Interactions with Rabbi Belsky – Redefining the Word “Irreplaceable”

Rabbi Belsky was an internationally acclaimed scholar of Jewish law, whose opinions and rulings on the most sensitive of kosher law issues were sought after by the multitudes. Rabbi Belsky, who was born in New York in 1938 and who was one of the first American-born rabbis to attain such prowess, literally revolutionized the kosher certification industry worldwide, setting standards and determining best practices for an incredibly wide array of industries and specialty areas. Although Rabbi Belsky’s official “day job” was rosh yeshiva/dean of the Torah Vodaath rabbinical school in Brooklyn – an advanced landmark institution that has trained tens of thousands, and was founded by Rabbi Belsky’s grandfather – Rabbi Belsky left his mark on the world of kosher and on so many other spheres of Jewish and general life.

Below are some first-person recollections for BTUS readership.              

Ever since my first encounter with Rabbi Belsky at OU Headquarters, where I had the privilege to present halachic questions about important matters in kosher law to him 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 Rabbi Belsky during his Thursday sessions at the OU to pose important questions pertaining to the kosher requirements and protocols of 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 Rabbi Belsky the facts on the ground about the issue for which we came for guidance, Rabbi Belsky would instead give us a lesson on it as we began each discussion. Usually, one needs to laboriously present a halachic (Jewish law) decisor with the technical intricacies of each question, and perhaps repeat and break it all down several times so that it can be understood, before the decisor is confident that he has the information clear.

With Rabbi 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 Rabbi 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 kosher and technical processes. In fact, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, told me on several occasions that food company executives related to him that Rabbi Belsky, after visiting factories for kosher 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 in-depth Torah scholar serve as decisor. Every time we asked a question, we received a mini-lecture on the topic, a detailed explanation of the mechanics, and an answer that was so compelling that we knew it was pristine truth and not something based on a limited presumption or on an approach that we felt was subject to question. The answer reflected Rabbi Belsky’s profound understanding of the topic, evincing sophisticated and developed 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 “tally” or less masterful approach, such as deciding an issue based on the number of sources which rule a certain way versus those that rule otherwise. Rabbi Belsky would read aloud from the relevant sacred books when replying to questions, in order to show us the firsthand sources, specific expressions and nuances, and make us feel part of the halachic give-and-take. After rendering a decision, Rabbi Belsky would show us inside how the ruling was in truth what the kosher law books and commentaries meant. It always came forth so decisively clear that the ruling was true and accurate without flaw, as if Rabbi Belsky had read the minds of the authors of the source texts. Totally compelling responsa of dizzying depth, with pure simplicity that fit the words of the sources and that we knew reflected their true intent, was what Rabbi Belsky always presented.

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

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of OU Kosher, elaborated upon the legacy Rabbi Belsky created: “In great measure, we will be guided in the future with the thousands of halachic papers he wrote on kosher issues. His knowledge was second to none. He not only mastered the laws of kosher slaughter and kosher meat, but he was himself a ritual slaughterer and an expert in the intricacies of kosher deveining, which he passed on to hundreds of kosher slaughterers.”

Dr. Avraham Meyer, the OU’s most senior overseas field representative, whose prowess in kosher and science are unequalled, told me after Rabbi Belsky passed away that he 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 an OU conference with Rabbi Belsky, discussing kosher and microbiology. The intellectual speed (truly a supersonic thinker); the interest in and understanding of 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. In additional to all that, he was a lovely, caring person.”

Rabbi Belsky was also renowned for his low-key/high-caliber acts of kindness:    

The lobby of 11 Broadway in NYC where the OU is headquartered, has a barber shop (an excellent one, by the way!) which Rabbi Belsky used to frequent every month or so after finishing his session at the OU. Rabbi Belsky would have his hair cut there by Roshell, a young barber from Queens, New York.

Roshell told me a few months ago that he and his friend had just made a siyum (completion of a Talmud tractate) at their local synagogue, and that he had invited Rabbi Belsky to come, although he certainly did not expect the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath to trek to Queens for a siyum, especially for someone who was not even his student. Roshell told me that when he arose to formally complete the tractate at the siyum, he noticed that Rabbi Belsky and a student who drove him were sitting at the edge of the room, as guests. Roshell could not believe it, and he immediately went over to Rabbi 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 such internationally renowned authorities speak, to the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath.

Rabbi Dovid Bistricer, OU rabbinic coordinator, added another piece to the story about Rabbi Belsky and the barber: “Roshell also told me that four years ago, Rabbi Belsky asked if he could attend Roshell’s wedding. (It would have been a tremendous honor for Roshell.) Unfortunately, Rabbi Belsky became sick right before the wedding and was unable to attend.

When Rabbi Belsky recovered and returned to the OU, he stopped in to say hello to Roshell before coming upstairs to the OU offices. The first thing Rabbi Belsky did was apologize to him for not making it to the wedding.”

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

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is a rabbinic coordinator at OU Kosher specializing in the dairy industry. He is also a member of the New York Bar. A frequent contributor to BTUS, his “The Cream of the Crop” appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.

Rabbi Belsky speaks to OU Kosher rabbis.  Rabbi Gordimer, the author of this piece, is third from the right on the right side of the table.