I came home Thursday evening to the heart-rending news of the passing of Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, one of the leading rabbis in America. Rabbi Belsky was the Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, New York, one of the oldest yeshivas in the United States. In addition, and perhaps more prominently, he was the rabbinic head of the OU kosher supervision agency, and one of the most respected halachik authorities in the world. Only 77 years old, Rabbi Belsky was diagnosed with his terminal illness a few months ago, and he took a hard turn for the worse last week. The Jewish people rallied in prayer and personal commitments in the merit of his recovery, uniting in a rare sanctification of G-d’s name, but alas Heaven determined it was not to be. His death was like a knife in my heart, shaking me up and profoundly affecting me to the core.
I did not live in Brooklyn, and I never attended Torah Vodaath. I was not involved in the OU, nor did I attend Rabbi Belsky’s summer camp in the Catskill Mountains (although many of my close friends did). I met Rabbi Belsky only peripherally on no more than a few occasions. Why then, do you ask, am I so profoundly affected by his passing? Why did he mean so much to me? Indeed, an incisive question. I will attempt to convey my thoughts in the following lines.
The Jewish religion is dependent more than anything else upon tradition. Father to son, teacher to disciple, the Torah and its tradition has been faithfully handed down for thousands of years without fail. The complexity of Jewish law and its all-inclusiveness necessitate a working knowledge of Jewish law for anyone seriously committed to a halachik lifestyle. Most of the laws relevant on a daily basis can be found somewhat easily in the halachik literature. After a few years of serious study, one can be relatively competent in all areas he is likely to chance upon in his life. There are, however, occasions upon which a situation arises that one does not know the halacha (law) or the proper way to act. This is not infrequent, and it is these occasions when it is important to have a rabbi with whom one is comfortable.
Occasionally, even a rabbi is stumped. These can be complex decisions involving intricate details of law, or weighty issues in one’s personal or communal life. For these instances there are several rabbis in every generation to whom all rabbis across the country turn. Deemed poskim, or “decision makers”, these rabbis are head and shoulders above anyone else in their league in knowledge of Jewish law and wisdom. Like a leading, world renowned neurosurgeon, only the most baffling cases get referred to them, and consultation and training with them is a coveted privilege. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, one of the preeminent Torah leaders of the early 19th century, once wrote in a letter that every generation has a Heaven-planted group of these respected rabbis to lead the Jewish people, and that the Jewish people will always recognize who they are. We all sleep easy at night with the secure knowledge that one of these rabbis is never more than a phone call away, and we will never be left forsaken. There is a door at which any question is welcome, and we can rest assured that we will receive a firm, clear answer to even the most confusing question. In other words, the buck stops here.
Rabbi Belsky was that man. With an all-encompassing knowledge of everything Jewish, he was the modern-day walking and talking Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law). His grasp of technology, physics, biology, and chemistry was awe-inspiring, and was a crucial component in his inordinate ability to apply halacha to all facets of life and to decide matters requiring the most sophisticated understanding of science. Rabbi Belsky was not a scientist, and yet he was consulted regularly on matters pertaining to all areas of the sciences as they relate to Jewish law. He had a particular expertise in the field of food-production as a result of his leadership of the largest and most recognizable kosher certification agency in the world. Industry experts are constantly amazed at their certifying rabbis’ mastery of the components and production process of their lines, and Rabbi Belsky was the chief of it all, leading the charge in halachik integrity. The field of kosher certification is one with a particular need for attention to detail, and any reputable organization will have a checks and balance system to maintain trustworthy supervision on its hundreds or thousands of products and plants. But there is one desk that all questions end up on, and at that desk sat Rabbi Yisroel Belsky.
His towering figure disguised a most gentle demeanor. Anyone with his responsibility must be made of tough stuff, and yet his tenderness endeared him to his followers and classified him as a true, caring leader of the Jewish community. A beloved teacher to his hundreds of students, Rabbi Belsky trained a generation of young men in the rich life of a Torah Jew. The few classes I had the opportunity to hear from him remain etched in my memory; pearls of wisdom that I cherish.
We have become a nation of orphans. The Jewish community has nowhere to turn. There are other major halachik authorities out there, and I have no doubt that other younger rabbis will step up. But nobody can possibly fully replace this man whose encyclopedic mind gave him the status as the one of the final words in all things Jewish. Nobody can provide the same level of comfort with the assurance that any question we have can be answered so swiftly and definitively.
We have suffered an irreplaceable loss. To whom will we turn?