Member of Queens Jewish Center
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It was on a Friday night around a decade and a half ago. I was at the Queens Jewish Center, the Orthodox shul I had joined a few years earlier, and the shul's mara d'atra, Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt, got up to speak between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma'ariv, as was his practice. In the course of his brief dvar Torah, he made reference to an insight from a "great modern Jewish theologian" whom he did not name. I recognized the reference, however, so after the service I approached him, somewhat mischievously, to inquire as to the identity of this mystery theologian.
Rabbi Grunblatt acknowledged that he had been referring to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l, whose book The Sabbath was, in his view, one of the best works of modern Jewish thought. "I could get in trouble here quoting him by name," he added with a smile. We never discussed it again, but I noticed that on a few subsequent occasions he did make reference to Heschel by name. If anyone in the shul complained, I never heard of it.
That episode was the first thing that came to mind this past Shabbat morning, when I learned that Rabbi Grunblatt, who had been QJC's rabbi emeritus since his retirement in 2006, had passed away that morning at the age of 86. It exemplified many of the qualities that I associate with him: the breadth of both his knowledge and his intellectual curiosity, his ability to find worthwhile insights in places that most Orthodox rabbis wouldn't think to look, his instinctive caution, his willingness to consider a change in course when he thought it appropriate, and his modesty, which enabled him to speak with such candor to a congregant whom at the time he barely knew. I had joined the shul a few years before that conversation, but on Shabbat mornings I had initially attended not the main shul service where he spoke each week, but a small minyan that met on the third floor. I had spoken to him privately a few times about shul-related matters, but for the most part we had had limited contact.
I had more contact with him in the years that followed, but I cannot claim to have known him well. Most of the shul's current members knew him far longer than I, and many enjoyed far closer contact with him. Yet over time I had many occasions to hear him speak and had conversations with him on a wide range of subjects . I came to have a tremendous respect for him not only because of the breadth of his knowledge and his commitment to rational discourse, but also because he refused to conform to current Orthodox fashion, to simply follow the crowd. He was by no means consistently meikil (lenient) in matters of Halakha, but when he was machmir (stringent), it was because he believed the Halakha required it, not because, as is too often true today, he felt obliged to conform, as do so many Orthodox rabbis today.
When circumstances brought me to the Queens Jewish Center, it was with a certain amount of apprehension. I had never before had a formal affiliation with an Orthodox institution, and I was profoundly uncomfortable with the trends that had been pushing Orthodox Judaism [Rightward]. Fortunately, I found those fears to be exaggerated. Anti-intellectualism, in particular, had no place in QJC, and I soon realized why. It was inconceivable that a shul of which Rabbi Grunblatt was mara d'atra could fall prey to anti-intellectualism.
Most of the issues around which the anti-intellectualism of contemporary Orthodoxy has developed in recent years -- the disdain for secular learning, etc. were no part of his worldview. Whether in his major derashot on Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbat Shuvah, (which, when I joined the shul, were still drawing large crowds, including many who walked in from surrounding neighborhoods), the four-part Dynamics of Halakha series that he taught every fall (the very name of which speaks volumes) his regular Shabbat morning derashot or even in casual conversations, he displayed an intellectual openness that is hard to find in contemporary Orthodoxy, and is becoming increasingly hard to find in contemporary life across the ideological spectrum.
Rabbi Grunblatt's funeral on this past Sunday was held in the main sanctuary of the Queens Jewish Center, the shul that he served for nearly four decades. Not surprisingly, the sanctuary was packed, with not a seat to be found and many standing; even the overflow room downstairs, where a hastily installed sound system enabled those who could not fit into the sanctuary to hear the eulogies, was crowded. As I listened to the many eulogies from family members and others, I found myself hearing repeatedly, from different perspectives and with respect to different periods of his life, a description of the same qualities that were obvious to me even in my limited contacts with him. There are some people whose public and private personas are substantially different, but Rabbi Grunblatt was emphatically not one of them.
One quality that nearly every eulogy touched on was Rabbi Grunblatt's modesty. It was noteworthy not only because modesty is not generally an occupational hazard of the pulpit rabbinate, but also because it is easy for anyone held in such high esteem by so many to let it go to his head. Yet it was hard to know Rabbi Grunblatt even slightly without realizing how deep his modesty ran. It was particularly apparent when, after his retirement, he continued to live in the community and attended, as a congregant, the shul whose pulpit he had occupied for so long. Such an arrangement is often fraught with peril, but Rabbi Grunblatt was careful to avoid anything that might undermine his successor. He declined to continue sitting on the bimah, saying that he was looking forward to sitting with the rest of the congregation.
I have sometimes wondered, I must admit, whether Rabbi Grunblatt's modesty had a downside, diminishing some of the influence he might have wielded in the wider Orthodox community. He sometimes seemed too deferential to prominent rabbinic figures whose wisdom, it seemed to me, was less than his. His approach to Torah -- halakhically firm and intellectually open -- might have become more widespread in an Orthodox world that desperately needs such an approach had he been less reluctant to assert the breadth and depth of his own intellect. My suspicion that he might have become more influential had he been a little less modest was reinforced by something mentioned in one of the eulogies that I had not heard before -- that he had at one point turned down an opportunity to become president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinical body of mainstream Orthodoxy.
On this past Shabbat after the congregation learned of Rabbi Grunblatt's passing and during the preparation for and conduct of his funeral, there was one phrase I heard over and over, from a wide variety of people -- that Rabbi Grunblatt's death marked the end of an era. I'm not sure that we all meant the same thing by that phrase, or even that we were all certain precisely what we meant. But our use of that phrase, at minimum, signified our recognition that with Rabbi Grunblatt's passing the Jewish world has lost a unique individual who touched the lives of many. No human being is indispensable, but some are irreplaceable, and Rabbi Grunblatt is surely one of those.
Yehi zikhro barukh -- may Rabbi Grunblatt's memory be a blessing to all whose lives he touched, and may his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
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I met R Grunblatt Z"L only a few times, but I always admired him "from afar". He was one of my prototypes as a "Centrist" Orthodox Rav; someone who could appeal to Observant Jews across the spectrum. Y'hee Zichro Baruch