A Conversation with Rabbi Yisroel Besser Author of The Chasam Sofer

AS: In your introduction, you say the Chasam Sofer “reshaped the Jewish world and changed the course of history.” Is it possible, in a few sentences, to tell our readers how he did that?

RYB: He did it by showing that being courageous and firm isn’t a contradiction to being a kind, generous, loving rav; by providing a living example of compassionate leadership — what we might call incredible kannaus, butalso  incredible Ahavas Yisrael. He was the single most effective figure in stopping the Reformers, yet a beloved, revered kehillah rav in a major city.

AS: The book opens with a haunting photograph of the Chasam Sofer. It’s almost as if he’s staring at you, and he knows a lot about you. Is that the impression he made on you as you researched his life?

RYB: The picture was purchased from a respected auction house, which had it authenticated. It was originally painted by a non-Jewish artist, and when you look at it, there is a certain feeling of awe, which makes sense. In the book, we tell how the Chasam Sofer’s talmidim and even his own children felt they had to avert their gaze from him at times.

AS: Wars. Trouble with congregants. Financial worries. Messages brought in dreams. Mystical encounters. The Chasam Sofer’s life seems to be both similar to other people’s situations, and yet so very different. How can we reconcile his profound spiritual powers with the everyday challenges he faced?

RYB: That is precisely what makes this story unique. To be one with the Torah, with halachah, with yiras Shamayim, and still incorporate that into real life, practical rabbanus and being a rosh yeshivah. He was a gadol hador in so many different areas, yet none of them came at the expense of any other.

AS: This is a well-researched biography, yet it reads like a novel. How did you manage that?

RYB: I didn’t manage anything. Every project takes siyatta d’Shmaya, and this one is no different.

AS: What do you think the Chasam Sofer’s message would be to Jews today?

RYB: We are where we are because we hold on. We have a Father and He hasn’t changed. What was true remains true. You can be a relevant, successful person, a contemporary person, without compromising that which your fathers believed in.

Get your copy today in time for Yom Tov! artscroll.com/f/CHASH

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