The Chofetz Chaim

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


People of the Book

     There are some Americans who believe that the actor John Wayne was a great war hero. They believe this because Wayne acted in numerous movies in which he portrayed violent and aggressive men. “Wayne” was Marion Morrison, the descendent of a long line of Morrisons who had come to this country from England. Morrison had a cardiac condition and was therefore never allowed to enter the military service. Since he was 6’4” tall and had a loud voice, he was able to portray all kinds of war heroes from the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam war. Yet, Morrison was no hero but an actor.

     Now, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was no actor but a hero. Rabbi Kagan was also known as The Chofetz Chayim because he wrote a book by that title. The English translation is Seeker of Life. This book deals with the biblical laws of gossip and slander and is a philosophical discussion behind the Jewish concept of the power of speech. The book also seeks to inspire the reader to avoid unethical speech and to lead an ethical life.

     The Chofetz Chayim also wrote Guarding the Tongue and Clarified Teachings, both written in Hebrew, as were his further writings, including Explanation of the Law and Gate  of Distinction, as well as a long list of other books, many of which consisted of five volumes. In short, the Chofetz Chayim  was a major author. His work is of permanent value but generally unknown to American Jews, alone because they cannot read Hebrew.

     Rabbi Kagan was an opponent of Zionism before the establishment of the state. This opposition led his followers to promote the same attitude on the grounds that the Chofetz Chaim would not support the view that Jews could become a people like any other people. Kagan and his followers believed that the State of Israel must be founded on the fundamentals of Torah, not on secular values. Even now, in 2018, the followers of The Chofetz Chaim in Israel and elsewhere continue to promote this view.

     Whatever one may think of this dispute does not diminish the immense influence of Rabbi Kagan long after his lifetime. He was born on January 26, 1839, and died September 15, 1933. He did not look like John Wayne nor did he bellow orders or engage in violence. Instead, he was a physically small man but a spiritual giant. In 1809, he founded a yeshiva in Radin, Belarus. That yeshiva became world famous.

     Today there is a yeshiva in Queens, New York, named after him. It has several branches in the United States, Canada, and Israel. There is also in the United States a Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and in Israel there is a kibbutz named in his honor. The house of the Chofetz Chaim in Radin was disassembled and moved to the United States.

     It is unfortunate that those of us in favor of militant Zionism are often motivated to dismiss with anger and contempt such great scholars as Israel Meir Kagan.

     Indeed, Israel cannot possibly survive unless it maintains military superiority over its numerous enemies. Studying the Talmud cannot prevent the murderous Arabs from slaughtering every Jew in Israel. Therefore there are those among us Jews who see no value in such great men as the Chofetz Chaim. It is evident that one cannot throw books at guns, tanks and airplanes. Nevertheless, military success alone cannot guarantee our survival, either as Americans or as Jews.

     Even our great country, the United States, would no longer exist were it only for our important and vital armed services. We too need a population of educated women and men dedicated to democracy and the upholding of individual rights. Were it not for American ideology, we could become nothing more than a military power like North Korea.   Instead the United States is also the home of those who have followed the teachings of the Chofetz Chaim, which elevated all mankind and made the world a better place.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Assault on Democracy (2017).

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