources) which rule a certain way versus those that rule otherwise. Rav Belsky would read aloud from the relevant seforim, the sacred books, when replying to shailos, in order to show us the mekoros and the leshonos , the specific expressions and nuances, and make us feel part of the masa u’matan (halachic give-and-take). After rendering a decision, Rav Belsky would show us inside how the p’sak (ruling) was in truth what the Gemara, Shulchan Aruch, Remo, Nosei Keilim (Commentators) and relevant ShuT (question and answer) seforim meant. It always came forth so decisively clear that the p’sak was emes, as if Rav Belsky had read the minds of the Mechaber (author of the Shulchan Aruch), Remo, etc. Totally compelling teshuvos (responsa) of dizzying depth, with pashtus, pure simplicity, that fit the words of the mekoros and we knew reflected their true intent, was what Rav Belsky always presented.

This mizug, this unique blend, of a posek who was both a halachic doyen and technical wizard, all with such depth and breadth, is irreplaceable.

Dr. Avraham Meyer, the OU’s most senior overseas field representative, whose prowess in kashrus and science are unequalled, told me after Rav Belsky passed away that Rav Belsky was “the most amazing man I have ever met, and I have been around for a quite a while”. Dr. Meyer explained: “One of the most remarkable memories of my life was having lunch at a OU conference with Rav Belsky, discussing kashrus and microbiology. The intellectual speed (truly a supersonic thinker); the interest in and understanding of a complex science and technology; the innovative thinking; the whole range of conceivable halachic approaches at his fingertips. It was wonderful and excellent for my humility. Plus all that a lovely, caring person. I can’t even achieve that.”

There are two more aspects of Rav Belsky I would like to present: his overpowering commitment to Torah and his low-key/high-caliber chesed (kindness).

Rav Belsky was intense about Torah, yet he sat at his office in the OU, explaining and answering all shailos, with a smile and usually a story about the issue at hand; he was never tense and always appeared relaxed. He certainly made everyone who posed shailos feel relaxed, as he dealt with them with chumminess, a very warm “Sholom aleichem“, and laid out the Halacha with clarity, background and seder כנתינתה מסיני‏, perfect order, as it was given originally at Sinai.

However, I once came to ask Rav Belsky about a new eruv that was erected on my block and beyond, which I knew that Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik and his brother Rav Aharon, my rebbeim and the local rabbonim (rabbis) would have/did oppose. I had read Rav Belsky’s teshuva about the new Brooklyn eruv, and I asked him if it pertained to the new eruv in my neighborhood as well. I was not going to use this eruv – my question was merely for limud, for the sake of understanding.

Rav Belsky closed the door, stood up, and became red and firm. He never otherwise acted in such a way. His jovial manner transformed to one of utter solemnity and intensity. He needed to stand, which he never did when answering shailos, as he was so worked up. He proceeded to explain why the eruv on my block was invalid, telling me the reasons in detail, and he said that his p’sak about the new Brooklyn eruv applied to my neighborhood as well. Rav Belsky permitted me to copy his written teshuva on the matter from his new sefer and to disseminate it. He also explained with such emotion how wrong it was for an outside rov (rabbi) to have come in and set up this eruv – he was so forceful like I had never seen.

Such is a person who loves Torah and cares with every fiber of his being.

The lobby of the 11 Broadway has a barber shop (an excellent one, by the way!) which Rav Belsky used to frequent every month or so after finishing his session at the OU. Rav Belsky would have his hair cut there by Roshell, a very frum Bucharian barber from Queens.

Roshell told me a few months ago that he and his chavrusa had just made a siyum (completion of a Talmud tractate) at their local shul, and that he had invited Rav Belsky to come, although he certainly did not expect the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas to schlep to Queens for a siyum, especially for someone who was not even his talmid (student). Roshell told me that when he got up to be mesayem the masechta, to formally complete the tractate, he noticed that Rav Belsky and a talmid who drove him were sitting at the edge of the room, as guests. Roshell could not believe it, and he immediately went over to Rav Belsky and asked him to speak, giving great honor to the occasion by introducing the crowd there, many of whom were not used to hearing roshei yeshiva speak, to the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas.

Such is the humble conduct of a real godol, a genuinely great Torah authority. Rav Belsky always honored the Torah and his fellows, forever without fanfare and with true sincerity.

By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

OU Kosher Staff