Death of Mir Yeshiva head Finkel highlights ultra Orthodox-mainstream Jewry divide


The death of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, charismatic, American-born head of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, prompted a large outpouring both at his funeral and in online tributes and commentary. Two recent items in the same newspaper – the Jerusalem Post – on the same day, by two well known commentators, offered both a sense of Finkel and the gap between the ultra-Orthodox and most other Jews.


Jonathan Rosenblum, a writer known for his defense of the ultra Orthodox world, offered anecdotes of Finkel’s conviction and personal strength even as Finkel suffered from Parkinson’s Disease:

He used his debilitating disease to build more Torah and to teach. A rich businessman refused his request for a large donation. “I can’t,” he said. The rosh yeshiva told him, “I can’t either, but I do anyway.” He received the donation.

Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, was once was brought to see the rosh yeshiva along with a group of prominent businessman. They had not been told of his Parkinson’s, and instinctively averted their eyes when he entered the room. Soon they heard a bang on the table and Rav Nosson Tzvi commanded them, “Look at me.

“I know you are all busy men,” he continued, “so I’ll be brief. What is the most important lesson of the Holocaust?” He proceeded to describe the situation of the Jews arriving in Auschwitz and other death camps, after having been packed into cattle cars for days, without water or facilities of any kind, and then being separated from their loved ones. When the lucky ones reached a barracks, they were given one blanket for six people. They could choose to share it or each one could try to grab it for himself.

They chose the former. “The greatest lesson of the Holocaust,” he concluded, “is the triumph of the human spirit. Now, each of you return to America and share your blanket with five others.”

….Everywhere he went, people of all ages rushed to be within four cubits of him and witness a soul that had so transcended the limits of the imperfect vessel of his body.”

On the other hand, Daniel Gordis, a Conservative rabbi who is now president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, used the occasion of Finkel’s funeral to describe it as emblematic of the divide in world Jewry:

His death was considered a loss of a once-in-a-generation leader.

Amazingly, though, outside that community, almost no one noticed. Most Israelis could not name him and were unaware that he had died.

Even those American Jews who know, however vaguely, of the Mir Yeshiva, could not have named the person who headed it. Nor did they hear that he had died.

We’re living increasingly in a world of parallel but non-intersecting Jewish universes, each with its own ideals and heroes, neighborhoods and values, each too readily dismissive of the other. In the aftermath of Rabbi Finkel’s passing, and the images of his funeral which were a sea of black, extending down entire city streets.

Gordis compared Finkel’s funeral to the funeral of Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz, who died in Warsaw nearly 100 years ago, and whose passing also was mourned by 100,000. Citing Harvard’s Ruth Wisse, Gordis said reports of Peretz’ funeral indicated that representatives of all factions in the Jewish world attended:

What a striking difference! How many secular Jews could be found at Rabbi Finkel’s funeral? How many observant Jews not in black? None of the former, I would imagine. And very, very few of the latter.

Which leads me to the following question: Who is there anywhere in the Jewish world whose passing would evoke the sense of shared loss that was felt when Peretz died? Is there anyone in the Jewish world – in Israel, the United States, or anywhere else – who would be mourned by secularists and religious Jews alike, conservatives and liberals, Zionists and those more dubious about the Jewish state….

There are (a very few) Israeli national leaders who will likely be mourned across the religious divide, but will their passing be marked in any meaningful way in American Jewish life? Is there a single American Jewish leader of whom Israelis would take note after his or her death…. To tell the truth, I can’t think of a single Jewish person whose loss would evoke the kind of cross-chasm mourning that Peretz’s did.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at

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