December 11, 2003
While studying for rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University in the late '70s, I was at the main study hall dedication where the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik spoke, honoring the great philanthropist, Joseph Gruss, who underwrote the project.
On that occasion, Rabbi Soloveitchik discussed the role of the baal ha-bayit, the Jewish layman, in Jewish history. Rabbi Soloveitchik stated his belief "that our miraculous survival throughout the millennia ... is due not only to the rabbinic scholars, but also [to] the Jewish baal ha-bayit [who] enabled us to survive because of his discipline, intelligence and readiness to suffer."
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested three characteristic traits that marked the baal ha-bayit: first, a commitment to the Jewish people in its totality; second, a pragmatic mind capable of making decisions and third, a sensitive heart.
As I sat listening to his marvelous description, I wondered if I would ever meet someone who possessed all of these qualities and was truly an amazing baal ha-bayit?
Well indeed I did. It all happened in Palm Springs 18 years ago. It was during Passover and I was invited to lecture at the Kosher Tours Passover program at the Desert Princess Hotel. I was to speak right after dinner on the topic, "Vegetarianism and Judaism." When I agreed to accept this invitation, I had no idea that right before my lecture a big barbecue was going to be held, featuring steaks, ribs, hot dogs and every other culinary meat delight possible. When I witnessed this massive carnivorous feast that I am certain hadn't been eaten in the desert since the Exodus from Egypt, I suggested to the program director that we cancel the lecture on vegetarianism. It was simply inappropriate and I was sure no one would attend.
The director insisted that I ignore the setting and that I lecture as planned.
"Don't worry, people will come," he told me.
I was right and he was wrong. The audience was sparse. Vegetables simply aren't able to wage a successful war against good ribs.
Sitting in the front row, however, was a lovely elderly couple. At the time I had no idea who they were. As I spoke, both husband and wife absorbed every word and when it came time for questions, they asked excellent and insightful ones. The wife buttressed her comments with extensive quotes from the Bible and rabbinic literature, all from memory, while the husband added pragmatic contemporary comments. It was right then and there that my friendship with Simha Lainer and his wife, Sara, may she rest in peace, began.
Every time we would talk they insisted that we speak Hebrew. It dawned on me that it was their way of connecting our present discussion with Jewish history. We would discuss questions on the Bible and issues pertaining to Jewish law. But what always fascinated me was their total immersion in communal life. They knew every concern facing the Jewish community -- both locally and internationally. Their scope was amazing and their command of the issues was always impressive.
Over the years I have carefully listened to Simha Lainer, for he has taught me the proverbial "100 lessons." A successful businessman, Lainer loves telling me how blessed he is. His perception of his blessings, however, is what makes him the true baal ha-bayit.
He says, "God has blessed me with three gifts. He has given me good health, good wealth and the desire to share my wealth with others."
Indeed, he shares his largesse generously. One of the leading philanthropists in our community, Lainer is among the foremost donors to Jewish education in Los Angeles, and he distributes his monies in a most unusual fashion. He doesn't care if the educational institution is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or just plain Jewish. What counts is Jewish education and that is what he supports.
Jewish unity isn't some slogan for Lainer. Rather, it is a description of the way he lives his life. Perhaps that is why rabbis of every denomination are represented on the banquet committee honoring Lainer's 100th birthday.
As the community salutes Lainer on his special birthday, I recall Rabbi Soloveitchik's salutation in honor of Gruss. He said, "Whenever I met him, I was reminded, spontaneously, of the outstanding baalei batim of Jewish history. The name of Moses Montefiore comes to my mind ... and Amschel Mayer Rothschild."
Indeed, we can say that Simha Lainer continues to excel in that tradition and is our outstanding baal ha-bayit.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.