Thursday, June 28, 2012

American Olim in Israel: The Challenge (Part 2)

[While reading this plaint about the extremism that is increasingly characteristic of Religious Zionist Psak Halakha, I was reminded of two Gedolim stories that exemplify a different mode of rabbinic leadership, one that is more in line with the sensitivities that American Olim (especially RIETS and Skokie graduates) bring with them; one that takes responsibility for the needs and abilities of the broader community, while staying uncompromisingly within the four cubits of Halakhah. The first story, about the דבר אברהם (left), I heard from an eyewitness. The second, involving מו"ר Rav Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל, I was personally involved in.]

1. The pre-war Jewish community of Kovno (Kaunas, today) Lithuania was divided into different components, divided by the Neris River. On the one side was the general community, which was made up of every type of contemporary Jewish religious and cultural population. Indeed, the community was a bit notorious for a lackadaisical form of religiosity. On the other side of the Williampol bridge, was the famous Slabodka Yeshiva, a flagship of the Mussar Movement. As might be expected, relations between the two sectors were often tense. There was a saying attributed to the Alter of Slabodka, R. Nosson Zvi Finkel זצ"ל, that the bridge from Kovno to Slabodko only went one way.
         Coping with the myriad of challenges, modernization and secularization in Kovna was its illustrious rabbi, R. Avraham Dov-Bear Kahana-Shapira זצוק"ל, author of the classic collection of responsa and Talmudic essays דבר אברהם, and known more popularly as the 'Kovner Rov.'. One central concern of his was the alienation of young Kovner Jews from the synagogue. Thus, when the administration of the Choral Synagogue came to him with an intriguing approach to the problem, he jumped at it.
        The idea was to have the synagogue's cantor, the internationally renowned tenor Misha Alexandrovich, offer public concerts that would feature classical חזנות alongside renditions of serene Italian bel canto compositions. The hope was that this type of cultural evening would draw modernizing youg Jewish men and women to the synagogue, where they would socialize and (perhaps) find mates. 
       The first concert was a smashing success and more were planned. Everyone was thrilled, except for the heads of the Slabodka Yeshiva. They turned angrily to the Kovner Rov and demanded that he intervene to stop the concerts. They were indecent, the Rashe Yeshiva objected. The led to fraternization between men and women, and in the synagogue. Worse still, they might corrupt yeshiva students.

      The Kover Rav listened quietly, and then firmly rejected the Yeshiva's objection. 'You are responsible only for your yeshiva,' he asserted. 'I am responsible for the spiritual welfare of all of the Jews of Kovno.' The concerts, he declared, would continue. 

2. When I was a young Rav, over thirty years ago, I served in a small shul in Long Island City, Queens (which closed its doors a few years ago). The community was made up of older retirees, whose devotion to their shul remains an inspiration to me. They were not all observant, indeed very few were actually Orthodox. However, they maintained a daily minyan, Shabbat and Holiday schedules and an active Men's Club and Sisterhood. They were, as I said, overwhelmingly Golden Agers and not in the best of health or strength.
        That proved to be a challenge when it came to carrying (much less raising) the Torah during services. All of the available scrolls were either unfit or way too heavy for any of the members to carry. All, that is but one, which was quite light. The problem was that it was written in Sephardic Script (כתב וועליש) whereas all but one of the members were Ashkenazic. When I mentioned the situation to some of my fellow Kollel-leit and to some of the Rashe Yeshiva at YU, they told me that one may under no circumstances use a Sephardic Torah in an Ashkenazic minyan. 
       Knowing that the shul had no money to spare to repair the unfit scrolls (much less buy a new Sefer Torah), I called my teacher and (other) רב המסמיך, R. Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל in Toronto. Rabbi Felder was a פוסק of tremendous power and fortitude, whose encyclopedic knowledge of all of Rabbinic Literature was nothing less than stunning (as borne out by his magnum opus, יסודי ישורון). He was, also, a synagogue Rav his entire life and literally lived among his fellow Jews.
     I called Rav Felder with my question. He did not hesitate for a moment.  There is no reason not to use the lighter, Sephardic Torah Scroll (because we hold like the responsum attributed to Maimonides that one may read in public from a sefer pasul: הל' תפילין פ""י ה"א בכסף משנה). I will, though, never forget the impassioned words with which he prefaced his פסק: 'You can't impose standards on בעלי בית in a Shul as if you were in a yeshiva!' he exclaimed.

It's time that we stopped ourselves being railroaded by מחמירים who, in the end, drive people away from Torah. It's time we developed the kind of גבורה and stand up to halakhic ruffians (who are welcome to be strict on themselves). If the Torah allows something, and the מסורה of פסק confirms it, we cannot roll our eyes and delegitimize those who follow the Torah's dictates. This is precisely the type of community sensitive approach to פסק הלכה that American trained תלמידי חכמים imbibed from their teachers. The שלחן ערוך is a סם החיים, not a strait-jacket.

Monday, June 18, 2012

American Olim in Israel: The Challenge (Part I)

[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.