April 18, 2024
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The American Rabbi’s Rabbi

If I were to ask our readers if they heard of Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Mordechai Willig, their answers most likely would be “of course.” However, if we asked if they are familiar with Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, zt”l, who passed away last week at the age of 95, the answer would likely be no. Although Rav Schwartz was of the same stature and 

caliber (and hashkafic orientation) as Rav Schachter and Rav Willig, he forged a different rabbinic path.

Rav Schachter and Rav Willig are quintessential Yeshiva University roshei yeshiva and roshei kollel. Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz was more focused on the rabbinate and beit din world. For the last 30 years, Rav Schwartz had the final word regarding all highly sensitive matters of personal status questions within the Modern Orthodox community. Hundreds of rabbis addressed their most challenging problems to Rav Schwartz. Rav Schwartz quietly but very capably led the American Modern Orthodox rabbinate on a properly balanced path of halachic integrity and sensitivity to communities’ and individuals’ needs.

Most interestingly, Rav Schwartz’s most extraordinary years began at age 62 in 1987 when the Chicago Rabbinical Council selected him to serve as their Av Beit Din. The Rabbinical Council of America followed suit in 1981 by selecting Rav Schwartz to simultaneously serve as the Av Beit Din of its affiliated Beth Din of America.

Until then, Rav Schwartz served in a variety of rabbinic positions. He served as a congregational rabbi in Providence, Englishtown (where Rav Schwartz forged a connection with Rav Aharon Kotler, who wrote a haskama to Rav Schwartz’s sefer titled “Divrei Regesh”), and Philadelphia. His last pulpit was serving for 18 years as the beloved mara d’atra of the Young Israel of Borough Park.

In a landmark speech delivered at the RIETS Chag HaSemicha of 2014, Rav Schwartz reflected on those years as having “served in the trenches of the American rabbinate.” Rav Schwartz remarked that he faced the trials and challenges of the rabbinate in various pulpits and locations. During this time, Rav Schwartz told me that he was very involved with the full range of halachic issues involving kashrut, shechita, and batei din. His assistant rabbi and successor, Rav Moshe Snow, reports that whenever he visited Rav Schwartz, he found him “deep in learning.”

This incredible breadth of rabbinate experience perfectly prepared him for the role he would play in the last 33 years of his life, as the rabbi’s rabbi of America. Rav Zvi Engel, who serves as the rabbi of a large Modern Orthodox congregation in the Chicago area, said that Rav Schwartz was able to provide wise counsel regarding every challenge he faced. Rav Schwartz’s many years of experience in the rabbinate gave him a keen understanding of human relations. They made him the perfect guide to rabbis seeking to thread the needle to maintain halachic integrity while meeting congregants’ spiritual needs.

Rav Schwartz was a great expert and had vast experience with geirut, gittin, chalitza, dinei Torah, agunot and kashrut. Under his capable leadership, the Chicago Rabbinical Council grew from a local kashrut va’ad to one of the world’s major kosher certifying agencies. Among his monumental achievements is the approval of the RCA prenuptial agreement, leading the Beth Din of America permitting the remarriage of 10 agunot from the Twin Towers attacks, and the resolution of dozens of seemingly intractable situations of igun and mamzerut.

What is particularly striking about Rav Schwartz is that he attended public elementary school and public high school where he grew up in Newark! His first yeshiva experience was entering Yeshiva College in 1942 at the age of 17! However, the Newark of Rav Schwartz’s youth was blessed with a thriving Orthodox community with many batei knesset headed by rabbis of prominence and even eminence. One of these great rabbis, Rav Yaakov Mendelsohn, taught Rav Schwartz privately.

Rav Schwartz absorbed Torah from Rav Mendelsohn and imbibed a great love for the rabbinate and rabbanim. Rav Schwartz prided himself as “a student of the American rabbinate.” Rav Schwartz was quite fond of quoting halachic responsa of the very learned but relatively unknown European-born and -trained rabbanim of the first half of 20th-century North America. Rav Schwartz did not merely learn Torah from Rav Mendelsohn. He received shimush (rabbinical training) from him as well. During his many years in the rabbinate, Rav Schwartz also learned much from many great European-trained rabbis, especially from his predecessor Rav Moshe Steinberg, the founding Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America. Rav Schwartz frequently cited and followed the teachings of his respected predecessor.

Rav Schwartz relished his role as mentor to the younger cadre of rabbanim. Rav Schwartz devoted most of his last decades in dedicated and kind service to hundreds of rabbanim, even at a personal sacrifice. Rav Schwartz commented to me in 2011 that he was so busy helping rabbanim that he had no time to author that many sefarim he wished to write. I felt so bad when the devastating stroke hit Rav Schwartz that he would be unable to realize his dream to compose more sefarim. His legacy is the excellent shimush he provided to so many rabbis and his game-changing enhancement of halachic observance in the broader Modern Orthodox community.

On a personal level, Rav Schwartz served as a personal mentor from 1989 until his debilitating stroke in 2017. While studying for dayanut in Yeshiva University’s Yadin Yadin Kollel, I often called him to ask how to apply the various halachot of Even HaEzer and Choshen Mishpat in practice. Rav Schwartz always had time for me and was patient even while I presented dozens of questions. I met him for the first time in person in 1992 when he certified me as a get administrator. Afterward, he would continue to answer the most complex and challenging halachic questions I presented to him.

When I began to administer gittin in 1993 under the Beth Din of Elizabeth’s auspices, I discovered that there were only two viable New Jersey locations where we could write gittin (Elizabeth and Passaic). We write gittin only in a locale where there is a worldwide accepted manner of transliterating its name into Hebrew characters, as well as identifying its bodies of waters. Our Av Beth Din, Rav Elazar Meyer Teitz, directed me to follow Rav Schwartz’s guidance in the effort to make gittin more accessible so that divorcing non-observant couples would not be discouraged from obtaining an Orthodox get. For example, we now could write gittin in New Rochelle (the city that rests on the ocean and the Hutchinson River) and Teaneck (the town that rests on the Hackensack River and Overpeck Creek).

The bracha he gave in January of 2017 to my older son Binyamin during the last conversation I had with Rav Schwartz reflects his sterling character. He blessed Binyamin to continue to grow in his Torah learning and to pay special attention to developing middot tovot, refined character traits. Rav Schwartz, to say the least, was the consummate gentleman. He set a very high standard of scholarship and impeccable character for the American rabbinate.

While his “home turf” was the Modern Orthodox community, he was widely respected throughout the Jewish world. Many Chabad rabbis sought his guidance for their most challenging issues. Dayan Shmuel Fuerst of the Agudath Israel of Chicago for over 40 years referred to Rav Schwartz as the “Noda B’Yehuda of Chicago,” who dealt extraordinarily capably with the most delicate and unprecedented of issues posed to him. Dayan Fuerst emphasized that during Rav Schwartz’s more than 30 years leading the CRC, there was never machloket, strife, between the Modern Orthodox and charedi segments of the community. Rav Schwartz was also deeply appreciated by non-Orthodox spiritual leaders, who recognized his blend of compassion and integrity.

Although Rav Schwartz permitted dozens of agunot and mamzerim, he was fully conscious of halachic flexibility’s outer limits. Although he issued permissive rulings in more than a dozen situations of mamzerut that I presented him over the years, there were two vexing situations where he told me that he sadly was unable to render a lenient decision. In his refusal to sanction “partnership minyanim,” Rav Schwartz emphasized his lifelong dedication and sensitivity to women’s marital and educational rights, but that such practices are beyond the halachic pale. Rav Schwartz also publicly called out those irresponsible elements that established rogue “batei din” to permit agunot on highly spurious grounds.

We all aspire to the bracha of “od yenuvun b’seiva d’sheinim v’ra’ananim yihuyu,” to be fruitful and productive in our elder years. Rav Schwartz merited such blessing until the age of 92. He was vigorous and energetic even at an advanced age. In our last conversation of January 2017, he cited a recently released halachic work as a basis for a critical ruling he gave me, facilitating a marriage of a baal teshuva.

A stunning example of his vigor in old age is his stirring address in 2014 to the newly ordained RIETS rabbanim, which may be accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OULLC651YMw&t=1h44m33s&ab_channel=YeshivaUniversity (minutes 1:32-1:52). What a blessing to be able to speak so forcefully and effectively at that age! Moreover, Rav Yona Reiss, Rav Schwartz’ successor as Av Beit Din of the CRC (who is Rav Schwartz’s primary protégé), described how even after his stroke, the now homebound Rav Schwartz made every effort to provide him guidance and support up to a few weeks before his passing.

While you may not have heard of Rav Schwartz, dear readers, Rav Schwartz most certainly impacted you in a very positive way. Here was a man who sacrificed much and contributed so much to the betterment of our community. It is now up to us laypeople and rabbanim to live up to his legacy. The best way to honor Rav Schwartz is to follow in his footsteps of a life-long pursuit of in-depth Torah study, devotion to community, careful halachic observance, and sterling interpersonal interactions. Someone who gave so much to us deserves nothing less to honor his memory.

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