A Hasid - and a professor
The stone walls and bulletin boards in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods were covered last week with huge obituaries, and large notices also filled the front page of Hamodia. Hasidic courts, institutions and funds, and ultra-Orthodox personalities and politicians expressed their grief over the loss of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Brayer, who died Saturday a week ago, at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
The late rabbi was the father of Nahum Dov Brayer, the Admor of Boyan, an old Hasidic sect based in Jerusalem. Apart from the family ties, the obituaries also portrayed a picture of a very colorful figure: "The Hasidic scholar, the renowned pleasant and wise man, their crowning glory. A great leader in Israel. Sharp and knowledgeable in all the inner workings of the Torah, a great scholar, who disseminated Torah among the flocks."
Not coincidentally, among the heaps of praise there is no mention of some of the titles he acquired during his lifetime, titles that outside the ultra-Orthodox sector would have appeared in very large print: doctor of psychology and respected lecturer in education and Bible at Yeshiva University in New York. Even though he always considered himself a Boyan Hasid in every respect, and had a senior status among Hasidim, Rabbi Brayer was firmly in the modern Orthodox world. He was the leader of a mixed community of ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox in New York, but devoted most of his life to academic research. Even the obituaries published last week in almost every Israeli ultra-Orthodox paper did not hint about this side of the rabbi.
The story of Rabbi Brayer is unusual in the ultra-Orthodox world for another reason: He was skipped over for the title of Admor 27 years ago. It was instead given to his oldest son, despite his youth. The son, who moved from New York to Jerusalem and heads a large Hasidic community, which today lists more than 1,000 families among its followers, maintained close ties with his parents in New York. Boyan Hasidim describe the devotion between the Admor and his father the academic.
Boyan Hasidism is today the largest of the sects from Beit Rozhin, which was established around 120 years ago in Ukraine and spread across the European continent. After World War II, some of the communities rebuilt themselves in the United States and Israel. Beit Rozhin, which is known for the regal pomp in its court and for the distance maintained between the Admors and their followers, also includes the Sadigera, Hosiatin, Bohosh, Churtakov and Shtefenesht sects.
A humble man
The previous Admor of Boyan, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, was the last remnant of the Boyan dynasty after the Holocaust. He emigrated from Europe to New York and set up his court there. The rabbi, who had no sons, married his oldest daughter, Malka, to Menachem Mendel, who himself came from an illustrious family in the Rozhin dynasty.
In 1971, upon the death of the previous Admor, the Boyan Hasidim decided not to appoint a replacement, but an heir apparent was designated: Nahum Dov, the oldest grandson of the Admor, and not his son-in-law, the Rabbi Dr. Brayer. According to a story well-known among Boyan Hasidim, the father did not want the position, because despite his family tree - and unlike his son - he did not have the "blue blood" of Boyan Admors running through his veins. According to another version, which ultra-Orthodox commentator Rabbi Yisrael Gellis cites, Brayer "wasn't suited to the role of Admor, because he was a humble and honest man."
But the more interesting version, which several Boyan Hasidim denied this week, is actually cited by someone outside the ultra-Orthodox world, Yaakov Mazor, a research fellow at the Hebrew University's Center for the Study of Jewish Music. Mazor met several times with Rabbi Brayer during the course of his research on Boyan court melodies, and at these meetings, he discovered that the title of Admor was actually offered to Brayer after the death of his father-in-law in 1971, "but he didn't want to be an Admor," said Mazor.
"He told me he turned down the job of Admor because he did not see himself fit to lead a Hasidic sect. He certainly saw himself as a Boyan Hasid, but he didn't want to lead the community. The second reason is that he didn't want to give up his academic career. He very much liked research and teaching at Yeshiva University."
Unlike the monarchic rules in some Hasidic sects, whereby the heir apparent receives the title of Admor even if he is still a child, Boyan Hasidim did not want a child rabbi. For nine years, no Admor led the community. Only in 1980, after his marriage, was Nahum Dov appointed the Rebbe of Boyan. The young Admor immigrated to Israel, and for the last 27 years he has led the Hasidic community, many of whose young adherents live in Beitar Ilit. There are also some Boyan communities in the U.S.
The Admor's parents stayed in New York, along with their younger son, Avraham Yisrael Brayer, who leads a modern-Orthodox life and works for NASA. Boyan Hasidim related in the name of the Admor's father that he was proud "that both sons are floating in the upper spheres."
It's hard to exaggerate the huge gap between a community such as Boyan and the world of Yeshiva University. Even though both places have ultra-Orthodox characteristics, Yeshiva University is a modern and Zionist academic institution where men and women engage in extracurricular secular studies. Boyan Hasidim, on the other hand, have for the last few decades been entrenched in the heart of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox conservatism, and contrary to accepted norms in other Hasidic communities, most of the Israeli followers do not work, and live off kollel student allowances. This Hasidic community made sure to preserve its non-Zionist identity over the years, but is represented in the Knesset's United Torah Judaism faction by MK Meir Porush, who is known for his right-wing views.
At Yeshiva University, Dr. Brayer worked as student psychologist and as a lecturer in Bible, education and Jewish philosophy. According to Yeshiva University's guiding principles, he conducted academic research within the framework of Orthodox tradition. Meanwhile, he remained a central Boyan figure both as the father of the Admor, and as someone who served the previous Admor. He also visited Israel frequently and sat beside his son at his tishes, the festive meals when Hasidim gather to see their leader and hear words of Torah.
During some of his visits, he met with Yaakov Mazor. "I was very impressed by his personality," says Mazor. "He was a very intelligent man, wise, with a sharp mind, and full of human warmth. Despite his status within the Hasidic community, he agreed to meet a stranger such as myself, and I hardly needed any flowery language, as is often the case. I said I was researching music, and he immediately accepted me."
Over the years, Rabbi Dr. Brayer wrote numerous books and articles in English. In 1973, he wrote an article titled "Psychedelic Drugs and Religious Conscience," in which he brought the approach of Halakha and Western psychology to the world of narcotics. Later on he published a book about Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and a book of commentary on the Maharal of Prague, and contributed an article to the book "Jewish Bioethics." His most quoted research, a two-volume book issued in 1986, is called "The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: a Psycho-Historical Perspective." It is a comprehensive social-historical study, starting from the period of the Mishna, of the sources of the Jewish laws and customs relating to women. He also wrote a thick volume called "The House of Rozhin," a biographical survey of anecdotes about the dynasty.
Several Boyan Hasidim who were asked this week if they had seen these books in the central Boyan Beit Midrash - or if they had even heard of them - said no. They only were familiar with the book of commentary on the Maharal. However, Mota Brim, an artist and Boyan Hasid, is careful to note, "We in the community always treated him with great respect. Everything derives from the special relationship the rebbe had with his father, a rare relationship of respect for one's parents. The rebbe would sit at the center of the tish, in front of hundreds of people, and if his father entered the hall, he would get up, run to him, hug and kiss him and then seat him at the head of the table. The fact that the father was modern didn't change a thing."
Another Hasid said, "Despite the fact that he was modern, he was like the number two person in the community."
A few years ago, when the father's health deteriorated, the Admor took his parents into his Jerusalem home and appointed someone to oversee his father's treatment at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
"Boyan Hasidim knew very well that an academic with senior status in the community is a very rare thing," said Yaakov Mazor. "But their attitude was an attitude of respect and admiration. They did not look at this askance, and would even boast about the doctor who came from the Hasidic community."