Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rabbi Milton Feist - In Memoriam

This Shabbat, the 12th of Iyyar, marks the 30th yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir (Milton) Feist, a dear friend and teacher, who profoundly shaped my life. I felt this an appropriate occasion to retell something of his story. What follows is an abridgement and adaptation of an article that originally appeared in Response; A Contemporary Jewish Review 27 (Fall 1975), 109-115, shortly after his death.

I first met Rabbi Feist in 1966, at a weekday afternoon service in a synagogue on the West Side of Manhattan. At first I had assumed he was someone, perhaps an artist or a college professor, who had come to shul simply to say Kaddish. He was in a wheelchair, and conveyed a sense of great dignity, culture and intelligence. He wore a long, flowing grey beard, long hair covered with a beret, and a nondescript dark suit. His face bore a calm, peaceful expression, with the hint of a humorous twinkle in his eyes. He spoke in deep, mellow tones with a native American accent. But something in the way he prayed, and in a casual comment he made to one of the men in the shul—he spoke of a certain place where “Minha on a weekday is like Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur elsewhere”—revealed the deep wellsprings of Judaism upon which he drew.

It was more than a year until I got to know him more than superficially. One evening we happened to take our meals together in the sukkah, we began to talk, and he invited me to visit him. His crowded apartment was filled helter-skelter with books and papers and paintings and Talmud folios. Somewhere in the middle of all this, at a small triangular table where we sat and talked and drank brandy, the many different worlds in which this man lived started to come alive. The world of artists and musicians and writers. The world of the German-Jewish balabatim of the West Side—those stolid, conventional souls who made up our congregation and others like it. The world of the Hebrew poets and mystics of medieval Provence and Spain, figures with whom he seemed to share an inner life. He loved the piyyutim with which they had adorned the liturgical year, and knew them well. The world of Hasidism—but not the Hasidism of those who flock to this or that rebbe, but that which is a teaching about how to serve God. Although he was a devotee of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, he spoke about the need for a “Catholic Hasidism,” one which would foster the study of all of its many streams. The world of Musar—the ethical discipline of Rabbi Israel Salanter and his disciples. The world, finally, of my contemporaries—of college students struggling to discover themselves, seeking to become better Jews, and weathering the storms of relationships with parents and friends. As I was to learn, this man, forty years older than myself, confined to a wheelchair, was a center of vital energy for an entire group of students—as teacher, friend and confidant.

At the end of that first evening he gave me a gift: a large Hebrew book, Likkutei Muharan, the collected teachings of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. He explained that he always kept two copies of this book in his home—one for himself, which he studied regularly; another, which he kept on hand “to give to someone whom he felt might benefit from it.” And indeed, for me this was an entry, not only into the world of Rabbi Nahman, but to that of Hasidic thought and teaching generally. He was born in Mt. Vernon, New York in 1907, the middle son of a family of Alsatian Jews. At the age of four he was stricken by polio, which left him without the use of his legs for the rest of his life. His family was not religiously observant; at some point fairly early in life he chose this path for himself. Already in his youth and early manhood he devoted much of his time to the study of Torah; so much so, that he was given semikha by Rav Mendel Zaks, the protege {son-in-law) of the Hafetz Hayyim. He earned his living in the family business, a music publishing house, which brought him into contact with the unconventional, bohemian life of Manhattan’s creative artists. During a certain period he even lived in Greenwich Village, where he spent whole nights talking and drinking with artist and writer friends, including some of the early beatniks, such as Jack Kerouak.

Around his fiftieth year, he turned towards a more intensive religious life. He grew a beard, began to study Musar, Hasidism and Kabbalah, and to pray using the mystical kavvanot of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero. Some years after we met, he sold his business, left the West Side, and moved to the great yeshiva at Lakewood, New Jersey, where he spent his days and nights immersed in the study of Torah. In 1974, he realized a lifelong dream and visited Eretz Yisrael for the High Holy Days. (I had gone there at the same time to study at the yeshivah at Gush Etzion. I remember my great joy one day when I suddenly encountered him in one of the alley-ways of Meah Shearim.) He made a second trip that Pesah, and began to give serious thought to settling there. But a few days after his return to the States he became ill with double pneumonia, and early in the morning of the 12th of Iyyar, 5735, returned his soul to its Creator.

Some scenes from his life:

Coming home from shul, he holds in his lap his tallit and tefillin, together with a copy of Siddur Tefilla le-Moshe, with Kabbalistic kavvanot on each word of the text. He refers to this tongue in cheek as his “wiring-chart Siddur,” yet he prays out of it with great devotion.

I visit him in his apartment for Melaveh Malkeh (the meal of escorting out the Sabbath) and offer to carry the food from his kitchen to the table. For him to do so, he would have to make a 180-degree turn in his wheelchair —a difficult maneuver. He refuses my offer: I am his guest.

I visit him at Lakewood, and he comments on one of the boys who is suffering from an “excess of Mussar.” Then he leans forward and, in a conspiratorial whisper, quotes something from Teresa of Avila about the dangers of excessive soul-searching for the religious life. He never failed to note the irony and humor in human life, and to comment on it in his own gentle way.

Once or twice I was given deeper intimations of his own inner life. On one occasion, he described to me something that sounded very much like a mystical revelation. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah he had stayed up, struggling to bring himself close to God, meditating on the Enthronement of the Almighty which takes place on that day, until at dawn… “what happened then I cannot tell you.” He spoke constantly about the coming in Messiah, and expected him at any moment. Before I left for Israel, I visited him at Lakewood. When I mentioned that I was leaving the following Tuesday, he said, “In that case, I shall certainly be there long before you.” Yet he did not think of himself as having attained any degree of holiness, would insist that he was a sinful person, and that his attainments in learning were much less than those of even the younger boys in Lakewood.

As a young man pulled in many direction in Cambridge of the late ‘60’s, Rabbi Feist served for me as a kind of focus radiating love and understanding—he, too, understood the attractions of a “counter-cultural,” radical life style—while pulling me back towards the tradition, in all of its uncompromising strength. Several letters he wrote to me during this period reflect his outlook:

Yes, I do think I have emunah peshutah [simple faith]. It is not the result of ignoring intellectual difficulties, but simply the conviction that, since the Torah is true, anything else which is true can be reconciled with it. This, and the realization that secular “truths” go in and out of fashion as fast as tight and loose trousers.

But this in itself does not give one mastery over the Yetzer ha-Ra [Evil Urge]. He is a cunning old malakh [angel] and he has the power to find the right “pitch” for everyone. When one has licked him at some gross level, he comes back at a more refined level. This is true of his use of sex, too… In each shell of sin, there is a spark of holiness (which is ahavah [love] itself) which is what the Yetzer ha-Ra dangles before the more developed personality.

If I have been of any help it is not because of any merit [on my part], but simply that I have gone and am still going through such storms myself. If I have made any progress it is this: I am no longer confused by the fact that things that the Torah forbids can seem to me not only desirable but good.…

To me, the most striking thing about Rabbi Feist was his union of deep piety with warm humanity, insight and love of others. He was not only a man of halakha, who scrupulously observed every detail of the Shulhan Arukh, but one whose Avodat ha-Shem, whose service of God, was full of life and vitality. There was a freshness about everything he did, which reflected his own personality. The presence of God was as real to him as that of another person present in the same room. Yet he was capable of relating to all kinds of people with total acceptance and love. He was unfailing filled with good cheer, humor, and warmth. Nor did his piety prevent him from maintaining a certain sense of irony and a keen awareness and understanding of the world of secular modernity. I was never conscious of the gap in age between us. We talked as openly and freely as two contemporaries. I don’t remember him ever saying a cruel or harsh word to anybody; he was never impatient with people; he never complained about the hardship he had to endure because of his handicap—or, for that matter, about any of the petty things which most people complain about during the course of daily life. Indeed, he was probably the happiest person I ever met. Perhaps this is the highest praise that can be said.


Blogger kal said...

thank you so much for your insight

b'hashgocha protis,I came across a copy of the sefer "Bais Yisroel"
by the great Chofetz Chayim,zyavaky
"a.(his final sefer).It was transl-
ated by Rabbi Feist in 1934.Rabbi Feist's rendition is masterful,and
I think K'lal Yisroel would benefit greatly by its being reprinted.With H-Shem's Help,I iwill will

2:02 PM  
Blogger Tovia Halpern said...

Thank you for your post. Rabbi Feist continues to inspire 30 years after he passed away. יהא זכרו ברוך

9:29 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home