Stories that my grandfather, Louis Finkelstein, used to tell

Ernie Davis

The stories below are ones that my grandfather enjoyed telling. They are taken from a collection that I assembled, wrote up, and showed to him for his approval while he was still alive.

Tales of Rabbis

Once Rav Yitzchak Elchanan (1817-1896) had to give a psak on an ox which had been slaughtered. In Eastern Europe, when a large animal was found treif it could be catastrophic for a poor butcher, and, indeed, for his whole town. So rabbis would do what they could to find a heter. In this case Rav Yitzchak Elchanan decided that the ox was kosher, ignoring a rule stated by the Nodah BiY'hudah (Rav Ezekiel Landau, 1713-1793). After the butcher had gone, Rav Yitzchak's students asked him how he could go against the opinion of the Nodah BiY'hudah.

"When I come to the future world,'' said Rav Yitzchak, ``the Nodah BiY'hudah will ask me why I disagreed with his ruling. So we'll argue it out, and he'll win or I'll win. If I had declared the ox treif, then, when I came to the future world, I would have to argue it out with the ox. Maybe I'd win, but I don't like arguing with an ox.''

The Flag over the Shul

In Kovno, Lithuania, there was a reform shul known as the ``Choir'' shul. Being progressive and patriotic they decided one year that the shul should fly the Russian flag. When Rav Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rav of Kovno, heard about this, he was aghast, and he let the members of the shul know that if the flag didn't come down, he would leave Kovno. So the choir shul had a meeting. The general feeling was that they could not possibly be the cause of Rav Yitzchak Elchanan leaving Kovno, so, if he felt so strongly about it, they would have to give in. One man, the richest man in the community, was opposed, and said, ``Let him go! He's not our rabbi and he can't tell us what to do''. However this man was defeated and the flag came down.

A few days later, there was a bris and the Rav was there and also the rich man. The Rav was shaking hands all round, and he also shook hands with the rich man. The people, who all knew the story, were appalled. ``You are מוחל על כבוד התורה , (letting the honor of the Torah lapse)'' they objected. ``It will be useful,'' the Rav replied.

Some years later, a Jew who had worked on the fortifications of Kovno was accused of selling the plans to the Germans. Under the Tsars, as under their successors, a man accused and arrested for a crime was as good as convicted, unless some powerful influence could be worked on his behalf. The only man in the Jewish community with that kind of influence was this same rich man, who was a close personal friend of the governor. So Rav Yitchak went to see the rich man, to ask him to ask the governor to make sure that the accused got a fair trial.

The rich man was very reluctant. ``You're asking a hard thing,'' he said. ``To interfere in a case of treason is very difficult. After all, I'm also a Jew.''

``There are times when one has to do dangerous things,'' replied the Rav.

``Well, I'll do it,'' answered the rich man. ``But you should know I'm only doing it because I remember that handshake.''

The rich man's efforts were successful. The case was fairly investigated, and the guilt turned out to lie with two Russian soldiers.

This story is also told in my great-grandfather's edition of the siddur שיח יצחק (p. 261). There is one significant difference; as told in שיח יצחק , the original controversy had to do with a plan to build a new synagogue with a tower. Rab Yitchak Elchanan objected, because it would look too much like a church.

The Weeping Tallis

The Kelmer Maggid (Moses Isaac b. Noah Darshan, 1828-1900) used to tell the following story:
One day I was walking down the street, when I heard the sound of crying! It was coming from one of the houses. The door was open, and I went in, but no one was at home. But still I heard the crying. So I looked around, and I saw that the crying was coming from a drawer in a bureau. I opened the drawer, and I saw there a tallis crying and crying. So I said to it, ``Tallis why do you cry? Tallis why do you cry?''

The tallis said to me: ``My owner has gone on a journey, and he has taken his wife, and he has taken his children, and he has taken his possessions, and he has left behind only me.''

I answered the tallis: ``Tallis, don't cry. Tallis, don't cry. Some day your owner will go on a journey, and he will leave his wife, and he will leave his children, and he will leave his possessions, and he will take only you.''

One day, Grandpa was packing his suitcase for a trip and ran out of space, so he left out his tallis. My mother started crying, ``Don't leave the tallis!'' Grandpa thought, ``The Kelmer Maggid still lives!'' So he left something else behind and took his tallis.

``You're late''

When Grandpa's father was in his last illness at the hospital, Grandpa was visiting him and thought to cheer him up by asking him to tell a story of Rav Israel Salanter. He told the following story: ``Once Rav Israel Salanter was in the middle of giving a talk when his favorite student Rav Isaac walked in. Salanter said to him, `Rav Iz'l, you're late,' and then continued with his talk.''

Shortly after, Grandpa's father died. That Shabbas, Grandpa was with Prof. Lieberman and Prof. Ginzberg, and after talking to them for a while, he fell into thought. Ginzberg said to him, ``You are pensive. Remember, it's Shabbas and forbidden to mourn.'' Grandpa answered, ``It's not that. I'm puzzled by a story.'' He told the story of Israel Salanter, and asked, ``Why did Israel Salanter insult his student that way?''

Ginzberg and Lieberman both answered, ``It was a compliment! He called him Rav Iz'l to show him honor. It was understood that if Rav Iz'l came late, there was some good reason. Israel Salanter was saying, `You're late, Rav Iz'l. I missed you.' ''

Grandpa used to say of this story, ``If it is so easy to misunderstand the actions of people of two generations earlier, in the community of one's own family and friends, how hard must it be to understand the actions of people two thousand years ago?''

The blessing of Shabbas

A group of Jews was travelling through Lithuania. One day, when they were sitting together, they saw that the Chofetz Chaim (Israel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) was sitting near them. One of their number said, ``I'm going to get a blessing from the Chofetz Chaim,'' and walked over to him. The rest of the group was in a dilemma. The Jew who was asking for a blessing was not observant and did not keep Shabbas, and they were sure that, if the Chofetz Chaim knew that, he would not want to give a blessing. On the other hand, how can you go up to the Chofetz Chaim, of all people, and tell tales? So they sat still.

Meanwhile, the Jew had gone over to the Chofetz Chaim and asked his blessing. The Chofetz Chaim shook his head. ``Why do you want a blessing from me?'' he asked. ``I'm nobody, I'm nothing at all. If you want a blessing, it is enough that you keep Shabbas. As it says in L'chah Dodi, לקראת שבת לכו ונלכה כי היא מקור הברכה (Let us go to greet the Sabbath, for she is the source of blessing.)''

Seminary stories

Schechter's Dismissals

When Dr. Schechter had seen enough of a guest, he would say, ``Here's your hat and coat. What's your hurry?''

The וו המהפך

When Gerson Cohen was a new student at the Seminary, he once asked Professor Ginzberg whether the וו המהפך (vav conversive --- a grammatical construct of Biblical Hebrew) was found in Rabbinic literature.

``Young man,'' replied Ginzberg, ``When you've been here longer, you will know not to ask such a question of an old man whose memory may be failing. Now look up Kiddushin 66a.''

This citation, I am delighted to say, is correct, despite the two transmissions and sixty years that have passed since the incident.

Chanting the Talmud

In Grandpa's first Talmud class at the Seminary, he chanted the Talmud in the usual Yeshiva way, and the whole class burst out laughing. He never made that mistake again.

Lieberman and Apikorsus

Shortly after Prof. Lieberman came to the Seminary, two Hasidic rabbis came to visit him. They rebuked him for accepting a place at the Seminary. ``How can you work under Finkelstein?'' they challenged him. ``What he writes is complete apikorsus!''

Lieberman told them that he had read Finkelstein's work and hadn't seen any apikorsus.

``Well, you can take it from us, his work is full of it,'' they replied.

``I can't judge a man on the basis of lashon hara,'' he objected.

``Look here, we'll show you, we brought the books with us,'' they responded, shoving some choice quotations under his nose.

``I have to be careful,'' he told them. ``You say that this is apikorsus. You may well be right, and I don't read apikorsus. So I really can't look at these quotations.''

The rabbis had no choice but to leave. As they went, one of them said to the other, `` Oy, azah tam! (What a simpleton!)''

When Torah isn't Studied

A student from Yeshiva once told Grandpa that he had been told people didn't study Torah at the Seminary.

``Professor Lieberman is a late sleeper,'' answered Grandpa. ``He studies until 2 in the morning. I am an early riser. I start studying at 4 in the morning. So whoever told you that must have meant between 2 and 4 in the morning.''

The Tosefta Kifshuta

When the Tosefta Kifshuta was published, the Seminary had a dinner in Lieberman's honor. Grandpa spoke and said that if the Seminary had done nothing else but publish this single work, it would justify all the work that had gone into it.

After the dinner, someone objected to this as hyperbole. Grandpa answered, ``Read the book, and then you tell me.''

Introducing Mordechai Kaplan

Some time after Kaplan had left the Seminary, he was invited there to give a lecture. It fell to Grandpa to introduce him, and he felt he ought to explain the differences between his own views and Kaplan's. He explained them at some length, and then gave the floor to Kaplan.

``When is an introduction not an introduction?'' began Kaplan. ``When Finkelstein gives it.''

Precept and Practice

A man once said to Grandpa, ``I would give money to the Seminary if you didn't have that heretic Mordechai Kaplan.''

Grandpa asked him, ``Do you keep kosher?''

``It's too expensive,'' he answered.

``Do you keep Shabbas?''

``I'm a business man, it's not really possible.''

``Do you put on tfillin every morning?''

``Who has the time?''

``Well then,'' said Grandpa, ``How do you object to Kaplan, who keeps kosher and keeps Shabbas and puts on tfillin every morning?''

``Don't be silly, Rabbi,'' he answered. ``I'm a Republican and I believe in a high tariff. Does that mean I declare everything each time I go through customs?''

A Rabbi's Troubles

A rabbi who was having trouble with his congregation once came to see Grandpa for help looking for a new pulpit. Grandpa advised him to speak to Dr. Cyrus Adler, which he did. When he returned from seeing Adler, he looked somewhat shaken. Grandpa asked him what Adler's advice had been. The rabbi told him, "Adler said to me, `Rabbi, if they were all saints, they wouldn't need you.' "

Other Stories

Ezra's Sefer Torah

When Chaim Weizmann came to the United States for the first time after the declaration of the state of Israel, he realized at the last minute that he needed a gift for President Truman. So the Israeli embassy called Grandpa and asked whether the Seminary had any manuscripts which would serve. Grandpa answered that he couldn't give away Seminary property, but that he could give Weizmann a Sefer Torah. This was the Sefer Torah that he had given to Ezra for his Bar Mitzvah. So Grandpa got this Sefer Torah to Weizmann, and Weizmann gave it to Truman with great publicity.

Some years later, Grandpa decided he should get this Sefer Torah back for the Seminary. After all, it was now a historic object. So he went to see Truman, and told him the story, which Truman enjoyed. Truman asked how many people would see it if it were at the Jewish Museum.

``Seventy thousand a year,'' was the answer.

``Where it is, in Independence,'' Truman rejoined, ``half a million people see it a year.''

Article from the Truman Museum web site, with picture of Truman, Weizmann, and the Sefer Torah
A much more detailed account of this is in Tales of the Fathers of the Conservative Movement by Bernard Mandelbaum, New York: Sheingold Press, 1989.

Exams on Shabbas

In the 1940's the entrance exam at a certain college used to be held on Saturday. One year, a couple of observant applicants wanted to take it on another day and asked Grandpa to intercede for them with the administration. Grandpa met with a dean and explained the situation. The dean argued that the girls could not be absorbed into American life if they stuck so stubbornly to their observances. Grandpa maintained that it was in America's interests that its citizens hold to the religion of their ancestors. The dean ended the argument with the statement, ``Dr. Finkelstein, we cannot run this college according to your wilderness principles.''

Exams at Cooper Union

The dean of Cooper Union College once called Grandpa with an urgent question, ``Is there a day when Jews are not allowed to write?'' Grandpa told him there were many such days. ``Well, I don't know what to do,'' he said. ``I have two students who say they can't take a test next Tuesday because they can't write. But I can't let them take it late; it wouldn't be fair to the other students.'' Next Tuesday was Shavuot. ``They're right, they can't'' answered Grandpa. ``Send them to me and I'll proctor them at the Seminary.'' And for many years that was the arrangement for observant Jews at Cooper Union.

The Man with Ruach Hakodesh

A man once came up to Grandpa in shul and said, "I want to tell you a secret. I have ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration)."

"So what?" Grandpa answered.

This was not the reaction he expected. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"We all have ruach hakodesh," Grandpa explained. `` ורוח קדשך אל תקח ממנו (do not take your divine inspiration from us), we pray. How could God take it away if we didn't have it?"

The man was not happy. "Well, I want to tell people about it," he said.

"There," said Grandpa, "you would be making a mistake. After all, you might be one of the 36 hidden Tzaddikim. If you tell people, where will you be?"

"That's true," said the man, now satisfied, and he kept it to himself. But whenever he saw Grandpa in shul after that, he would wink to him.

A Eulogy

A member of Grandpa's shul lost his father, and he asked Grandpa to perform the funeral. The deceased had been a member of a Yiddish-speaking shul, and Grandpa asked the rabbi of that shul whether he would like to speak. The rabbi declined, saying that he wasn't comfortable speaking. However, at the funeral itself, when he saw Grandpa deliver the eulogy it inspired him, and he asked Grandpa whether he might speak too. Grandpa said that he couldn't speak then, but he could speak at the graveside.

At the graveside, the rabbi began as follows: "A man is like a knight on horseback. The soul is the rider; the body is the horse. Reb Yank'l, the soul, is in Gan Eden. What we've buried today is a horse!''

``Now what can I tell you about Reb Yank'l'', he continued. ``He was a good Jew, but no great lamdan. When I used to teach, he would sometimes follow what I was saying, but usually he was a little at sea. But certainly a very good pious Jew. There was only one thing he did that I told him not to. I used to tell him not to eat at his children's houses, because it was as treif as hazzir. But, then, they were his children, and he felt he had to."

At this point, the son came up to Grandpa. ``If he doesn't shut up, I'll punch him in the nose!'' he said. ``He's done. What more can he say?'' answered Grandpa.

The Memorable Birthday

Grandpa once met a man whose face was familiar, but whose name Grandpa could not remember. The man greeted him with the helpful remark, ``I'm sure you don't remember who I am.''

``Of course I remember you,'' answered Grandpa. ``Your birthday is May 8.''

The man was awestruck. ``What a memory!'' he exclaimed.

``What a memory,'' thought Grandpa.