Rav Gustman, zt”l

This past Saturday night, I had occasion to attend a simcha at Netzach Yisrael, the yeshiva in Rechavia, Jerusalem, which Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman, zt”l, founded and led until his death in the early 1990s. I was with my father, who had studied in Rav Gustman’s yeshiva before it migrated, with its head, from Brooklyn to Jerusalem in the early 1970s. I met Rav Gustman, the only pre-war Gadol that I ever met, in that building on Tisha B’av, 1987. This led to an impromptu discussion of this largely unheralded great man and his legacy.

The stories told about Rav Gustman are the stuff of legend. Having learned through some of his lengthy but intricate and brilliant shiurim, I can attest that it is not for lack of substance that stories about him tend to focus on his great sensitivity , sense of perspective, and unconditional love (except for the stories about his joining the beit din of R. Hayyim Ozer as a teenager). Many of these stories are recorded on-line. I heard most of them well before the internet became the vehicle it is today:

  1. Perhaps most famous of all is the story of when he went to be menachem aveil as Prof. Yisrael Aumann sat shiva for his slain son during the First Lebanon War.

  1. Rav Gustman would water the plants at his yeshiva out of a sense of gratitude to the bushes that hid him when he hid (the above linked article says that he hid in the bushes from the Nazis; I heard that he hid in the bushes as a younger man to avoid conscription).

  1. He used to take joy in seeing children rejoice in Israel, saying that anyone who saw children die in the Holocaust had an obligation to watch them play in Jerusalem.

  1. I’m pretty sure I heard this from David: Rav Gustman and ylcht”a Rav Aharon Lichtenstein made aliyah at around the same time in the early 1970s. During the Yom Kippur war, RAL was assigned by Home Front Command to deliver milk in Jerusalem. As Rav Gustman was on his delivery route, RAL took the opportunity to “talk in learning” for a while when delivering the milk. Rav Gustman, legend goes, exclaimed after the encounter: “What an amazing country! Even the milk-men are talmidei chachomim!”

  1. Rav Gustman opened the doors to his yeshiva in Brooklyn at the height of Vietnam conscription to allow more kids to take advantage of the draft exemption that clerical studies offered. No, I’m not 100% comfortable with that. But hey, I live in a very different country at a very different time fighting very different wars; I have no doubt that Rav Gustman sacrificed the level of learning at his yeshiva, something many others would not have been prepared to do, to take these kids in; and the United States has elected two presidents who just as legally but just as dubiously avoided conscription to Vietnam.

  1. He used to shovel the snow in front of the yeshiva – and when students and baalebatim began complaining that he was embarrassing them by doing so, he started doing it while it was still dark outside.

As these stories passed around the table, there was one fellow who offered the following:

Rav Gustman once killed an Amaleki.

Noticing my incredulous look, he continued:

He met an Amaleki, knew what the simanim are, and killed him.

I said that I didn’t believe him. He elaborated further:

Yeah. He was in the forests in Lithuania during WWII, and he met a German with the simanim.

Now it made sense. I suggested, partly in jest, that the “siman” in question was a swastika. The fellow didn’t get my drift, saying that the signs of Amalekhood go back much further than the swastika.

More than anything else, I was appalled that, for this fellow, the ability to identify and then murder an Amalekite (with no other context readily apparent) is the stuff of heroism. I don’t take the story as any type of reflection on Rav Gustman himself. That's not the Rav Gustman that I grew up hearing about.

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