Forty-five years ago, when Elihu Levine was an electrical engineer working for ITT Corporation, he was assigned to work on a special project on behalf of the United States Navy. The work involved creating an underwater test range to be installed in the water off Andros Island in the Bahamas. In order to maintain a Jewish atmosphere while stationed on the remote island for the four-month duration of the project, Levine’s family began spending Shabbat with two other Shomer Shabbat families there, discussing Torah subjects at every meal.
“That is when the Kli Yakar entered my life,” says Levine. “For some reason, my Torah discussions always centered on an observation of Kli Yakar.”
At the time, Levine dreamed of bringing the richness and depth of the monumental Torah commentary to the English-speaking world. Decades later, the retired engineer is doing just that.
“I found the Kli Yakar so creative in his commentary, and he is not reticent to disagree with other commentators,” says Levine. “It’s also remarkable the way he seamlessly weaves phrases from Tanach, the Gemara and midrashim [into his text], which lends such flavor to his commentary.”
Levine recently published his translation and elucidation of Kli Yakar on both Bereishit and Shemot (Brooklyn, 2007). Kli Yakar is the Torah commentary written by Rabbi Efraim Luntshits, a sixteenth-century Bohemian scholar and a disciple of the Maharal of Prague. Popular, albeit somewhat esoteric, it has been a standard commentary included in the Chumash for almost five centuries. Combining kabbalistic mysticism and spirituality, halachic reasoning, flashes of brilliant insight and deep analysis of the text, the commentary is often difficult to follow. This problem is only compounded for English speakers who already grapple with the difficult rabbinic Hebrew syntax.
A soft-spoken, genial individual, Levine was born and raised in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. With a physics degree from Yeshiva University (YU) and two post-graduate engineering degrees from Columbia University, Levine worked for ITT Corporation in Nutley, New Jersey, from 1955 to 1967, mainly on government defense projects. Subsequently, he was a senior research associate at Columbia University’s research labs and later became president of Decision Systems, Inc. He retired as a director of DSSI Corporation. His work, he says, was challenging and pressured, but rewarding.
But above all else, Levine is a meticulous Torah scholar and is living proof that Jewish scholarship and Torah wisdom are not the exclusive properties of rabbis and teachers. Indeed, he achieved most of his Torah erudition long after he left the confines of YU.
Levine’s wife, Dvorah (Doris) Alter, is a direct descendant of the great Alter dynasty of the Chassidic leaders of Gur. The Levines lived in Monsey, New York, with their four daughters for most of their married life; they were members of the shul where I served as rabbi, Congregation Bais Torah, before they made aliyah some twelve years ago.
While working, Levine had a chavruta with Rabbi Zev Wein, my father. “It was a joy to be associated with this great talmid chacham, who was at the same time modest and self effacing,” says Levine. He continued this chavruta even after they both made aliyah, until my father’s death in 2002.
Levine admits that being kovea itim (setting aside time for learning Torah) while working full time was a challenge. “Learning while working was always a difficult juggling act,” he says. But he strove to devote whatever time he could to learning Torah. “I came to realize that being an observant Jew requires a great degree of sophistication and that Torah learning is primary. Work is how you make a living, but it does not define you as a person. On the other hand, Torah learning does define you as a person and therefore must be an integral part of daily life.
“I think that it is important not to become frustrated in the balancing of family, work, learning and other pursuits,” he says. “I was the captain of the basketball team in college and over fifty years later I still play basketball on Friday afternoons with my yeshivah grandsons. They, who are much more pious than I am, express wonderment at how their grandfather, who is writing a commentary on Kli Yakar, can still hit a jump shot from fifteen feet. I have found that this sports activity, strangely enough, helps me in my learning and writing,” says Levine, who is a regular tennis player.
Levine began working on his life’s project—elucidating Kli Yakar into English—once he retired from his full-time job. In spite of his family commitments (he is a terribly doting grandparent), Levine spends three or four hours a day working on translating the commentary. In addition, he has a chavruta, with whom he has learned the Kuzari, Mesillat Yesharim and the Eight Perakim of the Rambam (his introduction to Pirkei Avot). They are now working on Chovot Halevavot.
Levine spends time in the libraries of Jerusalem, comparing original manuscripts and discussing the difficulties in Kli Yakar with eminent Torah scholars. Through his work on Kli Yakar he has also, of necessity, become a Hebrew grammarian, a Talmudic scholar and a student of kabbalistic thought. Levine is an example of how a person at any stage of life can continue to grow intellectually in Torah study and can make a mark on the entire Jewish world. Interestingly, it is very possible that his former career as an engineer assists him in his Torah scholarship: for Levine, the laborious task of sifting through the copyists’ and printers’ errors to arrive at the correct text of Kli Yakar is not as daunting as it may be to others.
While Levine proves that retirement from worldly occupation can allow for extraordinary Torah achievement, he confesses that balancing the various pieces of one’s life—family, work, Torah, recreation—is an ongoing struggle. “One can only do the best that one can and should not be disappointed when events interfere with the optimum schedule devised for one’s self,” he says. But, he adds, “Learning requires constant resilience and commitment.”
Rabbi Berel Wein is the rabbi of Beit Knesset Hanassi in Jerusalem. He is also the director of the Destiny Foundation and is a noted author, lecturer and columnist.