It had been over 70 years since Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein, 92, had last seen his Torah. But on Jan. 30, Finkelstein’s Torah, diminutive in size but overflowing with symbolic meaning, was reunited, if just for a brief moment, with its original owner.
The Torah’s purpose that day was, as it had been nearly 80 years ago, to commemorate a bar mitzvah, Finkelstein’s. A crowd had gathered in the downstairs auditorium of the National Museum of American Jewish History, and, from the looks of things, celebratory davening was imminent. Men wrapped in tefillin, and some women, too; men wrapped in prayer shawls, and some women, too.
The Finkelsteins, their friends, family and many rabbinical colleagues were about to show this “Truman Torah” what it had been missing all these years living in Midwestern exile.
At times, there was so much being celebrated, almost simultaneously, that it became hard to keep track: There was Rabbi Finkelstein seeing his childhood Torah for the first time in over 70 years, and there was also the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Rabbi Finkelstein’s bar mitzvah (clergy leading the service even presented the 92-year-old “bar mitzvah boy” with an enormous chocolate bar). But, ultimately, the whole program might be said to have been one big tear-inducing vehicle for celebrating the life and work of Rabbi Finkelstein himself.
On May 14, 1948 Prime Minister David Ben Gurion publicly proclaimed Israeli nationhood. Just 11 minutes later, acting swiftly and decisively and against the recommendations of trusted advisors like Secretary of State George C. Marshall, U.S. President Harry Truman formally recognized the new State of Israel, becoming the first member of the international community to do so.
Ten days later, Finkelstein’s Torah, the one his father had commissioned to commemorate his bar mitzvah eight years prior, in 1940, was gone. Unknown then to Finkelstein was that his Torah had become what might be called the first official casualty of American-Israeli diplomacy.
It wasn’t lost; it had been re-commissioned, promoted by his famous-in-rabbinical-circles father for a higher purpose. At the time, though, Finkelstein, to whom the Torah technically belonged, was left in the dark.
“The next day my father didn’t even know about it because my grandfather didn’t ask him (before he took the Torah)—he saw the picture in The New York Times,” Rabbi Finkelstein’s son Harvey told a roomful of his father’s friends, family and rabbinical colleagues, all of whom laughed heartily.
The Torah itself, lovely scroll of wood and parchment though it is, didn’t itself merit such prominent placement in the Times; it was that higher purpose, the one Finkelstein’s father had used it for, that landed it there, nestled right between Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the newly-declared Israeli provisional government, and President Truman, to that point the newly formed State of Israel’s best friend in the world.
Rabbi Louis (Louie) Finkelstein, then the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the most dominant figure in Conservative Judaism, a movement which would hit its high-water mark under his stewardship, received word from Weizmann just days before the historic photo-op; the Israeli president had been invited to the White House on short notice and was in danger of showing up empty handed. Could the esteemed Rabbi help?
According to Harvey Finkelstein, Weizmann first asked the elder Rabbi Finkelstein for a menorah from The Jewish Museum operated then, as now, under JTS auspices.
“That was not his to give away,” he said. “But somewhere in his memory was the idea that the Jewish people should always give the head of a country a Torah, and the only thing he actually owned was my father’s Torah that he gave to him at his bar mitzvah.”
So the leader of American Conservative Jewry repossessed his son’s prized Torah for the sake of getting official American-Israeli relations off on the right foot.
Just like that, the Finkelstein Torah was sent away, like a child sent to overnight camp with a visiting day that comes but once every 70 years, to live its new life at Camp Truman.
For Truman, a gentile who’d forever be linked to Israel’s creation, the Torah from Weizmann was no ordinary state gift. It represented a stand he’d taken against intense political pressure to do what he thought right. It would become a cherished spiritual totem of talismanic import for a man who would never wear a tallis.
And he was hawkishly protective over it; he was adamant that it was always to remain with him, said Kurt Graham, director of the Truman Presidential Library and Museum.
Several years after the gift, the elder Rabbi Finkelstein quietly tried to broker a deal with Truman to return the Truman Torah to the Jewish Museum in New York City. He gently pleaded with the President, Rabbi (Ezra) Finkelstein told me: “He said ‘Mr. President, the Sefer Torah is a sacred possession of the Jewish people, and it would be a great honor to have it in our Jewish Museum—10-15,000 people would come see it every year.’ To which Truman, not missing a beat, said, ‘100,000 are going to come see it in my library. It’s staying with me.’”
And it did remain with Truman. It stayed with him in the White House, then came with him when he retired to Independence, Missouri, then became part of the permanent collection at the Truman Presidential Library when it opened in Independence, on a hill overlooking the Kansas City skyline, in 1955.
Though, certainly, the Finkelsteins valued the physical Torah itself, it was that contained therein, which they’d extracted and made the fabric of their family lives, that was, and remains, most prized.
Said Harvey Finkelstein, “Through his journey in life, my father didn’t have the Torah as an object, but he had the Torah inside of him from the lessons he taught. My father, and mother Elaine, taught us that having a physical Torah is not what it’s about. It’s about what the Torah means to us and to our traditions that makes us the light unto the nations.”
This has been a lesson that’s been passed down through the generations of Finkelsteins—before Rabbi Finkelstein passed it down to his three children, he’d learned it from his father, the eminent former chancellor of JTS.
“He taught us that the Torah was a symbol,” said Rabbi Finkelstein, who admitted that, even at 92, for better or worse, his father is still the primary organizing principle and reference point in his life. “That Torah was a symbol of the commitment of two Jews to the State of Israel: Chaim Weizmann and my father, who recognized that a Sefer Torah doesn’t belong to one child; it belongs to the world.”
The story’s afterword is the career of Rabbi Finkelstein himself. Like his father and Truman before him, he’d be called on to stand for his principles.
After leaving JTS, he served as the senior rabbi at Midway Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Syosset, New York, for 33 years. It almost never happened though, because, for most of his life he was dead-set against becoming a rabbi.
Finkelstein admitted that he and his erudite father butted heads often and that he regrets giving his father so much tsuris as a wayward young man who shunned he rabbinate out of fear, fear that he’d never be as prolific a speaker, writer or scholar, fear that he’d be swallowed whole by his father’s shadow.
Finkelstein is 92 and his father, long passed, still looms large. A conversation on any topic invariably winds its way back to an anecdote involving his father, his favorite, or at least most frequent, subject. His daughter Adina has taken to lightly admonishing him over this. She gesticulates toward all the people gathered at the post-service breakfast as if to let him know that he’s had a long, distinguished and now celebrated career in his own right.
Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein has three children: Dr. Harvey, Rabbi Joshua, and Adina Finkelstein, the latter of whom brought tears to an old friend’s eyes as she read from the Torah during a morning Torah service to mark the occasion.
It was around the time that Adina was to become a bat mitzvah that Rabbi Finkelstein began sacrificing what was comfortable for what he thought was right.
When he became the rabbi at Midway in 1976, Finkelstein noticed that many young women, like his daughter, wanted to read Torah, wanted to lead services, wanted to be counted for minyan and wanted to be bat mitzvahed on Saturday morning instead of Friday night.
Ilene Wasserman, who now lives locally but grew up on Long Island attending Midway, recalled how Rabbi Finkelstein fought for reform, often to his own detriment.
“When I grew up, my bat mitzvah was on Friday night, and Ezra….” Wasserman paused, fighting back tears.
“Watching Adina,” she continued, “with incredible grace and comfort, read from the Torah earlier today, knowing the history of what Ezra fought for, and, in some ways… am I going too far to say he risked his position?”
“He absolutely did,” answered Rabbi Rafi Rank, who succeeded Rabbi Finkelstein at Midway when the latter retired in 1999 and who, before landing on Long Island, was the first to interview for Har Zion’s turn-of-the-century senior rabbi vacancy, as chronicled in the now-infamous “The New Rabbi.”
“He spearheaded that, and there were some powerful personalities (who) walked out of services.”
Earlier in the day’s program, when speaking of the inner-strength it took for Truman to stand by Israel despite detractors among his closest advisors, the Truman Library’s Graham told the audience, “He could have easily just held off, waited for other nations to act.”
Sounds a lot like Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein.
The Truman Torah will be exhibited at NMAJH through June 27, 2020 while its permanent home, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, undergoes renovations.