Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern was the third generation of his family to enjoy sermons and the presence of Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt at the Queens Jewish Center. He was the featured speaker at the Sixth Annual Yahrzeit Lecture in Memory of Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt this past Motza’ei Shabbos.

Rabbi Grunblatt was “unapologetic in his case for Judaism,” showing that “our Torah is eternally relevant…and can speak to the modern era.” Rabbi Grunblatt did not “need to compromise for his audience by showing how relevant or how cool Torah was,” said Rabbi Dr. Halpern in an interview. Rabbi Grunblatt “was very much in a classic mode.”

Rabbi Grunblatt “was a brilliant man” who instituted a “great sense of learning and Ahavas Torah in the community, said Sosha Halpern, mother of Rabbi Halpern.

Rabbi Grunblatt was Rabbi of the Queens Jewish Center from 1967 to 2006 and Rabbi Emeritus until his demise. Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1927, non-Jewish neighbors hid his family during Kristallnacht. Grunblatt moved to London before immigrating to New York in 1944. He was Professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University and later at Touro College.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern earned ordination from Rabbi Chaim Brovender, a PhD in Jewish Education and Administration from Yeshiva University, and has authored and/or co-authored 17 books.

“The Constitution structures civic life but the Bible is vividly present.” The Bible is often quoted by American Presidents and remains in the public sphere, said Rabbi Halpern. Thirty-three out of the 58 Presidential inaugurations had the Bible quoted for a total of 62 times. Two-thirds of those quotes came from Judaism’s Bible and Prophets.

President George Washington’s favorite verse might have been from the Book of

Michah, because Washington mentioned it more than 50 times in letters and speeches: “And they shall dwell each man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them move, for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken.” Dr. Halpern said, “It presents a vision of serenity, and prosperity.”

An American revolutionary-inclined writer said in the May 7, 1772, issue of “Boston’s Massachusetts Spy” that the English Royal authority was over-reaching, “declaring that they [Americans] shall no longer sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree and none to make him afraid.”

Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan quoted the same Michah verse and from President Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”

Washington also wrote in that August, 21, 1790, letter: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Dr. Halpern quoted historian Jon Meacham: “The image of every man being free from fear, comforted by the shade of his own conscience is vivid, and enduring, and places the ideal and the reality of liberty, and mutual understanding, at the heart of the American tradition from the first year of the First Presidency.”

After receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said: “I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of G-d and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’”

Rabbi Halpern remembers Rabbi Grunblatt saying at an Oneg Shabbat how the Talmud says that the Second Temple was destroyed because Jews did not show respect towards one another. However, Rabbi Grunblatt suggested that most Jews died during the Bar Kochba revolt where “Rabbi Akiva played a lead role.”

“I was blown away by this suggestion… It’s a fascinating historical contextual explanation for a well-known teaching of Chazal. And this is no surprise, because Rabbi Grunblatt was a rav who not only appreciated Torah, of course, but history, and the role that Jews and Jewish ideas can and should play on the world stage.”

A reviewer of Rabbi Grunblatt’s book, Exile and Redemption: Meditations on Jewish History, said in the Journal of Jewish Review: “Rabbi Grunblatt challenges religious Jews to eliminate from within their own ranks all traces of that transgression, sin’as chinam (causeless hatred), which engendered the destruction of the Second Temple.”

Rabbi Halpern concluded: “We look ahead this week to Chanukah, and its story of a Jewish people who overcame sectarian infighting and defeated their much larger enemy.” Halpern urged Jews to be respectful towards one another, despite differences and whoever they may have voted for.

“May the p’sukim (verses) of our Tanach, be they George Washington’s favorite, or our own personal favorites, continue to inspire us to envision a redemptive future, free of causeless hatred, and full of mutual comfort and flourishing.”

More than 70 people from across the United States, Canada, and Israel attended the memorial lecture on Zoom.

 By David Schneier