Living in the very heart of the Sha’arei Tseded neighborhood in Jerusalem, anonymous in the midst of a well-filled library, there is a Talmud Scholar * He looks like an Admor [Hassidic Rebbe], devotes his every moment to Torah [study], regards himself as a “Litvak” who conducts himself according to the customs of HAGRA” [The Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu] * 20 years ago he had been the pastor of a Christian congregation in Japan * His searches reveal the roots of our Jewish experience
“I was born in 1960 in Nagoya, a city of two million inhabitants. I was born prematurely and the oxygen of the incubator damaged my optic nerves. I was left with only four percent vision in my right eye.
Due to my visual impairment, my parents sent me to a Christian Mission school. They understood that there I would receive special attention. Although my parents were Buddhists, like many Japanese, there was no real significance to religion. In any family there could be members of different religions. Japanese, as a rule, have difficulty in grasping the belief in one God, and every Japanese has ten gods.”
Discovering the Bible
“In school I first came to know the Bible in its Japanese translation.
In my Bible study I was particularly impressed by the Creation Chapters and I understood that there was a Creator and Master of the universe. I said to myself: If there is a Creator, I want to meet him. In the Christian school, they suggested that I go to church on Sunday and in that way I would get to know the Creator. I began to attend the Protestant church. On Sunday there is little actual praying but one hears the minister’s sermon. After the sermon I said to the minister: I want to meet the Creator. He answered: That is very commendable, but there is a problem. Man cannot know the Creator directly. Original Sin, the burden of all mankind, does not permit man to know the Creator directly. One can only know the Creator through someone who is both God and man. That is ‘that man’. (This is the nickname by which our Sages referred to Jesus, and throughout our entire conversation Hatory used it exclusively).”
I Wasn’t Convinced
“I found this theory questionable, since in the Bible there are many prophets who were able to talk with the Holy One Blessed be He. The minister gave me several books and the same thing was written in them all. The contact with God was only via ‘that man’.
The books didn’t convince me. I went back to the minister after attending church for several months (I was then 16). I said to the minister: ‘I want to learn much more. After completing my high school studies I want to study in the Christian Theological College in Tokyo.’
“He was very pleased because he thought that I wanted to become a minister. I didn’t have that intention. I thought that if I studied Christian theology I would understand what I had not yet been able to fathom. I said to myself that it was all right to be a minister as I could make a living from it. Then the minister said: ‘First it is necessary for you to be baptized as a Christian.’ Indeed, on Christmas Day he baptized me in the presence of the congregation. My father didn’t care. Father said that if I could make a living from it then it was okay.
I was 20 when I began studies at the seminary that prepared students for the Protestant ministry. We studied the doctrines of each of the Christian sects. I learned and I rejected. What troubled me especially was the dogma of the trinity that I never understood.”
I Fell in Love with Hebrew
“I began my studies when I was 20. In the fourth year we began studying the Hebrew language, the language of the BIBLE. We learned Hebrew grammar and syntax of Biblical Hebrew. I fell in love almost immediately with the Hebrew language.”
The Dream of the Letters
“The day after I first learned the shapes of the Hebrew letters I had a dream. I dreamt that I had opened a Hebrew Bible and that the letters began to move on the paper like insects. I woke up and understood that I loved these letters as if they were living things.”
“From that point on I neglected my studies of Christian doctrine. I learned only the minimum required to pass the examinations. The rest of my time I devoted to the study of Bible in Hebrew. In my fifth year of study I had the opportunity to visit Israel with a Christian group. I was then 24.”
Hebrew Prayer at the Kotel [Western Wall]
“The Christian tour-guide took us primarily to churches, but I was most impressed by the Western Wall. It was there that I heard for the first time Jews praying in Hebrew. At the hotel I saw a Mezuzah in each room, and I knew what it was from the Torah I had studied ‘and you shall write on the doorposts of your house’. When they served meat at the hotel (not especially tasty) and said it was Kosher, I understood what was meant by what was written in the Torah, that ‘the blood was the soul’. I was then, in essence, a type of Karaite Jew.
I left the group for half a day and went to Mea She’arim. I bought several popular books on Judaism in English, as I didn’t know Modern Hebrew. I also bought some Mezuzot without the parchment but with the texts printed on paper. I also bought a Menorah, candlesticks, and a little Torah and returned to Japan.”
I placed all these items in my room. I attached the Mezuzah on the entrance to my home. While this Mezuzah was not ritually valid, it was good that they sell these types to Gentiles, as in this way there is no significance. Besides, then I was a Goy.
I began to read the books on Judaism I had bought and realized that I needed to obtain a Siddur [A book of daily prayers]. I ordered a Siddur with English translation from Israel. I also sought out books in Japanese about Judaism and the State of Israel. I read the books and continued studying Hebrew.
Minister or Rabbi
“I learned how to make Kiddush from the Siddur. Shabbat was of special interest to me. It was mentioned in the Creation chapters that the day of rest was the Seventh Day. Why, then, do we Christians rest on Sunday? At this point my colleagues from the church began to sense that I was a queer duck. They said to me: ‘Soon we will be ministers. What are you going to be, a minister or a rabbi?’
Ordained a Minister
“I completed my studies at the Seminary, wrote my thesis, and was ordained. After ordination I was sent to a small town to serve as a congregational minister and principal of a kindergarten, which is one of the responsibilities of a congregational minister. My questions about Christianity never left me, but I hoped I would be able to forget my spiritual doubts by concentrating on my work. This was not to be the case.
Mishnayot and the Tractate Avot
“When I had free time I would shut myself up in my room, open the bookcase of Jewish books and study. I had obtained the [Talmud] Tractate Shvu’ot in its English translation, but I didn’t understand anything. My Hebrew was merely sufficient to learn Mishnayot, as for example, the Tractate Avot.
A Protestant minister is required to marry since the minister’s wife is his assistant and the congregation expected that I marry. They arranged a marriage for me and I married the woman whose name in Israel is Tzipora. She had been raised in a Baptist family, was thoroughly Christian, and we married in my church.
After we began our new life I said to her: ‘I am really a minister, but I will tell you the truth – I never understood the Dogma of the Trinity.’ She answered: ‘I, too, didn’t understand it.’ From that day on, I had a study-partner in my Jewish studies.”
From Havdalah to the Sermon
“Afterwards, she suggested that she light Sabbath candles. Until then we had only studied but had not performed any of the commandments. I agreed. She lit the candles without saying the blessing. She knew no Hebrew, and we prepared a special meal for Shabbat. As the Sages say, one Mitzvah attracts another in its wake. Once we began we added more and more Mitzvot. I made Kiddush on Friday night from our Siddur, and, on Shabbat, we sat without doing anything because we didn’t know what one does on Shabbat. We waited until dark, and I made Havdalah. After that I ran to my room and prepared the sermon for Sunday services in the church.
In 1991 we had occasion to visit in Israel. My wife saw the Challot here and she bought a Challah-Cover. From then on she baked Challot every Friday, and I made the dough. Bit by bit we added Mitzvot – Chanukkah, Pesach, Sukkot. We tried to bake Matza and build a Sukkah, but we failed, as we didn’t have a Shulchan Aruch.”
The Hamotzi Blessing at the Church Service
“One Sunday morning something happened which changed our way of life. I was standing in the church in front of the congregation after having delivered the sermon. Before me were lying the Bread and Wine on a tray. The minister is supposed to bless the Christian believers and turn the bread and wine into the flesh of ‘that man’ and the wine into the blood of ‘that man’. I took the tray with the bread and almost said ‘Baruch…’ (since at home we had become accustomed to make the blessings before eating), and I swallowed the word. Thank G-d, the congregation did not notice, but my wife did. After the service she said to me: ‘You said Baruch. It seems the time has come to leave the church. In those days I came to the definite conclusion that I have no Christian faith at all. I came to loathe ‘that man’ for all the troubles he had caused the Jewish People.”
Conversion = Loss of Family
“Every night my wife and I sat contemplating what to do. We didn’t know what would happen after our conversion, how we would make a living. What kind of welfare [and health care] system prevailed in Israel? We were both visually handicapped.
The most troublesome problem was our family relationship. I have a very large family in Japan, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. The Japanese are idol worshippers. For instance, if there is a death in the family, all are required to bow down to the departed. The moment a person dies he turns into an idol. If one should fail to do so and some tragedy occurs in the family, an automobile accident for example, everyone would blame him. I knew that the moment I became a proselyte, as far as Judaism’s requirements went, I would have to sever my relationship with the family. Indeed, when my father died several years ago, I did not return for his funeral so that I would not be required to bow down and worship him. We also cannot visit in Japan since we may not drink wine with our family nor eat with them. Conversion means, in essence, a complete break with our families, all our friends, and our entire past.
After struggling with our internal conflicts for a month and a half we decided to start the conversion process.”
There is no Faith without Mitzvot
“Looking back, what brought me to Judaism was the concept that there is no faith without deeds. I did not know then that deeds are the Mitzvot. In the Bible it is written to keep the Shabbat, to eat Matza on Pesach, to afflict one’s soul on Yom Kippur. In order to know what the deeds are one need to learn the entire Torah, written and oral [Tanach and Talmud].
We registered for conversion, and there were more than a few who tried to dissuade us. One of the rabbis said: ‘You have the seven Mitzvot of Noah, and according to Maimonides you are permitted to keep many more. Why, then, do you want to become Jews?’ He told me the Hassidic story of the Gentile who had kept eight Mitzvot and when he came to Heaven he had more credit that the Jew who had kept [only] 612. I told him: ‘I know that story, but, nevertheless, I want to be a Jew.’ He then raised his voice and shouted: ‘If so, you are crazy’.”
The Goal: Torah Study
“I then brought up the winning argument: ‘Honored Rabbi, I want to be a Jew so that I can study Torah and a Gentile is forbidden to do so.’ He said: ‘If so, come to the Yeshiva tomorrow, and we shall see how you learn.’
I started my studies with great enthusiasm. We took a private tutor who taught my wife and me as I translate each of his sentences into Japanese, so that my wife, too, could learn. That tutor promised to come for one session only, but he has continued and we have been study-partners for thirteen years.
I studied three years in the Nachlat Zvi Yeshiva and reached the level of being able to study the Talmud independently. I then studied at Machon Me’ir for six years and reached the proficiency of being able to study Poskim, Rishonim, and Achronim [high-level Rabbinic source material]. Today, I primarily study Torah. I publish a weekly page [of commentary] in the Bet Midrash Be’er Miryam at the Bet Knesset Hagadol. I also translate this page into Japanese, for Japanese in Israel who want to study Judaism.
A Litvak in the Hagro Fashion
Before my conversion, I came across the book ‘Imre No’am’, a commentary by the Ga’on Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna on the Tractate of Brachot, and I felt that here lay the truth. This was in spite of the fact that I didn’t even know what the Tractate Brachot was. Also, the story that the Ga’on was prepared to relinquish his portion in the World to Come to a Jew who agreed to give him an Etrog in the year that there were no Etrogim available in Vilna, convinced me that his way would be the one I would follow.
You can say that I am a Litvak who conducts himself in the style of Hagro.”
I asked Moshe Hatory questions about secular things. He refused to respond. “I agreed to the interview for the Sanctification of God involved”, he said, “all the rest is a waste of the time available to study Torah.”
The Ga’on’s System
HaGR”O – The Ga’on R’ Eliyahyu B”R Shlomo Zalman of Vilna (1720-1797) is considered the greatest Torah Sage of recent generations. He studied day and night, and according to his son’s testimony, he never slept more than a half-hour at a time, and no more that two hours per day. He established a series of customs and changes in the Siddur.
Yishayahu Winograd, the bibliographer, publisher of the monumental “Otzar Hasefer Ha’Ivri” [Encyclopedia of Hebrew Books] and the “Otzar Sifrei Hagro” [Encyclopedia of the Works of Hagro] recently published a Siddur based on the customs of Hagro. Moshe Hatory assisted in the publication and financing of the Siddur, thus a special edition was published bearing Hatory’s name.
Winograd told me about the Hagro system: The Ga’on retraces the ancient version of the Siddur according to the Polish custom of the 16th Century as it had been shaped in contradistinction to the Western Ashkenazi style. He did not accept all of the additions that were included later such as Psalm 27 [an additional prayer during the penitential period of the High Holidays….and a series of other differences omitted by translator].
[Translated by Joseph Schachter. Items in brackets added for comprehension]