Rejoice in Your Fes­ti­vals: Pen­e­trat­ing Insights Into Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot

Rab­bi Zvi Dov Kanatop­sky; David A. Zomick, ed.
  • Review
By – March 5, 2012

The abil­i­ty to cap­ture and cap­ti­vate an audi­ence, while at the same time trans­mit­ting the eter­nal ver­i­ties of Judaism, is an art. The ser­mons of great preach­ers can remain excit­ing even when reduced to writ­ing. Ortho­dox Judaism in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry was con­veyed to many immi­grants and first gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans from the pul­pits of some dynam­ic speak­ers. Pow­er­ful preach­ers like Rab­bis Leo Jung, Joseph Look­stein, and Har­ry Wohlberg paved the way for the many young rab­bis trained by Rab­bi Joseph Soloveitchik to sal­ly forth start­ing in the 1940’s.

Rab­bi Zvi Dov (Harold) Kanatop­sky was one such rab­bi. The 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s were crit­i­cal years for the sur­vival of Ortho­dox Judaism in Amer­i­ca. Rab­bi Kanatop­sky in Crown Heights, Brook­lyn and his col­leagues like Rab­bi Fabi­an Schoen­feld in Queens, Rab­bi Mau­rice Wohlgel­ern­ter in Upper Man­hat­tan, Rab­bi Her­schel Schachter in the Bronx and many oth­ers, met the chal­lenge of mak­ing Ortho­doxy a suc­cess in Amer­i­ca. When one con­sid­ers that most con­gre­gants were not yeshi­va trained nor even ful­ly obser­vant, the chal­lenge was indeed daunting. 

This is the third vol­ume from Rab­bi Kanatop­sky, and the sec­ond one of his ser­mons. Art­ful­ly edit­ed by a devot­ed stu­dent, David A. Zomick, these ser­mons (most­ly from the 40’s and 50’s) reflect the dif­fi­cult times of the post-Holo­caust years and the strug­gle for Israel’s inde­pen­dence. The major themes revolve around the three pil­grim­age fes­ti­vals, yet each time there is a time­ly mes­sage and obser­va­tion about con­tem­po­rary events. Rab­bi Kanatop­sky was a mas­ter ped­a­gogue and he brought his con­gre­ga­tion with him on his jour­ney through tra­di­tion­al sources to bring home a point. Atrue schol­ar doesn’t need to daz­zle, but his mas­tery of rab­binic texts is clear and his inter­pre­ta­tions as bril­liant as they were uncompromising. 

He railed against spir­i­tu­al medi­oc­rity (Pesach, 1956) and bemoaned excess mate­ri­al­ism (Sukkot, 1955). He found new mean­ing in the rit­u­als and hol­i­day sym­bols and was excep­tion­al­ly cre­ative as he expound­ed var­i­ous midrashim. He preached against hypocrisy (Shavuot, 1945) and set stan­dards for lead­er­ship (Pesach, 1945, 1949). He defend­ed the impor­tance of a tra­di­tion in the new State of Israel (Sukkot, 1948) and the need for Torah val­ues (Shavuot, 1958). 

He was suc­cess­ful and accom­plished his goals. He won the hearts and minds of his con­gre­ga­tion. Many promi­nent Ortho­dox lay­men and rab­bis owe their reli­gious devel­op­ment to Rab­bi Kanatop­sky. Although edit­ed from notes and devoid of homilet­i­cal fer­vor, one can sense the pas­sion of these words even if you nev­er heard Rab­bi Kanatop­sky deliv­er a ser­mon, watched his eyes, or lis­tened to his cadence. The mes­sages are time­less. The words can still evoke a sense of cur­ren­cy fifty and six­ty years after first being delivered. 

David Zomick has done us a great favor by bring­ing these ser­mons to the Amer­i­can pub­lic, which may take for grant­ed that which was by no means assured in the post World War II era.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions