Our Da’as Torah Figure

Yona Reiss Featured Articles - Home, Tradition Online | December 16, 2020

One week ago the world lost a Gadol beYisrael, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz zt”l, distinguished mentor of generations of rabbis, Av Beth Din of the Beth Din of America, and editor of TRADITION’s sister publication, the Rabbinical Council of America’s HaDarom. With the conclusion of the week of mourning, R. Yona Reiss shares these words of eulogy first offered at the funeral.

R. Schwartz זצ”ל, with the author יבלחט”א

Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz zt”l was a father figure to me, and to countless others. He was not only a world class talmid hakham and Gadol HaDor who had answers to virtually every halakhic query at his fingertips, but he was also a person of tremendous humanity and humility who cared deeply about people, and their feelings and challenges. He led by example, always exemplifying the attributes of dignity, integrity, sensitivity, warmth and humor, common-sense and fearless leadership. I recall that R. Mordechai Willig, who worked alongside him at the Beth Din of America, once noted that the acronym of his name was the word גדוש, which means overflowing. R. Schwartz was truly a “vessel [both] overflowing and full of God’s blessings” (see Kli Yakar, Numbers 6:23), overflowing with wisdom and knowledge in the service of Hashem. Whenever he spoke, whether in a shiur or sermon, a Din Torah or a communal meeting, people listened, because his remarks were carefully measured, always wise, articulate, crystal clear and to the point, and usually constituted the authoritative and final word of any discussion. He was our Da’as Torah

He always mixed his erudition with compassion. If R. Schwartz could find a leniency for someone in a tough spot, he would do so; if he could not think of a leniency in a particular situation then I knew for sure that the matter at hand was genuinely prohibited. The Talmud remarks that “when an Av Beth Din dies, all the study halls in his city are temporarily closed” as a show of respect (Moed Katan 22b). In this tradition, a number of the schools in Chicago postponed classes so that the students could watch his funeral on Zoom. The impact that R. Schwartz had as Av Beth Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, and of the Beth Din of America, was indescribable. His presence uplifted us all. We were all better people because we could look to him as a role model. Rambam (Sanhedrin 2:7) observes that Moshe Rabbenu taught us by example when he rescued the daughters of Yitro from the shepherds who were preventing their access to the well. From this he understood that a dayyan’s primary responsibility is “to rescue victims from their oppressors” (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:7). There was none in our generation who personified this trait more than R. Schwartz. He dedicated himself to alleviating the suffering of Agunot, safek mamzerim (children born with dubious legitimacy), the vulnerable and the downtrodden, and to ensure that nobody be deprived of true Torah justice, that everyone have access to the life-giving waters of the Torah’s well. 

He never shied away from tough cases, even if it brought him criticism. He only cared about doing what was right. He taught us the meaning of the Biblical imperative “You shall not favor persons in judgment, rather you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord” (Deut. 1:17). Whether it was for leniency or stringency, he defended what he believed was true justice according to Torah law (see Shabbat 10a). He was one of the first proponents of the halakhic pre-nuptial agreement, one of the fiercest opponents against fraudulent uses of the “heter meah rabbanim” (permission granted by 100 rabbis for a man to marry a second wife when the first refuses or is unable to receive a Get), and he helped lead the offense against edicts that would permit a husband to remarry without first making a Get unconditionally available for his wife. At the same time, he was a harsh critic of those who issued blanket dispensations for women to remarry without a Get based on invalid halakhic arguments. He was a master of the laws of Gittin (Jewish divorce), Gerut (conversion), Dinei Torah (rabbinic arbitration), and kashrut, including the most esoteric points of kosher slaughter. He walked through slaughterhouses wearing a construction worker’s hard hat, and he earned the respect of the shochtim with his erudition, and the respect of the non-Jewish workers with his unflinching derekh eretz, as well as his physical and mental toughness. 

And, indeed, R. Schwartz was made of tough stuff – both physically and mentally. He was so indomitable that even the serious stroke that stripped him of so much of his physical capacity a few years ago did not strip him from his ability to think and communicate, even if in shorter sessions than in the past because of his physical fatigue. Thank God, I was able to meet with him and speak with him many times during this period, often learning Daf Yomi together, and I was astounded by his ability to finish by heart the sentences in the Gemara that I had begun to read aloud. Whenever I would visit or speak to him on the phone, which continued until a few weeks ago, he would offer a hearty “Yasher Koakh” – always showing appreciation for the visit, no matter how brief. 

We read in [last] week’s Torah portion (Parashat Vayeshev) that when Reuven saw that Yosef had been taken from the pit in which he had been placed, he rent his garments and said to his brothers, “the child is gone – and I – where will I go from here?” (Gen. 37:29-30). Rashi comments that Reuven had been in mourning, fasting and clad in sackcloth, because of the incident of regarding moving his father’s bed to his mother’s tent following Rachel’s death, protesting what he perceived as an injustice but garnering his father’s ire instead (Rashi to Gen. 35:22) . R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l explained that Reuven was mourning the fact that he had acted impetuously without first consulting with his father who was the Gadol HaDor – and it was this self-reliant attitude which first-born Reuven modelled that misled his brothers to feel that they too could pasken (rule) for themselves to sell Yosef without consulting with their father (see Mipeninei HaRav to Vayeshev). Therefore, Reuven lamented “how can I proceed by myself?” – Reuven now realized his error, he recognized how dangerous it is to try to navigate the proper path without consulting with the Gadol HaDor. Today I feel the weight of these words –how can I find my way without the guiding hand of my personal Gadol HaDor, my mentor who taught me for more than two decades how to officiate at a Get, how to determine the fitness of a conversion candidate, how to decide Din Torah cases, how to rule on the difficult questions of laws of family purity, medical ethics, the numerous queries from the RCA military chaplains, and all the formidable challenges of contemporary society. Most importantly, where is my guide for how to relate to people properly? R. Schwartz frequently observed that ninety percent of success in being a dayan is human relations: how to listen and empathize, while maintaining halakhic integrity at all times. How can I proceed without being able to describe to R. Schwartz, on a regular basis, what has been going on at the Beth Din in order to hear his approving Yasher Koach. How can I continue, how can we continue, adrift without our leader? “Woe to the ship that has lost its captain!” (Bava Batra 91b). 

The loss of R. Schwartz is also very personal for my family. When he would travel to New York for his monthly visits to the Beth Din of America, dating back over two decades, R. Schwartz would stay at my home in Riverdale, New York. My wife and I enjoyed the ritual of purchasing the foods that we knew that he liked, the oatmeal, the oranges, fresh pie, instant coffee. We so enjoyed Rav Schwartz’s gentle and familial presence at our table. He took an interest in each of our children. Even shortly after his stroke, he insisted, although it was with great physical difficulty, upon inscribing a set of Humashim that he had ordered for our son Yamin’s bar mitzva gift. Eight years ago, I was being interviewed by the Chicago Rabbinical Council for the position of Av Beth Din in Chicago, as R. Schwartz transitioned to the venerable title of Rosh Beit Din. It was the week before Parashat Bo, and he said to the other rabbis on the committee, in his booming voice, that it was time for my family to join him in Chicago because we were about to read Parashat Bo, which means “to come,” and I responded that I was still in the middle of the previous week’s reading, which was Va’era (meaning: I appeared) so I still needed to look around and see Chicago some more. But, naturally, once R. Schwartz said Bo, there was nothing left for us to decide. We never looked back. The ability for me to work alongside R. Schwartz at the cRc and to enter his office, day after day, to pose halakhic queries and receive advice and counsel on all matters, was a privilege that we could not refuse. Since my family had a special relationship with him, my wife was also able to get R. Schwartz to intervene when necessary in our lives, such as when he ruled, on her request, that I was not allowed to skip lunch during my workday. To him, the personal rulings were as important as the communal decisions that he regularly rendered for the Chicago Rabbinical Council, and for the Rabbinical Council of America as the head of its Halacha Commission. In his mind, the well-being of each individual was in the category of matters of the highest cosmic order (devarim ha’omdim be-rumo shel olam). 

I will conclude by saying a word regarding Rav Schwartz’s prodigious memory. His ability to remember every discussion in the Talmud as well as responsa literature from relatively obscure authors that perfectly related to a question at hand was only paralleled by his amazing recall of people, places, names, minute details of world history, and the important works and theories of numerous academic disciplines. The Talmud (Horiyot 13b) states that eating olives on a regular basis causes one to forget his learning. Several years ago I asked him whether it was true, as had been rumored, that he had stopped eating olives at the age of 9, based on that Gemara, as a precautionary measure (see commentary of Meiri ad locum). He responded that the rumors were greatly exaggerated. In fact, he had given up olives closer to the age of 12!  If you want to understand what it means to be a Gadol, just think about that story. 

Finally, my heart goes out to his (second) Rebbetzin, who brought him such joy during this past decade of his life. We pray for her complete and speedy recovery to good health. Together, we mourn with R. Schwartz’s children and entire family, along with the extended family of his myriad congregants, students, and members of the Jewish people who so loved and revered him.

תנצב”ה

Rabbi Yona Reiss, a member of the TRADITION editorial board, serves as the Av Beth Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.

1 Comment

  1. David Warshaw says:

    I have such fond memories of R’ Schwartz, ZT”L at Young Israel 🇮🇱 of Boro Park.
    In particular, I recall his warmth and friendship for my parents, Z”L. My father would regularly pepper R’ Schwartz with all sorts of questions on the Parasha and other matters. R’Schwartz would always respond in a most respectful and calm manner no matter the level of the inquiry.
    A number of years ago, I had the privilege to see R’Schwartz in Chicago and one of the first things he asked me was how are your parents, referring to my father’s persistent questioning.
    He truly was an אדם גדול.
    תהי זכרו ברוך.

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