The Time of our Freedom
ESTHER RUBINSTEIN ZT”L
The only daughter of Rabbi Chaim Yirmiyahu Flensberg, Chief Rabbi of Shaki, Esther Rubinstein (1881–1924) studied Torah, rabbinic literature and Jewish philosophy with her scholarly father. Extraordinarily bright, she often startled people by reciting passages from the Talmud by heart. After marrying Rabbi Yitzchak Rubinstein, they moved to Vilna, where he was appointed the “Crown” rabbi in 1910. Esther founded several Jewish schools for girls and was a passionate Religious Zionist who spoke frequently about the critical role women must play in the return to the Land of Israel.
Only a few years after World War I, Esther contracted a rare blood disease and passed away at the young age of 42. The entire Jewish community of Vilna mourned her death, and thousands attended a memorial service for her in the Great Synagogue of Vilna. Esther was the only woman ever given this honor. Many distinguished rabbis and Religious Zionist leaders eulogized her, including Rabbi Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg, whose eulogy appears below.
Though most of Esther’s family was tragically murdered in the Holocaust, her son Yosef, who later changed his last name to Even-Odem, made Aliyah and later published many books on medicine and nature.
The following essay was written in flawless Hebrew and published in the April 1, 1920 edition of HaMizrachi. It is translated here for the first time.
For two thousand years, our nation has celebrated zman cheiruteinu, the “time of our freedom,” on foreign soil. One might think that celebrating this holiday in exile is akin to celebrating the fiftieth yahrzeit of a great leader of our people; even if the celebration is observed with much splendor, everyone recognizes that the man at the center of the celebration is no longer alive and that only his memory lives on. So too, every year we celebrate the time of our “freedom,” even though every Jew knows that we are not free and that nothing is left of our freedom except a pleasant memorial day recorded in the columns of our Torah scrolls. For the nation is again in exile, oppressed and silent under the heavy yoke of servitude, weighed down with ceaseless and bitter suffering.
But in truth, this is not the case. For us, the “holiday of freedom” is not only a remembrance of the past, which is already gone, but also a yearning for a future that has yet to come. With this longing, the power of the holiday of freedom only grows, even during the worst moments of the present. And so year after year, when a Jew sits with his family on Seder night, he begins his Seder by calling out in joy and elevation of spirit: “This year we are slaves – but next year we will be free!” The “holiday of freedom” is about hope for freedom – the hope and faith that the servitude of the present exile is only temporary, that we must bear it knowing that it will pass, and that we will soon be free. Freedom. This must be and has always been our people’s greatest desire. The yearning for freedom sustained our forefathers, and it also sustains us, preventing us from sinking into the servitude of exile and losing our identity.
The people of Israel are never truly slaves. Rather, a Jew in exile feels that he is locked up in prison and that his freedom has unjustly been stolen from him. And so he waits for the day of his redemption, for the day when justice will emerge like light from darkness. The people imprisoned in exile anticipate freedom and constantly hope that they will soon be free, that their ancient homeland will soon be redeemed and the scattered ones of Israel “shall return and come with singing unto Zion” (Yishayahu 51:11)
“This year we are slaves – but next year we will be in Eretz Yisrael!” With this call, a Jew remembers and repeats for himself and his children, every year, that our dwelling in a foreign land is only temporary, and that his entire goal and longing for the future is to return and settle in Eretz Yisrael, the land to which he is bound with all his heart and soul. This powerful and eternal attachment of our people to the Land of our fathers is the very reason the Hebrew nation is eternal. For in this connection the nation finds the hidden and exalted power that strengthens, unifies and binds its people together in all the lands to which we have been scattered. With this strength, the Jew, the eternal wanderer, can pass through the heavy and long exile, holding the staff of wanderers in his hand without finding rest for his weary feet or comfort for his sighing soul. And as he is pursued by every nation and considered a foreigner in every land, he strengthens and comforts himself in his suffering with the “comfort of Zion and Jerusalem.”
When we reflect upon the chapters of our history that were written with Jewish blood, we see that our forefathers were always free men, even amidst their servitude. This places an obligation upon us, today, to ensure that we do not become slaves amidst our freedom. Now, as the sun of freedom rises over the entire world, we must not lose our national treasures and our spiritual freedom, which earlier generations kept safe from harm during even the darkest hours of our history – treasures that preserved us and carried us until this day…
Now, at this hour of freedom, as the chains of servitude are breaking all over the world, and every nation under its own flag protects its spiritual wealth and its national language and literature – certainly we, the ancient people of the book, must preserve our spiritual heritage and our national language of Hebrew, so that it is not forgotten.
The language of our forefathers escorted our people when we dwelled in our Land and comforted us through generations of exile. Now it must be the language of our rebuilding, which will escort us and bring us to our redemption, to the true and everlasting “time of our freedom”!
Rabbi Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg’s Eulogy for Esther Rubinstein
The passing of Rebbetzin Esther Rubinstein has left the Jewish world in a state of shock. The news of her death caused all hearts to tremble. The mourning was universal – all circles and parties joined in eulogizing her. Rabbinic scholars and yeshiva students as well mourned her death. Not for nothing did the eulogizers deliver their eulogies – the loss caused by her death is great indeed.
She was a truly great woman. It can be said about her unequivocally that she left no one comparable to her. All the characteristics of her greatness were extraordinary. Her broad and comprehensive knowledge of Torah would have enhanced even a male rabbinic scholar whose only occupation was the study of Torah. Her profound and broad mastery of general culture is rarely paralleled even among intellectuals with all the proper diplomas. She combined within herself unparalleled natural talent, intellectual brilliance, profound understanding, broad knowledge, impeccable memory, literary flair, and was a gifted public speaker as well.
When she was suddenly “discovered,” she was already in full bloom with all her talents at her disposal. Her first public appearance astounded her audience. Her reputation as a gifted speaker spread far and wide. Her words were incendiary; her listeners were moved by her fiery words. Those who heard her speak from the dais, or read her essays in print, were astounded by what they heard and read. Men asked: Is it the way of women to perform such wondrous acts? But those who conversed with her in matters of Torah and general wisdom ceased to be amazed. They realized that she represented a unique category of human being, one that was not subject to the whims of gender. They saw her greatness, recognized that she surpassed all others, and acquiesced… Her public appearances on the dais and in print became frequent and expected. Her views on contemporary issues were eagerly awaited…
We who knew her when she was still a youngster knew that she was worthy of the task. She was armed with an abundance of spirit and excellent work habits. As a young girl, she combined Torah and good deeds. She studied Scripture and rabbinic literature. She was worthy of the task even before she made her first public appearance; we were astonished that she could contain herself for so long. Her ability to suppress her “prophecy” was, perhaps, her greatest talent. Those who knew her only from her speeches and essays knew only half of her. She mastered the Torah, aggadic literature, poetry, and philosophic literature – and knew how to draw out from them their richness and beauty. Even her ordinary conversation was replete with wisdom.
It is with a pained heart that I recall my last visit with her. I accompanied her husband, the rabbi (may he live and be well), on a visit to her at the hospital. Death was already gleaming through her eyes; she sensed that her last day was approaching. Her husband, the rabbi, began comforting her. But it was apparent that she was not receptive to his words of comfort. I was deeply saddened, and sat silently, as I shuddered from fright lest she fathom the true meaning of my silence. I decided to turn the conversation to words of Torah. She was engaged by the words of Torah and her eyes lit up. Thus while the blade was to her neck, she spewed forth words of Torah, interpretations of Scripture and rabbinic passages, sharp and to the point. As long as I live, I shall never forget that scene…
In the preceding paragraphs, I attempted to record a short epitaph for her tombstone. I sense, however, that I have not fulfilled my obligation to eulogize her. So I will record a few more lines. Her most salient characteristic, it seems to me, was her strength of spirit. Wherever one witnessed her greatness, one witnessed her modesty as well. This great and famous woman was also a modest woman. Her modesty did not derive from the weakness and softness of women. Rather, it was a modesty derived from spiritual strength, from a deep ethical commitment. She never appeared in the public arena for the sake of fame or in order to wield political power. As a youth, she never kept apart from the other girls her age, nor did she lord it over them. I once asked her before the War: “Why do you insist on maintaining such a low profile? Why don’t you reveal to the world your literary prowess?” She answered me plainly: “The glory of a princess is indoors” (Tehillim 45:14). (As an aside, I will mention her beautiful interpretation of this verse: The internalized world of a woman is her true glory and ornament.) With perfect simplicity and wholesomeness, she fulfilled her obligations as a daughter, wife and mother. Her entire deportment was characterized by simplicity; and even the simplicity passed by largely unnoticed.
Especially touching was the mutual love between father and daughter. Her father, Rabbi Chaim Yirmiyahu Flensberg of blessed memory, was Chief Rabbi of Shaki. He was a great scholar in Torah and general wisdom, and was one of the great preachers of his generation. How proud the old rabbi was of his daughter! It was his practice to call out – whenever a rabbinic passage came up in a discussion and no one could remember its source – “Let us call the girl and ask her what she thinks” (Bereishit 24:57). His deceased daughter was expert in Torah; she could recite by heart all its passages. The father’s soul was bound up with his daughter. When she left her father in order to join her husband in Genitchesk (where Rabbi Rubinstein had his first rabbinic appointment), he was very distraught… I heard that Rabbi Flensberg in his last years refrained from preaching in public as often as he did in earlier years. When asked why he curtailed his preaching in public, he replied: “I no longer have the audience that I had in earlier years.” He was referring to his deceased daughter, who was also his only daughter…
But the daughter’s love for her father was no less intense. She loved to tell over words of Torah in the name of “Abba.” Whenever she did so, she embellished them, explicated them, and added from her wisdom to his. It was as if she wanted to present a gift to “Abba” from own spiritual largesse.
In her published essays, she undertook to spread the notion that the revival of the Jewish nation will occur only with the participation of the Jewish woman. The resuscitation of the Jewish nation rings hollow without “the Hebrew mother.” Jewish education for women is perhaps the greatest problem we need to confront. In particular, we – the bearers of the flag of observant Jewry – need to wrestle with this issue openly as well as in the deepest recesses of our hearts. When I reflect on such issues, Esther Rubinstein’s image appears before my eyes. She serves as our model. Her well-ordered education, and her fulsome Jewish and general education, serve as a model program for the education of our daughters. She railed against the mistaken notion (that has taken root among some light-minded women) that the enlightened woman and the religious woman are mutually exclusive categories of women. This mistaken notion is a reflection of a narrow-minded spirit and a constricted soul. Such spiritual poverty allows what is fashionable to take precedence over Torah teaching.
Had Esther Rubinstein been granted longevity, she would have aided us in solving the problem of Jewish education for women. For she regularly chastised Jewish women for their frivolity and for their poverty of Jewish education. She left an indelible impression on her listeners and readers, for all knew that she was the living embodiment of the complete Hebrew woman. How sad that this great woman, overflowing with profound ideas, and destined to be the educator of her generation, was cut off before her time! The song of her service ended at mid-point.
Your spiritual image will never leave us. Not merely because we honor your memory, and not merely because you were great in spirit and accomplished in deed, but because you stood at the top of the mountain – to which we all lifted our eyes – and bore our strivings and hopes. Your name will remain our symbol, our symbol for the strivings of the soul.
Rabbi Weinberg’s eulogy originally appeared in a 1926 memorial volume in honor of Esther Rubinstein. The eulogy was translated by Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman in “Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg: In Praise of Esther Rubinstein,” and published in Tradition, Fall 2007. It is reprinted here with permission.