Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel writes that he would not be the person, the Jew, that he is today were it not for the fact that one day, an amazing, rather curious vagabond came along and informed him that he understood nothing. Noted French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the same man a "wonderful teacher" and claimed he was able to decipher any Talmudic text. Levinas repeatedly emphasized that his own understanding of the Talmud (as expressed in his book "Nine Talmudic Readings," translated by Annette Aronowicz) is only the "shadow of the shadow" of what he learned from his great teacher. Shalom Rosenberg, Hebrew University professor of Jewish philosophy, who met this same man a few years before he died in South America 35 years ago, regards him as his most influential teacher and continues to regret that he has not done enough to disseminate his teachings.
Friends and students knew him only as "Mr. Chouchani" (pronounced "Shoushani"). He would sometimes call himself "Prof. Chouchani," but that was apparently only one of the names he used. He spent his life traveling in East Europe, France, the United States, British Mandatory Palestine, North Africa and South America. A solitary, eternal wanderer, he always wore pauper's clothes and sought food and lodging among friends. He zealously concealed his past, yet wherever he went, he left behind many admirers who were astounded by the scope of his knowledge - in both Jewish and general fields - and his skill at integrating various realms to produce stunning innovations. In his memoirs, Wiesel wrote that, wherever he mentioned Chouchani in the world, he invariably encountered people who had met him and had been profoundly influenced by him.
Many people consider Chouchani to be one of the 20th century's greatest teachers, certainly in the Jewish world, and, simultaneously, one of that century's most mysterious figures. He was a sort of human comet who darted through the skies of the 20th century and generated a storm in the hearts of all who met him. French-Jewish journalist Salomon Malka, who wrote a book about Chouchani, called him the "20th century's most enigmatic teacher." Once, in a conversation between Rosenberg and Levinas, two of Chouchani's most prominent disciples, Rosenberg said that the "world is divided into those who knew him and those who did not."
To this very day, no one knows for certain when and where he was born, or what his real name was. Even Malka, who extensively researched the life of this man, admits he has no answers to such questions. It is thought he was born sometime in the late 19th century, in Eastern Europe. In his memoirs, Wiesel claims Chouchani's real name was Mordechai Rosenbaum. This past week, Wiesel said he figured this out, along with other details concerning Chouchani's family life, from people who had written to him over the years.
"Today, I have a fairly broad picture of his past," noted Wiesel - but, true to the mysterious legacy surrounding Chouchani, he refused to supply any details. Possibly, the information that Wiesel obtained is based on one of the passports Chouchani used, bearing the name Mordechai Ben Shushan: "Rosenbaum" is German for lily, which, in Hebrew, is "shushan." However, it seems more likely that the name Mordechai Ben Shushan is a reference to Mordechai the Jew in the Book of Esther - that is, "Mordechai, the native of [the Persian city of] Shushan."
Dr. Shmuel Vigoda, who today heads a teacher training college at a yeshiva in Gush Etzion, wrote a doctorate on Levinas and referred to the latter's relationship with Chouchani. Vigoda hypothesizes that the name Mordechai Ben Shushan is a reference to the fact that Mordechai in the Book of Esther is the first person in traditional Jewish sources to be called a "yehudi" (Hebrew for Jew), although he was not from the Tribe of Judah (Yehuda). The reason for the reference, argues Vigoda, is that Chouchani "represents the first Jew to successfully deal with the challenge of life in the Diaspora."
Was this the message Chouchani wanted to convey through the name he had chosen for himself? According to Rosenberg, Chouchani's real name was Hillel Perlmann, a Talmudic scholar mentioned in two of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook's letters from 1915. Rosenberg bases this on the fact that Chouchani told him that he had studied under Rabbi Kook in Palestine during the early 1920s and afterward traveled to America. In one of the letters, Rabbi Kook writes to a friend in the U.S., Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (who later became head of the Religious Zionist movement in Palestine), and asks him to graciously host Perlmann, "a brilliant, highly knowledgeable rabbi, who has a wide breadth of learning and profound wisdom." Rosenberg is so convinced of Chouchani's real name that he called one of his sons Hillel, and points out that one of Levinas' great-grandsons is also named Hillel.
Mind like a scanner
Whether his real name was Rosenbaum or Perlmann, Chouchani grew up in Eastern Europe as a child prodigy who, from an early age, knew the Bible and Talmud by heart. The prevailing assumption is that he had a remarkable photographic memory and that his mind worked like a scanner. Rosenberg and others (basing themselves on the meager amount of information they gleaned from Chouchani) relate that Chouchani's father would travel with his son through East European villages, earning money from the boy's amazing displays of memory skills. There must have been something very traumatic in such a childhood, something that none of his friends was ever able to decipher, but which turned Chouchani into an eternal wanderer and a person incapable of utilizing his immense capabilities in any formal framework.
Several testimonies place him during the 1920s in Morocco and Algeria. In this period, he also spent some time in the U.S. and, according to Rosenberg, it was there that he began to work as an itinerant teacher. Apparently this period was also a traumatic one: A few years before his death, Wiesel invited Chouchani to teach in the U.S., but Chouchani vigorously rejected the invitation, explaining that he had sworn never to set foot again on American soil after losing so much money in the (1929) stock market crash.
Of all the interviewees in this article, Moshe Schweber, a Jerusalem-based electrician and former teacher, provides the earliest information about Chouchani. Schweber met him in the mid-1930s in Strasburg: "My parents had a small restaurant there and he suddenly appeared. He was very strong and threw me up in the air, while counting in English, French and German."
According to Schweber, Chouchani was already a tattered vagabond then - and that is how Wiesel would later describe him: Chouchani always looked as if he needed a shower. His hair was unruly and he sported a tiny hat on his huge, round head. The thick lenses of Chouchani's glasses were always covered with dust and shrouded his gaze in a kind of fog. Whoever happened to chance upon this stranger in the street instinctively cringed in horror and he delighted in such reactions.
Following the Nazi occupation of France, Chouchani escaped to Switzerland to seek asylum. This was no easy matter, will all of the various obstacles along the way. As in all of the stages in his life, the story of this journey to freedom is full of anecdotes and it is not clear which are authentic and which are not. One story says he was forced to undress at one of the roadblocks and when it was discovered that he was circumcised, he claimed to be a Muslim. To prove this, he quoted at length from the Koran. His listeners were so astounded that they proclaimed that he was no ordinary Muslim, but rather a "great imam."
Rosenberg says that, according to the "authentic" version, which he heard from Chouchani himself, he was confronted at one of the roadblocks by a German officer who ordered him to identify himself. Chouchani replied that he was a German professor of mathematics. The officer, staring at his beggarly attire, snickered: "I am afraid your luck has run out, kike. I myself am a mathematics professor." Without faltering, Chouchani challenged him: "Instead of you testing me in math, I will present you with a problem. If you solve it, you can shoot me here right on the spot. However, if you cannot solve it, you will release me, without asking any further questions." The fact that Shoushani managed to reach Switzerland testifies to the results of that challenge.
Lectures on any topic
After World War II, he returned to France, subsisting thanks to help from Jews who recognized his skills and by giving private lessons. People who met him during that period recall that he loved to ask people to propose any topic - from Judaism to literature, to physics and astronomy - and he would promptly deliver a lecture on it.
During that era, he met two people who would later widely publicize his name: Wiesel and Levinas. Wiesel, in his memoirs, describes two meetings with Chouchani. In the first, he was introduced to someone who appeared strange and was shabbily dressed. Addressing Wiesel, one of Chouchani's friends called him a genius. A second friend said he was a fool and a third said that he was a foolish genius. The second encounter, two years later, was more meaningful. Wiesel was traveling by train and was preparing a lecture on the Book of Job for a Sabbath seminar for young people. Suddenly someone spoke to him in a strident Yiddish and snatched the book from his hands. When Wiesel explained that he was going to deliver a lecture on Job, he came under unexpected attack. His interlocutor asked him scornfully whether he thought he knew enough to be able to impress his audience. Chouchani then embarked on a long series of questions that proved to the beleaguered Wiesel that he had not the slightest understanding of the book and that, according to Chouchani's criteria, he was not even qualified to translate the first verse of Job properly.
When the train reached Wiesel's destination, he breathed a sigh of relief; however, Chouchani then informed him that he would accompany him. Chouchani escorted Wiesel to the seminar, "permitted" him to deliver his lecture, sitting in total silence throughout the entire Sabbath. It was only then that he began to bombard the listeners with a barrage of questions: What was the Sabbath? Why was it called a queen? As Wiesel recalls, Chouchani quoted from medieval Hebrew poetry and from the writings of kabbalist writers who lived in Safed and spoke about the prayers composed to honor the Sabbath.
The young seminar participants were fascinated and the spell was broken only when Chouchani himself decided to cut short his lecture. The next day he spoke about Job - in order to clear his name, as he put it. Wiesel remembers the lecture as a blinding, provocative, enriching experience that inspired him as he had never been before. When Chouchani finished his lecture, he quipped that Wiesel could now talk more intelligently about Job.
Wiesel was so enchanted that he stayed in contact with Chouchani during the next years until their paths parted: Wiesel set off for America, and Chouchani for Israel and South America. Summing up what he had learned from Chouchani, Wiesel says that, first of all, he taught him to doubt everything. For someone who had grown up in a very observant home, this was a very important lesson.
In contrast with the haphazard nature of the meeting with Wiesel, the encounter between Chouchani and Levinas was planned, by a mutual friend, gynecologist Dr. Henri Nerson. Levinas would later relate that he was not interested in meeting Chouchani. As a student of such great 20th-century philosophers as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Levinas had little regard for the eccentric man. However, Nerson insisted and it is said that Chouchani and Levinas spent an entire night deep in discussion. By morning, Levinas was captivated and he told Nerson, "I have no idea what he knows, but he certainly knows everything I do."
As Levinas himself testifies, Chouchani's most important influence on Levinas was that he caused the latter to develop a profound connection with the Talmud. Growing up in an intellectual, albeit observant, Jewish home in Lithuania, Levinas studied Hebrew and the Bible, but not the Talmud, which was identified with the world of the yeshiva. He admits that the encounter with Chouchani led him to the conclusion that Judaism is based not on the Bible, but rather on the Bible as it is interpreted through the Talmud's "eyes." Moreover, as Vigoda explains in his doctorate, Levinas learned from Chouchani to recognize the Talmud's profound philosophical meaning: Even in its discussion of details of Jewish law, and especially in its midrashim, the Talmud expresses philosophical outlooks. Levinas presents these ideas in his "Nine Talmudic Readings."
In 1952, Chouchani decided that it was time to move on. He arrived in Israel with a forged identity card that had enabled him to obtain a passport as well. He spent most of his time in religious kibbutzim - apparently assuming they would be interested in his scholarship. Zwi Bachrach, later a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, met him at Kibbutz Be'erot Yitzhak.
"One day," he recalls, "a stranger appears with the following request: `Give me a room and food, and I will teach you whatever you like.' He looked totally unkempt, like a beggar. We thought he was just another eccentric, but we felt we could not turn away him, seeing his situation. We gave him a cabin and after a while we said to ourselves: `Let us now see what he can teach.' He gave a lesson in Talmud, correcting typographical errors in the Tosafot commentary and doing everything by heart. He was so amazing that we decided that he deserved a place in our kibbutz."
Chouchani spent a number of months at Be'erot Yitzhak and, from there, continuing his peripatetic way of life, he moved to Kibbutz Sa'ad and to the kibbutzim in the Beit She'an Valley. The most impressive thing about him was, of course, his astoundingly expert knowledge, which some people describe as frightening. When Avraham Oren, who met him at Kibbutz Sdeh Eliahu, speaks about him, there is a note of reservation: "If you were to ask me what I remember from his lectures, the answer would be zero. He was not the kind of genius who is capable of truly generating a revolution."
Obsession and fanaticism
Chouchani was a very difficult person. The myth of his personality is based, among other things, on his various obsessions, most prominent being his fanatic protection of his privacy and his past. His students recall how he refused to be given an aliyah, to recite a blessing for the reading of the Torah, because he did not want his real name to be disclosed. Bachrach relates how he once entered his room and saw a page that had fallen on the floor. Innocently, he bent over to pick it up and noticed that it contained a few lines that looked like mathematical formulas. "He pounced upon me," Bachrach recollects, "as if he almost wanted to kill me."
Although he had the appearance of a filthy vagabond, he was obsessed with hygiene. Bachrach: "He would never sit with us in the dining hall. We had to leave a tray with his food outside the door of his room and he would eat by himself. The first time I offered him a cup of coffee, he threw it out the window."
Schweber, in whose Jerusalem apartment Chouchani stayed after living on the religious kibbutzim, relates that "Chouchani would never let people pass their hands near his food, because he was afraid of contamination." He was also a demanding teacher. Even Levinas, a great admirer, has dubbed him on more than one occasion a "cruel teacher."
The question of his religious observance is but one more of the mysteries surrounding Chouchani. Schweber recalls that "in my home, he would put on tefillin [phylacteries] each weekday." Other people are not so certain about his religious observance. What is, however, clear is that, even if he was observant, he was by no means a naive believer. His entire essence constituted a challenge to simple-minded, naive belief and radiated a continual desire to question and test that belief. This apparently was his principal contribution to his students. Vigoda notes that most of his students would later mainly remember his brilliant expertise, but would be hard pressed to describe his theories or technique. This is not surprising: Apparently, his chief technique was not presenting positivist philosophical principles, but rather challenging what people assumed to be self-evident.
Vigoda describes Chouchani's method of teaching Talmud thus: He would explain an issue in a certain way, then he would challenge the foundations of the approach used and interpret the issue in an entirely new manner; he would then challenge that approach and continue this process again and again. His teaching relied on questions and skepticism; he was not much interested in answers. Some of his students feared his approach even more than they dreaded his rebuke of their ignorance.
Wiesel relates how a friend who had studied with him under Chouchani in France warned Wiesel that their teacher wanted to weaken the foundations of their belief and admitted that he found Chouchani frightening. That person, notes Wiesel, later traveled to Brooklyn and became the head of a yeshiva and one of the greatest rabbinical authorities of his generation.
In the mid-1950s, Chouchani set off for his final destination, Uruguay, accepting the invitation of a former student from France who had immigrated there. Chouchani resided in Uruguay in deplorable conditions, barely subsisting. Nevertheless, throughout his lifetime, there were rumors that, despite his penurious lifestyle, he had actually accumulated a large amount of money - from the fees he received from well-known people who were his students. This could explain how he had the means to travel around the world. According to Wiesel, the rumors were indeed true. He recalls an incident in France: They were sitting one day in Wiesel's room, engaged in study. Suddenly, he saw soldiers entering the building. They had merely come to examine their identity papers, but Chouchani became terrified and fled. He told Wiesel to look after his old, decrepit suitcase. Suddenly, as Wiesel held it, the suitcase opened and he saw that it contained money and gold. He closed it and, when Chouchani returned to the room, made no mention of the suitcase's contents.
Rosenberg, who, during the 1950s, lived in Argentina, heard about Chouchani and asked him to come to teach him. Chouchani became his teacher only after the collapse of Juan Peron's dictatorship in 1956 and after the removal of the restrictions on travel with respect to Uruguay (which had served as an asylum for anti-Peronists). Rosenberg loved Chouchani very much and tried to take advantage of every opportunity to visit him in Uruguay and study with him. He called him a Socrates without a Plato - that is, a philosopher who questions the complacency of his listeners concerning their beliefs or knowledge, which they consider self-understood, but who have no brilliant disciple to disseminate their philosophy and to present it in a positivist manner.
Rosenberg still feels guilty for not having done more to disseminate Chouchani's ideas. One Sabbath, in January 1968, the two participated in a Bnei Akiva movement seminar in Montevideo. On Friday night Chouchani collapsed, apparently having suffered a heart attack. Rosenberg recollects that a great deal of time was spent in trying to find a physician and "the doctor who finally arrived lacked the necessary skills."
That sealed Chouchani's fate. His secrets followed him to the grave. No first name is recorded on the tombstone, which simply reads: "The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and death are shrouded in mystery."
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