January 26, 1968, is the date on which “Monsieur Chouchani,” an enigmatic, peripatetic and brilliant Talmud teacher, died, in Montevideo, Uruguay. Those facts are among the few things that are known for certain about this latter-day Wandering Jew, whose unusual talents were brought to widespread attention by two of his pupils, Emmanuel Levinas and Elie Wiesel.
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Chouchani was born, by some accounts, on January 9, 1895, but to this day, there is no consensus on what his birthplace was, or what name he received at birth. In an article published last year in the Hebrew paper Makor Rishon, scholar Yael Levine concluded that he was born in Brest, in present-day Belarus, and that his original name was Hillel Perlman.
That is also the opinion of Hebrew University Jewish philosophy professor Shalom Rosenberg, who studied with Chouchani in Montevideo, and was with him when he died.
There is evidence that Chouchani called himself “Mordecai Rosenbaum,” but that seems to be a variant on “Chouchani,” both names being allegorical references to Mordecai the Jew, of the Book of Esther, from the Persian city of Shushan, a word that means “rose” in Hebrew.
What is clear from anyone who knew him is that Chouchani was obsessively secretive about himself.
Reciting the Bible for money
Already as a young child, he demonstrated an extraordinary power of recall, having committed the Bible and the Talmud to memory, and his father apparently took him from town to town showing off for money his son’s impressive knowledge.
According to Rosenberg, Chouchani came to Palestine around the age of 20, and studied with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, later the country’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Indeed, Yael Levine quotes from two letters written by Rav Kook in 1915 that refer to his unusual student Hillel Perlman.
One of Kook’s letters was a note of introduction for his “brilliant, highly knowledgeable” student, addressed to a colleague in the United States, where Chouchani apparently lived and worked as an itinerant teacher during the 1920s. Shalom Rosenberg told Yair Sheleg, in a 2003 article in Haaretz, that Chouchani’s time in the U.S. ended badly, as he lost all of his money in the 1929 stock market crash.
By the 1930s, Chouchani was back in Europe, apparently in France, and after the start of World War II, he was able to talk his way into Switzerland, where he took refuge.
'All I know, he knows'
From 1947 to 1952, Chouchani was again in France, teaching on an individual basis. Levinas and Wiesel, for example, both learned with him during this period, but not together.
Levinas (1906-1995) is said to have resisted meeting Chouchani for two years, but when he finally did, the two spoke through an entire night, after which the younger man told the friend who had introduced them, “I can not tell what he knows, but all that I know, he knows.”
In his book “Nine Talmudic Readings,” Levinas, who became one of the 20th century’s great Jewish philosophers, writes that it was Chouchani who sparked his profound interest in the Talmud. It was Chouchani who led him to understand that, much as Judaism is based on the Torah, it is the Torah as interpreted in the Talmud.
During the 1950s, Chouchani was back in Israel, moving from one religious kibbutz to another. Showing up in tattered clothes, he would offer his services as a teacher in return for a bed and food.
Zwi Bachrach, later a Bar-Ilan University historian, told Yair Sheleg that at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, the beggar “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."
After a few months, however, Chouchani moved on. So determined was he to remain an enigma that he would not even accept an aliyah to the Torah, which would have required announcing his real name.
Chouchani spent his final years in South America, and died after participating one Friday night in a Bnei Akiva seminar in Montevideo. Elie Wiesel arranged for his burial there, and above his grave had erected a stone whose epitaph reads, in Hebrew, “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.”