The Wrestling Rabbi
Some three decades ago, while
working as editor of The Buffalo Jewish Review, I happened across a reference
to a story I knew I would pursue the next time I went to Israel: a professional
wrestling champion turned Orthodox rabbi-scholar.
In those days, before
e-mail or Facebook or easy international phone calls, I did not make any arrangements
until I got to Israel, calling Rabbi Raphael Halperin as soon as I checked into
my Jerusalem hotel. Although he had a busy schedule as a lecturer and author,
although he had frequent interview requests, and although he had just concluded
an exhausting campaign for a Knesset seat, he graciously allowed me to come to
his Tel Aviv house, a few blocks from the Mediterranean.
Rocca the Wrestler and Rashi the Commentator
It was a memorable interview.
How many people can discuss with equal ease both Antonio Rocca (a top pro wrestler
of the 1960s and one of Rabbi Halperin's contemporaries) and Rashi (the ultimate
commentator on Torah and Talmud)?
Halperin, died of cancer on Aug. 20, 2011, at age 87. When I met him, he was 50,
still in the prime of his post-wrestling health, 20 years removed from his glory
days as "The Wrestling Rabbi." A former boxer, karate competitor, weightlifter
and bodybuilder, he had remade himself into a wrestler who reportedly - competitive
records in the world of pro wrestling are, at best, nebulous - had won 159 consecutive
matches and refused, as a matter of principle, to throw a match as part of a promoter's
Could Do Hagbah with a Single Hand
Halperin still maintained an enviable physical fitness regimen, working out regularly
with the weights he kept on his back patio, with biceps that could intimidate
any chavruta (study partner). He could, I would tell people, do hagbah, lift a
Torah scroll during worship services, with a single hand.
A onetime "137-pound
weakling" who was "not at all" athletic in his youth, he developed
his impressive physique and memorable record of sporting accomplishments through
dint of hard work. He wrestled as "Mr. Israel," resting on Shabbat and
delivering sermons in synagogues near his hotel, to "bring honor to the Jewish
people," he said.
Able to Cross the Religious-Secular Boundaries
But it wasn't his athletic prowess alone that drew attention in Israel, though
it certainly added to a notoriety that crossed religious-secular boundaries. After
leaving the ring and returning to his childhood intellectual path - raised religious
in Vienna, he moved to British Mandate Palestine with his family in 1933, attended
yeshiva, strayed from the religious path, then returned - he established his reputation
first as author of a series of historical-genealogical books about Torah sages
and an encyclopedia geared for traditional families. Later he founded the discount
Optika Halperin eyewear chain, which expanded to the United States in 2008.
Israel, he was one of those rare figures who established his bona fides in the
Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities.
Turning His Back on "Make-Believe
After making "lots of money" in sports, he turned
his back on his "make-believe success," devoting his time to study of
Torah and Talmud. "All my mind was on learning."
from the athletic life, Rabbi Halperin used his athletic accomplishments to reach
and influence the wider public, teaching on army bases and kibbutzim, he told
me in our interview. "I saw society without any goals. I felt I could do
something to help." His success in sports and his army service (active duty
in 1948, reserves in 1973) earned the respect of Israelis little interested in
his theological expertise. "I opened the eyes of thousands of people."
"Some people call me 'rabbi,'" he said. "Some people call me 'Raphael.'
Some people call me 'champ.'"
He was clean-shaven in 1980, although
in later years he grew a beard that at the end was snow white.
with varying degrees of success, several business enterprises over the years.
a Standard Scholar and an Iconoclastic Activist
He remained both a standard
scholar and an iconoclastic activist, opening Israel's first (closed on Shabbat)
professional gym, campaigning for the creation of a Sabbath-observant credit card,
writing a weight-loss guide, and running for the Knesset. His small Otzma party,
which advocated immigrant-style benefits for discharged soldiers, lost badly.
the results of the election were clear, Rabbi Halperin said, his life as a candidate
was over. "I went to sleep [on election night] at 10 o'clock," he said.
"At five o'clock the next morning I was in my yeshiva."
spoke with Rabbi Halperin again, but I followed his many exploits.
re-entered my world when I went to Israel last year. I needed new frames for the
spare set of jogging glasses that I keep at a friend's apartment in Jerusalem,
and the optical shop at a nearby mall turned out to be to be part of the Optika
I Noticed Yeshiva Students Getting Free Books
As I waited for my new pair of glasses to be fitted, I noticed a series of young
Orthodox men, apparently yeshiva students, walking up to the checkout desk, introducing
themselves and being handed a hardcover brown book from a shelf underneath the
cash register. What gives?
Rabbi Halperin, an employee of the store informed
me, had written an extensive commentary on the Torah, in Hebrew, and anyone who
identified himself as a yeshiva student got a copy for free.
I was intrigued
and asked to look at one of the books. Although my Hebrew skills are rudimentary,
I could recognize that "Diyukim B'Torah" was high-level commentary.
I paid for a copy. The book - so far I have only Genesis - is now part of my Torah
library at home.
Now, when I wrestle with Torah, I get some posthumous help
from "The Wrestling Rabbi."
[Reprinted from the AJOP
Newsletter. The article originally appeared in the New York Jewish Week's August
31, 2011 edition.]