Remembering Rabbi Belsky, zt”l

Rabbi Menachem Genack

Screenshot 2016-03-21 13.08.55In talking about the Ri Migash (11th – 12th-century Spanish commentator), Maimonides says that “his intellect was frightening throughout the Talmud.” In the same way, all who knew Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Belsky were struck by his exceptional brilliance and his commanding knowledge of the body of Jewish law. This brilliance, however, went beyond the scope of Torah learning. Rabbi Belsky had a penetrating intelligence which, at times, seemed almost clairvoyant. I recall a time long ago when we suspected a caterer from one of the companies with which we work might be cheating, and I was close to terminating our business relationship with that company. Rabbi Belsky spoke to the mashgiach and to the different owners. It was clear to him, based upon his interrogation of the various people, that one of the former owners was indeed lying, while the mashgiach did have complete control over the situation— Rabbi Belsky’s keen intellect and wisdom were quite apparent and allowed him to see beneath the surface.

I remember the first time I met Rabbi Belsky. It was before he came to the OU — he was representing the Kof-K, and I had just been appointed the head of OU Kashrus. At that time, there was an issue that had arisen concerning oils imported from Asia. A few of us, including Rabbi Belsky, met on a huge tanker ship used for transporting oil. Rabbi Belsky wanted to see exactly what the boat was like in order to address the kashrus issues. He always wanted the facts. He insisted on knowing the kind of metal used for the tanks in which the oil was stored, the proportions of the tanks, how the different tanks in the hold of the ship were connected. He literally went into the belly of the boat to ascertain this information, all of which was part of his indefatigable pursuit of the truth. The tanks where the oil was stored must have been several stories high, and he (and another rabbi) went down on a ladder into one of the tanks. He asked me if I wanted to join him — Rabbi Belsky was much taller than I, and I responded, “We can rely on you.” Rabbi Belsky had courage and tenacity, and he used them in his pursuit of truth and justice. And with him, there was never any guessing — he had an indescribable amount of knowledge and the ability to absorb tremendous amounts of technical knowledge. When analyzing the volume of the oil tanks to calculate echad b’shishim (the 1/60 proportion which is ubiquitous in kashrus analysis), he made the mathematical calculations mentally. At the OU, we would often have issues of calculating echad b’shishim, and Rabbi Belsky was able to make the calculation on the spot. He emphasized the importance of the facts, and this was part and parcel of his relentless striving for the truth, and the risks he was willing to take to attain the truth.

Moshe Rabbenu’s name was given to him by the daughter of Pharaoh when she “drew him out of the water” (Ex. 2:10), but his parents had surely named him already at birth. According to the Midrash, Moshe’s Hebrew name was Tuvia. Yet strangely, even after he is repatriated with his family and people, he is always called in the Torah by his Egyptian name Moshe.

This retention of his Egyptian identity offers us an important lesson about why Moshe is chosen for leadership. Moshe was brought up in the palace by the daughter of Pharaoh. He is in every respect an Egyptian. He appears to the daughters of Yitro as “an Egyptian” man (Ex. 2:19). As a prince of Egypt with extraordinary ability, he is a contender for the throne.

Yet when Moshe sees an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew slave, his sense of justice and his outrage compel him to act. He kills the Egyptian oppressor, risking all and becoming a fugitive. He is transformed by his principled act from a prince of Egypt into a wanted man. Moshe could have made a very different calculation. “I will bide my time,” he could have said. “One day Egypt will be my realm and I will then ameliorate the suffering of the slaves. I will be silent now. When authority is securely in my hands I will begin a period of ‘perestroika’ and reform the harsh Egyptian society.” But Moshe’s sense of justice would not tolerate such a “reasonable” calculation. He could not be part of the brutality that was Egypt. He acted instinctively, sacrificing it all.
It is as an Egyptian, as a privileged royal, that Moshe rejects his class, his society, and its values. At great personal peril, he asserts the then-unknown principle of the freedom and dignity of man. It is, therefore, Moshe the Egyptian, and not Tuvia the Hebrew, who is destined to be the giver of the Law and the “father of Prophets,” the one who will mouth the Divine imperative, “That which is altogether just shalt thou follow” (Deut. 16:20).

The very quality that characterized Moshe characterizes the essence of Rabbi Belsky. He constantly strove for truth in addition to his brilliance and extraordinary Torah insight. He always pursued justice, even on behalf of the most forlorn and unfortunate person, the one whom everyone had given up on and forgotten, the one who was downtrodden and abandoned and in the most unfortunate circumstances.

Rav Belsky

One of the rabbanim machsirim at Manischewitz, Rabbi Chaim Karlinsky a”h, wrote a wonderful sefer, Rishon Leshalsheles Brisk, which was a biography about the Beis Halevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Rav’s great-grandfather and namesake). In this sefer, Rabbi Karlinsky recounts a story about the Beis Halevi’s youth. The cheder teachers tended to favor the wealthy students over the poor; they would also hit the poor students on occasion as a form of punishment. Young Yosef Dov was in such a cheder, and the teacher hit a young classmate who was an orphan who had lost his father. The teacher blamed this boy for whatever wrongdoing had just occurred in the class, of which the boy was completely innocent. Yosef Dov, recognizing the boy’s innocence, stood up and said, “I will not learn in a class under someone who doesn’t observe the Torah, who oppresses orphans.” And he left, never to return to that cheder. From that time on, Yosef Dov learned with his father. His father suggested he attend a different cheder, but Yosef Dov refused, asserting that all the melamdim were similarly insensitive and cruel to those students who were in unfortunate circumstances. Some months later, Yosef Dov fell ill, running an extremely high fever. No one thought he would survive. But then his fever abruptly broke, and he was on his way to recovery. In the book, Rabbi Karlinsky recounts that when Yosef Dov was hovering between life and death, he had a dream. The Angel of Death was just about to seize him, and suddenly the orphan’s father appeared and stood between the Angel of Death and the young Yosef Dov. The father declared, “This boy stood up for my son.” The Angel of Death immediately disappeared, and at that very moment, Yosef Dov’s fever broke.

This anecdote captures Rabbi Belsky’s innate sense of justice. He advocated on behalf of people for whom everyone else had lost hope — and he did so at enormous risk. He wasn’t necessarily always right, but he was always motivated by compassion and a sense of profound kinship for the most unfortunate and isolated person. He was extraordinary in that way.

The window in my office at the Orthodox Union overlooks the Statue of Liberty. One time Rabbi Belsky, who was an excellent swimmer, was in my office and, looking out the window, said to me wistfully, “I could swim from here to the Statue of Liberty and back.” I always thought Rabbi Belsky was indestructible, especially after he recovered from a serious illness four years ago. Reflecting upon that comment, it is clear that he was always swimming against the current with his extraordinary qualities of courage, tenacity, and indefatigable sense of fairness — not just his erudition.

Baruch Hashem, Rabbi Belsky’s family is large and distinguished. He once told me that when one of his children was born, one of the doctors asked, “Why so many children?” (he wasn’t a religious doctor). So Rabbi Belsky explained that as Jews, we are an endangered species. The same was true of Rabbi Belsky himself — the kind of brilliance he had went hand in hand with the kind of knowledge he had and the constant pursuit of truth — also an endangered species.

When my rebbe, the Rav, eulogized his uncle, the Brisker Rav, he said, “Not only was he greater, but he was different.” This same description applies to Rabbi Belsky. Rabbi Belsky was unique in so many ways. He was not only interested in but also expert in a host of disciplines — his depth and breadth of knowledge spanned the sciences, mathematics, and many other subjects. He was, for example, renowned for his knowledge of astronomy and for his expertise in the gemaros dealing with kidush hachodesh. He was also Artscroll’s consultant for those gemaros. He was the rare nexus between abstract Torah knowledge and practical application of halachah; to cite just a few examples, he was a mohel, a shochet, and he knew nikur (deveining). Were it not for Rabbi Belsky’s erudition, tenacity and scientific knowledge, none of us would be eating fish today. When the issue of fish infested with Anisakis (a worm parasite) 
arose, there was great concern in the halachic world that fish would have to be declared non-kosher! Rav Belsky’s halachic expertise and profound study of the issue convincingly demonstrated that the kosher status of fish could still be affirmed without question.

He was an inspiration for all of us at the Orthodox Union. Each year, during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, he would deliver uplifting words of chizuk at our headquarters. His weekly visits to the OU Kashrus department always presented a kaleidoscope of inspiring images, his multifarious talents, and his grasp of so many different disciplines. Just observing the sanctity of his Shemoneh Esrei was uplifting; his students from Torah Vo’daath would accompany him and would witness the synergy of his Torah knowledge with practical application of halachah; his sichas chulin, informal discussion, as well as his concern for every individual were cloaked in nobility and holiness. Of course, many would come to consult with him on halachic issues and to speak with him about various requests concerning issues of chesed. He was incredibly unique and irreplaceable. I loved him very much. Mi yiten lanu temuraso

Rabbi Menachem Genack

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