Putting God at the Center: The Life of R. Gedalia Dov Schwartz 

Hanan Balk Tradition Online | November 28, 2021

Hanan Balk shares memories of R. Gedalia Dov Schwartz’s God-centered life, on his first yahrzeit (24 Kislev), observed today. Read Yona Reiss’ eulogy, “Our Da’as Torah Figure,” published in TRADITION Online last year

In 1990, R. Yehoshua z”l and Rivka Leah Goldman moved to Cincinnati to begin their new jobs in the Jewish community. Little did I realize at the time that, along with these wonderful individuals, a true Gadol ba-Torah would follow in their wake—Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz zt”l—who had recently moved to Chicago to serve as the Av Beit Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. R. Schwartz was Rivka Leah’s father. 

I was, of course, familiar with this great scholar. R. Schwartz—who would also serve as the Av Beit Din of the Beit Din of America in New York—had Shas, Rishonim, Aharonim, and Poskim at his fingertips. He always referred to such sources with great joy and excitement that showed his incredible love and utter mastery of Torah learning. I once asked him how he became proficient in Shas. He told me that when he applied to become the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Borough Park a requirement of the job was to give a shiur in Daf Yomi. He had not previously learned the daily daf, but said it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him, because it further sharpened his knowledge and familiarity with the Talmud. 

A five-hour drive from his children and grandchildren, R. Schwartz would visit Cincinnati for Yamim Tovim and select Shabbatot for many years. I took full advantage of the situation and often asked him to speak when he was in town. He became a familiar face in the community, generously sharing his vast knowledge, spiritual grandeur, and precious time, with all who sought his guidance. 

The Darshan

I will never forget the first derasha R. Schwartz delivered at my shul (Congregation Agudas Israel/The Golf Manor Synagogue). He had been labeled by some as “a centrist” and was not particularly happy with that description. It seemed to him that such a term only had meaning relative to those on the right or the left of a person—but lacked significance with regards to what that person stood for in and of himself. 

Upon further reflection, however, R. Schwartz willingly accepted the categorization. “Indeed,” he exclaimed, “I am a centrist—to the degree that it can be understood in the following manner: I put God at the center of my life!” As it was Yom Tov on that occasion, he cited a prooftext for this refreshing interpretation by focusing upon the verse from Hallel, “I shall walk before God in the land of the living” (Psalms 116:9), and encouraged us all to be centrists as well, putting God before us at the center of our lives.

In another memorable derasha, R. Schwartz spoke upon the occasion of his grandson Eliezer becoming a bar mitzva. He first told the boy about the merit he had to have a family which was highly devoted to the learning of Torah and the performance of mitzvot. He continued with a fabulous story he heard from his son-in-law, R. Yehoshua (Eliezer’s father who tragically passed away at the age of 48), who heard it from his father:

When your grandfather R. Shaul Goldman z”l was once officiating as a rabbi for Rosh Hashana at a small congregation, the gabbai appointed a man to open the Aron ha-Kodesh and take out the Torah. As the man gave the Torah to the hazzan, the gabbai motioned to him to take the silver crown out of the Holy Ark as well. The man took out the crown and simply stood there and held it. The gabbai told him: “Put it on, put the crown on!” “Put it on?” the man asked. “Yes,” replied the gabbai. The man then proceeded to put the crown on his own head! “What are you doing?” the gabbai asked. To which he responded: “I’m sorry, but there is something wrong with this crown—it doesn’t fit!” 

R. Schwartz explained the teaching of the story—that it is not the Torah and its crown that need to fit us, but we who must conform to the Toraha meaningful thought to share with a bar mitzvah. But he then suggested another connection: 

At many bar mitzva celebrations the speeches build up the young man and family to a regal level of Torah character and personality—but the crown doesn’t fit. In this case, however, Eliezer, with your family, it does fit. I would even put it like this: The English used to say that they considered the territories they ruled outside of England to be the crown of the empire; when they gained sovereignty over India, they referred to it as the jewel of the crown. Eliezer—not only are you one who is worthy to wear the crown, you are the jewel of the crown.

How beautiful was that final statement as a message to his grandson. But let us note as well R. Schwartz’s knowledge of history, to which he so casually made reference, to make his point. This was hardly an isolated case.

The Value of All Knowledge

Almost every time R. Schwartz would speak, he unabashedly utilized not only a healthy amount of Torah sources, as one might expect, but also sources of general knowledge. The Works of Shakespeare, which he read and reread (I was told by daughter Rivka Leah), The Writings of Napoleon Bonaparte, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, were just a few examples of his reading material which I remember he integrated into his derashot. He had a classical background in Greek and Latin, a love of French literature (he won the French Prize at his graduation from Yeshiva College), and would quote sources in the original French before translating them for us. 

R. Schwartz never sought to defend his use of worldly wisdom to clarify the truths of the Torah. That was already well-established by Rambam (Introduction to Shemona Perakim): “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes,” which R. Schwartz would often quote. Indeed, non-Jewish sources were not only worthy of study, but of sharing with a large audience, even within a presentation of divrei Torah and even within the holy confines of the synagogue. 

The Greatness of Man 

Some years ago, I wrote an article in the journal Hakirah titled “The Soul of a Jew and the Soul of a Non-Jew.” I argued that the view of Rambam, in contrast to almost all other authorities, was that there is no difference between the soul of a Jew and that of a non-Jew. A Jew is not by nature superior to a non-Jew in terms of his spiritual make-up—as is put forth in Kabbalistic literature—and all human beings can aspire for and achieve spiritual greatness.

At an RCA convention that took place shortly before I began to work on that article, I sought the advice of three great Torah scholars about the topic. The first strongly disagreed with my premise and argued unapologetically that the Jewish soul is greater than that of the non-Jew. The second thought the thesis was appropriate and if I could offer evidence for an alternative view voiced by Rambam I should do so. The views of these two scholars did not surprise me in terms of what I have gleaned from their hashkafot over many years. The third opinion was that of R. Schwartz. Not only did he support my argument, he emphatically stated: “It has to be that way! Write the article.” As I was aware of his positive attitude and appreciation toward all knowledge, I was confident this would be his perspective toward those who espoused that knowledge. Nevertheless, I did not expect it to be said with such conviction.

Words and Steps

R. Schwartz was especially profound and comforting in times of tragedy. Unfortunately, one such tragedy occurred in his own family. His grandson, the bar mitzva spoken about previously, passed away at the age of twenty-two from the same dreaded disease that took his father’s life. The Goldman family had since moved to Baltimore and the funeral took place there. In an incredible use of metaphor, R. Schwartz drew attention to what obviously was on everybody’s mind—the tragedy of such a young man being struck down before getting a full opportunity to live his life. He offered the following brief but moving thought (I thank R. Dovid Gottlieb for sharing this with me at the time): When a person completes a masekhta of Gemara, whether it is a large tractate that was completed or a very small one, we still make a siyum to recognize and praise that accomplishment. Eliezer’s life was a small masekhta.

After the funeral, the family flew to Cincinnati for the burial. Eliezer would be laid to rest next to his father. When the burial was completed, we all stood in silent reflection upon this tragedy. It probably was a matter of some seconds, but it seemed to me like an eternity. And then, R. Schwartz looked up at those assembled and said three words: “Well,” he said, “that’s that.” He then intentionally and with a sense of purpose took a large step (not a normal step) away from the grave, in leading his family and those who were there, forward, to return to the land of the living. 

Not only the words, but even the steps of the righteous, are worthy of study.

To Empower the American Rabbinate

R. Schwartz was very much a supporter of the Orthodox rabbinate in America and often delivered lectures, the themes of which were that the Torah scholars who served even small cities in this country in the early twentieth century were capable of writing responsa that revealed their vast knowledge of the halakhic literature.

But those scholars had come almost exclusively from Europe. The Torah scholarship of American-trained rabbis was generally a different story altogether. As a young man in his early thirties, R. Schwartz authored the work Divrei Regesh, a small book of only ninety-five pages with his comments on various sugyot throughout Shas. In the introduction to the work, he expressed a longing for three things: 

  1. Having attained his college degree, he desired to study Torah—his greatest love—always: “For such is my purpose in life.” 
  2. To dispel the ignorance of many Orthodox rabbis trained in America, for whom the study of Torah on a deep level had no part in their lives or in efforts to inspire their congregants. Rabbis of the time were pursuing advanced college degrees, not in addition to, but at the expense of, and even as a replacement for, the study of Torah, which should be their primary occupation. This was heartbreaking to him; he knew he had to do something about it. 
  3. That his modest sefer was to serve as an example to his fellow rabbanim, “many far greater than I,” he emphasized, to return to the study of Torah and to publish works of Torah, across the American landscape. He recognized the task was daunting but hoped that he could serve “as a small flame that would light a great fire” (Ta’anit 7a).

In the introduction to his second work, Migdanot Eliezer, written ten years later, R. Schwartz noted that he had seen a marked change in the study of Torah by his fellow rabbis, to which he hoped his first work had made some minor contribution. He called for that change to continue and to grow, but now added that rabbanim must study and apply their learning to practical issues, including the administration of Gittin, serving on battei din, and becoming poskim—without which he feared Jewish communities in America would not survive. 

One can only imagine the sense of inner-joy and tremendous gratitude to the Ribbono shel Olam that R. Schwartz experienced for the gift of long life, in which he saw with his own eyes, how year after year, slowly and then mightily, the American wasteland was transformed into an oasis of Torah learning, exactly as he had so passionately hoped. 

To Empower the Individual Rabbi

Beyond his effort to strengthen rabbinic authority on a national level, R. Schwartz regularly advocated for the rabbi on the simplest level—as a source of authority for his own kehilla. 

R. Schwartz was once a scholar-in-residence at my congregation—the occasion upon which he gave me his two sefarim—and we had a large group at my home for Shabbat lunch with many more who came for dessert. At some point, a congregant asked what he considered a very difficult halakhic question to R. Schwartz, who immediately responded: “Baruch Hashem you have a Rav who is capable of answering any of your questions—Rabbi Balk please answer this question.” I answered the question to the best of my ability. R. Schwartz confirmed: “There you go, perfect, exactly how I would have answered it.” 

I have no memory of what the question was or what I said, only that this was a remarkable way to pronounce the local Rav as the authority to whom congregants should turn when difficult questions arise.

Champion of the Needy

A story is told about a young man in a kollel who was not attending the yeshiva minyan where the kollel was located, as was proper, but instead davened at a later minyan in a local shul. When asked by the roshei yeshiva why he had been absent, he answered that he has every intention to attend the yeshiva minyan, but as he sets out on his way he encounters a woman who is completely overwhelmed by crying children, and so he stops to help her, which forces him to attend a later minyan. The roshei yeshiva were completely unaware of this woman in need. Wanting to help her themselves, they asked who she was. The young man responded: “My wife!”

Members of one’s own household who are in distress require support as much as anyone else—but we may not regard assistance to them as being a priority. A similar thought can be expressed with reference to those in the rabbinate. While a rabbi spends much of his time coming to the aid of others, who is there to support a rabbi and his family when they are in need? Who will assure them that they are not alone?

I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that there was never a greater supporter of rabbis than R. Gedalia Dov Schwartz. Since he served as a congregational rabbi for many years (while many great Torah scholars do not) he utilized his experience and wisdom to generously offer himself as a mentor to encourage rabbis in the field. This meant consciously making himself available despite his incredibly busy schedule, which included answering questions that were addressed to him, day and night, by Jewish communities throughout the world. 

Scores of rabbis can testify to this—and I am one of them. Suffice it to say that when I encountered difficulties in my rabbinical career after I had been in the rabbinate for over a quarter of a century, R. Schwartz did everything that he could to advocate for me. I would even go so far as to say that he was not only supportive, but heroic in his efforts. But beyond this, with his genuine and ongoing concern for my well-being, I never had the feeling that I was alone. I will always remember the words of inspiration, sensitivity, and comfort that he so gently provided, with the closeness of a father, as much as a Gadol bi-Yisrael

I pray that my words have offered at least some appreciation of the loss Klal Yisrael has suffered in the passing of this unique and irreplaceable Torah giant who so humbly walked among us. Let us forever honor his memory by living each day as he did—putting God at the center of our lives.

Hanan Balk is the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudas Israel (Golf Manor Synagogue) in Cincinnati, where he served as spiritual leader for 24 years. He currently serves as a chaplain for The Hospice of Cincinnati.

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