A few years ago, as part of an application, I was asked to submit a brief essay describing the Torah personality of the last 150 years who has had the greatest influence on my life. In honor of his 35th yahrtzeit tonight, chuf Kislev, I am publishing my brief essay below:
Some people hang pictures of their heroes on the wall. Others stock shelves with their writings. Though my wall has his picture and my shelves host his writings, I looked in the mirror, at my thoughts and actions, to realize the influence Rav Yitzchok Hutner has had on my life. The content of his writings are inspirational: I can think of few Torah pieces which have changed my life the way his second ma’amar in Pachad Yitzchok on Shabbos have, and his well-known letters about living a broad life and not giving up fighting are constantly inspiring me. However, beyond the content of his words, the obvious character of the author has had an even greater effect.
Rav Hutner was elusive in being defined as Chassidic or Litvish. Though this too serves me well— I generally practice the Litvish brand of Judaism my father and grandfather have given over, yet find it difficult to abandon the customs of prior generations who practiced chassidus—I refer more to the parallel internal experience of practicing Judaism. Extreme Litvish behavior tends to focus almost
exclusively on the cognitive religious experience, especially the intellectual pursuit of Talmud Torah. This style has become nearly universal in contemporary Yeshivos. The cost of our Yeshiva system is the epidemic of many names—lack of spirituality, Orthoprax, etc.—but with a common theme: the lack of emotional experience. The alternative extreme is spirituality without religious structure. This may represent what the Vilna Gaon feared in the creation of chassidus. Rav Hutner mastered the balance between thinking and feeling. His pieces in Pachad Yitzchak reflect a genius understanding of the emotional religious experience. I was never able to articulate my love for learning machshava/agadita until I discovered a story about Rav Hutner quoted in Rav Ahron Lopiansky’s Time Pieces. On a Shabbos afternoon, Rav Hutner was learning hilchos Shabbos. He arrived at the halacha that forbids crying on Shabbos, except in scenarios such as Rabbi Akiva’s who cried out of love when he read Shir Ha’Shirim. When Rav Hutner read this halacha, he too was moved to tears. He built one of the finest Yeshivos in New York with a traditional style of learning, but he also felt his religious experience. As a rabbi and psychologist who studies the wisdom of the Talmud and learns to speak the language of the heart, Rav Hutner leads the way in embracing a full religious