[This week, I had the privilege of chairing the Orthodox Forum in Israel, sponsored by Yeshiva University and its Center for the Jewish Future. As you can see from the list of attendees, the two days of deliberations attracted a wonderful, representative group from across the spectrum of the Religious Zionist (and, potentially, Modern Orthodox) community. The Forum ended with a reception in honor of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who created the original forum in New York, and who was instrumental in its re-establishment in Israel. As he noted to me, last week: 'It doesn't matter what happens in New York or London. The future will be decided here in Israel.'
This last session was dedicated to the question of the impact of American Orthodox Olim, especially YU graduates, in Israel. Rabbi Ari Berman spoke about different aspects of the tensions that underlie American Orthodox relationships with Israel. My response was as follows.]
A fabled French adage states that 'Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme chose.' The more things change, the more they stay the same. The best indication as to the type of abiding contribution that American Modern Orthodoxy can make to Israeli religious life, generally, can be found in the story of another Oleh, who lived over two millennia ago. His name was Hillel, and he made Aliyah from Babylonia.
The Talmud (Pesahim 66a) recounts:
Our Rabbis taught: This halakhah (whether the Paschal Sacrifice may be offered on Shabbat) was forgotten by the Bene Bathyra. On one occasion the fourteenth [of Nisan] fell on the Sabbath, [and] they forgot and ...did not know whether the Passover overrides the
Sabbath or not. Said they, ‘Is there any man who knows whether the Passover overrides the Sabbath or not?’ They were told, ‘There is a certain man who has come up from Babylonia, Hillel the Babylonian by name, who served the two greatest men of the time, and he knows whether the Passover overrides the Sabbath or not.
They summoned him [and] said to him, ‘Do you know whether the Passover overrides the Sabbath or not?’ ‘Have we then [only] one Passover during the year which overrides the Sabbath?’ replied he to them, ‘Surely we have many more than two hundred Passovers during the year which override the Sabbath! Said they to him, ‘How do you know it?’ He answered them, ‘In its appointed time’ is stated in connection with the Passover, and ‘In its appointed time’ is stated in connection with the Tamid; just as ‘Its appointed time’ which is said in connection with the Tamid overrides the Sabbath, so ‘Its appointed time’ which is said in
connection with the Passover overrides the Sabbath. Moreover, it follows a minori, if the tamid, [the omission of] which is not punished by kareth, overrides the Sabbath, then the Passover,[neglect of] which is punished by kareth, is it not logical that it overrides the Sabbath!
They immediately set him at their head and appointed him Nasi [Patriarch] over them....
The Tosefta (Pesahim 4:13-14; cf. Yerushalmi, Pes. 6:1, 33a ) adds a crucial detail. The elders, it states, did not accept Hillel's logical and interpretive arguments. It was only when he declared that he had it on the authority of his teachers that the Paschal Sacrifice over rides Shabbat, that the community both accepted his opinion and appointed him as Nasi.
The story, in both versions, is striking. How was it that no one knew what to do when Erev Pesach fell on Shabbat? After all, while relatively rare, such a circumstance is not all that unusual. In addition, the circumstances that led to Hillel's appointment as Nasi are a bit baffling. He was presented as someone who had studied under 'the two greatest men of the time,' Shemaiah and Abtalion. It was, therefore, assumed that he knew 'whether the Passover overrides the Sabbath or not.' Yet, Hillel didn't say one way or another. Instead, he reasoned the point out using hermeneutical rules (מידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן). According to the Bavli, that was enough to get him appointed Nasi. According to the Tosefta, though, he needed to provethat he had really received traditions from Shemaiah and Avtalion. Only then was he acceptable. Either way, though, he (and, perhaps, his audience) needed to be bowled over by his interpretive virtuosity, his creative Talmudic analysis, in order to fill the role of Nasi. Apparently, then, there was a clear tension between what the people expected of him, and what he gave them: Authoritative, unilateral Psak based on tradition vs. independent analysis of the sugya.
Not everyone, moreover, was happy with Hillel's resort to Lomdus. The Tosefta recounts that the Bene Bathyra rejected his various arguments and only accepted that based on authority. In the modern era, two very different thinkers agreed. One was Professor Yitzhak Baer and the other was R. David ha-Kohen, better known as the Nazir.These two contemporaries, who lived very different lives in Jerusalem, both thought that Hillel had dramatically altered Judaism. They both argued that Halakhah should be intuitive and based upon authority. They objected to the introduction of reason and logical argument and interpretation into the process of פסק הלכה. They thought it sullied the Torah. [Baer set forth his ideas in the Introduction to A History of the Jews in Christian Spain. The Nazir laid out his opinions in קול הנבואה.]
Over time, the use of analysis and creative interpretation became more typical, first of Babylonia and then of the Diaspora. Certainly, a comparison of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi leaves you with that impression. Yet, even if that conclusion is not totally accurate, it is true that contemporary halakhic discourse in Eretz Yisrael tends to be more authoritarian and less creative than in the Diaspora. There is a distinctive lack of engagement with the complexities of life, or with the full spectrum of ideas and opinions that normative, Shulhan Arukh Judaism offers its devotees.
It seems to me, that it is this type of responsible, creative approach to Torah learning and Halakha; an approach which is especially cultivated among those raised in the tradition of the Rav זצ"ל, that American Olim can bring to Israeli Judaism. We were raised and trained to understand and appreciate the complexities of life. We were imbued with the conviction that the Torah can deal with every challenge and that an heroic encounter between reality and the Massorah of the Oral Law will resolve almost any challenge and draw more and more people to Torah, instead of alienating them.
The Bene Bathyra, who came from the border country between Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael (Nisibis, to be exact) knew that this was precisely what Judaism required at the end of the first century CE. That's why they sponsored Hillel (or accepted him). That's what Eretz Yisrael Judaism requires today. And it is that sophistication and creativity that American Olim can, and must provide.