The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel

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     Rabbi Benzion Uziel delivered the opening address at a gathering

in Jerusalem of the rabbis of the land of Israel (spring

1919). In describing the rebirth of the Jewish nation in Israel,

he pointed out the many challenges facing the emerging Jewish communities

and settlements. He urged the rabbis to be active participants

in this historic process. It would be unacceptable and dangerous if religious

Jews were to say: "Let us stand in a corner as though looking at

the events from a distance. Let us say to ourselves: we and our families

will serve the Lord." He felt that this isolationist attitude was contrary

to the vision upon which our religion is based. Rabbi Uziel exhorted

his colleagues to go among the people, to work with the people, to participate

in every aspect of the nation-building process. In this way, they

could bring the eternal teachings of Torah into the real world. [1]

 

     This theme was to dominate much of the thought and work of

Rabbi Uziel, who proclaimed that Judaism is not a narrow, confined

doctrine limited only to a select few individuals; rather, the Torah is the

guide for the ideal way of life for the entire Jewish people, and also carries

a message for humanity at large. Jewish religious expression must

not be confined to a parochial, sectarian mold. Rather, it must thrive

with a grand vision, always looking outward.

 

     Rabbi Uziel's philosophy of Judaism flowed from various sources.

Born in Jerusalem to an illustrious Sephardic rabbinical family, his father

was the Av Bet Din of the Sephardic community of Jerusalem and presi-

dent of the community council. His mother was part of the Hazan

rabbinical family, which had produced fist-rate rabbinic leaders for generations.

As a youth, Rabbi Uziel studied with the Sephardic sages of

Jerusalem, but also with Ashkenazic rabbis. He became one of those

unique individuals who was well steeped in the halakhic methods and literature

of both the Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

 

     In 1911, Rabbi Uziel was appointed Chief Rabbi of Yafo and its district, where he worked with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazic spiritual leader of Yafo. Although

Rabbi Kook was older, Rabbi Uziel was appointed Chief Rabbi (Haham Bashi) by the authority

of the Turkish Government. Officially, the office of Chief Rabbi was

open only to individuals born in the Ottoman Empire, whose families

had been living there for several generations, and who knew the language

of the land, as well as French and Arabic. Rabbi Uziel had all

these qualifications, while Rabbi Kook did not. Rabbis Uziel and Kook

developed a good working relationship and held each other in high

esteem. In 1921, Rabbi Uziel became the Chief Rabbi of the famous

Sephardic community of Salonika, returning to be Chief Rabbi of Tel

Aviv in 1923. In 1939, he was elected Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rishon le-

Zion.

 

     Rabbi Uziel was a leading posek, thinker, teacher, communal leader

and political activist, one of the unique figures of 20th century Jewish

life. Rabbi Uziel saw God's hand in the development of Jewish life in

Erets Yisrael. He felt that he was participating in the early stages of the

final redemption of Israel. His writings are characterized by the calm

wisdom of a genuine scholar and at the same time by an overwhelming

sense of urgency. Depending on the quality of religious leadership, he

said, everything could be won or lost.[2]

 

     Rabbi Uziel believed that the Jewish people, especially those living

in a revitalized Erets Yisrael, could be living models of the excellence

inspired by the Torah. Through their moral and ethical accomplishments,

the Jews would succeed in making the rest of the world aware of

the great standards set by the Torah for all of humanity. [3]

 

     He felt strongly that Jews must be aware of their own national

charter. Through this self knowledge, they would be able to conduct

their lives according to the ideals set forth in the Torah tradition. This

would lead to their own happiness, as well as to a positive influence on

the world in general. Rabbi Uziel criticized those false ideologies which

distracted the Jewish people from their authentic national charter. He

rejected the assimilationists, since their strategy would ultimately undermine

the true message of Judaism. He also chastised those who would

restrict Judaism to the narrow confines of their homes, synagogues and

study halls. This strategy would bury Judaism in a small inner world,

cutting off its impact on society as a whole. It was necessary to steer a

middle course between assimilationist tendencies on the left and isolationist

tendencies on the right. Rabbi Uziel cited the verse in Mishlei

(4:25) as a guide: "Let your eyes look right on and let your eyelids look

straight before you. Make plain the path of your foot and let all your

ways be established. Turn not to the right nor to the left. Remove your

foot from evil."

 

     Only by focusing on the specific charter of the Jewish people--to

create a righteous nation based on the laws of Torah tradition--could

the Jewish people fulfill its mission. Through our creating a model

Torah society, we would be seen by the entire world to be the representatives

of God. Our Torah teaches us to live life in its fullness. It teaches

us how to apply the highest moral and ethical standards to all human

situations. Judaism is not a cult, but a world religion with a world message.

"Our holiness will not be complete if we separate ourselves from

human life, from human phenomena, pleasures and charms, but (only if

we are) nourished by all the new developments in the world, by all the

wondrous discoveries, by all the philosophical and scientific ideas which

flourish and multiply in our world. We are enriched and nourished by

sharing in the knowledge of the world; at the same time, though, this

knowledge does not change our essence, which is composed of holiness

and appreciation of God's exaltedness." The national charter of the

Jewish people is "to live, to work, to build and to be built, to improve

our world and our life, to raise ourselves and to raise others to the highest

summit of human perfection and accomplishment. (This is accom-

plished by following) the path of peace and love, and being sanctified

with the holiness of God in thought and deed."[4]

 

     In his address accepting the appointment as Chief Rabbi of Yafo

(6 Heshvan 5672), Rabbi Uziel stated that a leader must have two

seemingly opposite qualities: strength of character and humility (gevura

nafshit and anava). In truth, these two qualities are not in opposition

but must go together. True humility cannot be found except in one

who has spiritual strength. Indeed, humility without such strength is

not humility at all: it is weakness stemming from fear and doubt.[5]

 

     In his address to the rabbis of Erets Yisrael in 1919, he reminded

his colleagues that while humility in itself is praiseworthy, it becomes repulsive

if it leads to shying away from the needs of the hour. Rabbis

who hide in the mantle of humility abdicate their responsibility to the

community. Leadership requires strength of character. [6]

 

     Rabbi Uziel saw the rabbis' influence deriving from the force of

their own righteousness, devotion and erudition. Since the hallmark of

Torah is peace, coercion and threats are not the proper ways to gain

adherence to Torah. Rather, rabbis (and religious people in general)

must win the hearts of their fellow Jews through deeds of love and

kindness. [7] One cannot demand respect; one must earn it.

 

     Rabbi Uziel was among those who believed that the time had

arrived for the reestablishment of a Sanhedrin. Through such a structure,

rabbinic authority would once again be centralized. The public

would know where to turn for Torah guidance. A properly constituted

Sanhedrin would have profound influence on Jewish communities

throughout the world and would be a harbinger of the ultimate redemption. [8]

 

     Rabbi Uziel was troubled by a schism among the Jews in Israel.

One group stressed the study of Torah to the exclusion of building the

land and organizing the people, while the other group emphasized

action while negating the need to study Torah. Both groups were

wrong. "Action without study--even action is lacking, since it is a

branch without roots. And study without action is a root without a

branch." [9]

 

     According to the Torah, work is obligatory. It is forbidden for a

person to be supported by the labor of others without providing his

own productive labor. A parent is obligated to teach his child Torah and

an occupation. A child who does not learn how to support himself

through his own labor is compared to a thief who steals the labor of

others without exerting any effort of his own. Each individual must be

engaged in productive labor to support himself, to share in the building

of the world and the advancement of humanity. Labor is not only an

obligatory commandment, but also gives the individual a sense of

honor and dignity. The laws of the Torah go hand in hand with productive

forms of labor and business. By working, one learns not only the

knowledge of one's profession, but also compassion, love and responsibility

for others.[10]  These spiritual and moral qualities are learned by

engaging in productive labor, not merely by abstract study.

 

     During the War of Independence in 1948, a number of yeshiva

students came to Rabbi Uziel to obtain exemptions from military service.

He rejected their requests and said that if he were not already an

old man himself, he would be holding a gun and hand grenade, fighting

to defend the Old City of Jerusalem where he was born and raised.

This was a battle of life and death for the people of Israel. How could

anyone want to be exempted from fighting this great battle? On the

contrary, each person should rise to the occasion and give strength to

his fellow soldiers. He told the yeshiva students that it was a mitsvah for

them to join in the defense of their people, to risk their lives alongside

their brothers, to defend the Jewish people and the Jewish land. [11]

 

     In Rabbi Uziel's view, religious leadership entailed a total commitment

to participate in all aspects of the life of the nation. Religious people

were not to live on hand-outs or to seek exemptions. Only by a

thoroughgoing involvement in all aspects of national life could the religious

community bring its values and ideals to all the people of Israel.

To retreat into self-enclosed religious enclaves was to surrender Torah

leadership. It was to reduce Judaism to a small, self-contained cult. This

position was absolutely untenable to Rabbi Uziel, who viewed Judaism

as a grand way of life which must shape the entire society, serving as a

model for the world.

 

     Rabbi Uziel believed that Torah study and observance should

make the religious Jew into a model human being.[12] But exactly what

are we to study and do in order to attain the highest standards of Torah

ideals? Obviously, we must study and observe Torah in as thorough and

profound a way as possible. In Rabbi Uziel’s view, the Torah is not simply

a book of laws and commandments; it encompasses all knowledge.

"It is impossible to understand it--certainly to plumb its depths--without

a profound and broad knowledge of all worldly wisdoms and sciences"

which are hidden in the depths of creation. [13] The Torah itself is

interested in cosmology, philosophy, theology, human history. To be

well-versed in Torah involves knowledge of astronomy and mathematics

in order to set the calendar. Torah law includes comprehensive knowledge

of weights and measures. It entails agronomical and zoological

knowledge in order to observe properly the laws of mixed species

(kilayim). Likewise, the laws of terefòt demand a thorough knowledge

of animal anatomy. Jewish law requires a knowledge of human psychology,

so that the judge can determine whether or not a witness is

attempting to deceive him. Halakha includes political and economic

principles, as well as laws governing the relationships between different

peoples. In short, Torah--being a total way of life--necessitates understanding

life in its fullness.[14]

 

     The Torah tradition teaches Jews to be engaged in the development

of society (yishuvo shel olam) in the broadest sense of the term.

This entails not only populating and settling the world, but studying

the ways of nature (science) in order to advance human civilization.

Yishuvo shel olam involves knowledge of how to establish a system of

justice and how to develop a harmonious and ethical society. Involve-

ment in yishuvo shel olam is a necessary condition to fulfilling our specific

Jewish way of life. The settlement and building of society increases

knowledge, widens our intellectual and scientific horizons. This very

process awakens within us a more profound appreciation of the wonders

of God, His creative powers and His providence. [15]

 

     Rabbi Uziel did not see Torah and mada as conflicting. He believed,

rather, that in order to be a Torah personality with full Torah

knowledge, one must study worldly wisdom. But when one studies

such subjects as philosophy, science, psychology, history and literature,

one does not do so for the sake of academic knowledge, but rather as a

means through which one gains a deeper understanding of God's ways.

"Talmud Torah" is a general term referring to the attainment of wisdom;

it includes Torah study as well as all the studies and sciences

which deepen our understanding. [16] It is Talmud Torah in this broad

sense which raises a person from ignorance to wisdom. Secular knowledge

by itself provides knowledge, but only within the context of Talmud

Torah does secular knowledge have ultimate meaning, leading the

student closer to God.

 

     In his address upon assuming the position of Chief Rabbi of

Salonika (9 Adar, 5681), Rabbi Uziel stated: "It is true that scientific

knowledge (mada) raises a person, gives him wings to soar to great

heights, enlightens his eyes to discover the secrets of nature and to uti-

1ize its powers, to make life more pleasant and to increase longevity;

general knowledge also endows a person with spiritual powers. But all

the acquisitions of general knowledge are vessels which help one to

live--and are not life itself. . . . The goal (of life) is . . . to know the

God of the universe, to walk in His ways and to cling to Him. [I7]

 

     Rabbi Uziel saw Maimonides as the classic example of the Jewish

ideal. In the Mishne Torah, Maimonides presents the spiritual inheritance

of the people of Israel from Moses to his own time. In addition,

he draws on the best of worldly knowledge. Rabbi Uziel believed that

Jewish sages were well aware of the philosophical, scientific and theological

insights propounded by non-Jewish sages. Indeed, Jewish sages

had to have knowledge of the world in order to fully understand the

Torah itself. After all, the Torah, Talmud and rabbinic literature include

references to all branches of human knowledge. Maimonides advocated

the principle: receive the truth from whoever states it. Maimonides

studied philosophy and science, gathering the best of what he found; in

this way he enriched his own thoughts in depth and breadth. [18]

 

     In his book on the laws of guardianship (apotropos), Rabbi Uziel

noted that our sages were fully cognizant of the legal thought and prac-

tice of the non-Jewish nations with whom they had contact. Our rabbis

of all generations "did not limit themselves to their four cubits and to the

walls of the study hall. Rather, they learned and knew al which transpired

in the world of science and justice." They did not hesitate to admit the

truth of the words of non-Jewish sages when the truth was with them. [19]

 

     In a letter he wrote to the leadership of the Alliance Israelite Universelle,

Rabbi Uziel recognized the importance of Jewish students

learning both religious subjects and general studies. He stressed the

need to learn Hebrew and said that Jewish students in the diaspora

should learn the language of the land in which they lived as well as at

least one European language. But the goal of Jewish education should

be clear: to raise children faithful to their people and to their Torah,

people who would be useful to their families, their people, and society.

Rabbi Uziel insisted that general subjects be taught by religious teachers.

Otherwise, a spirit of secularism would enter the children's hearts,

leading them away from the very goals for which Jewish schools stood.

In every generation, he said, the Jewish people have produced learned

doctors, authors, and business people. We have not lacked giants in science

and worldly wisdom. And we have been able to attain this while

retaining total loyalty to the Torah tradition. If modern-day Jews think

that their children can achieve success only by receiving an exclusively

secular education, they are in fact sacrificing their children's spiritual

lives. There is no necessity to do so, since one can attain worldly success

while remaining deeply steeped in Torah tradition. The ideal can be

attained only when general studies are taught within the context of the

Jewish religious tradition. [20]

 

     Jews throughout history have not allowed themselves to be cut off

from the intellectual currents of the world. Rather, they have been at

the forefront in all areas of human knowledge and scientific advancement.

In spite of the attempts by anti-Semites to confine Jews to ghettos

and to limit their educational opportunities, Jews have made

remarkable contributions to human knowledge. As active and knowledgeable

participants in world civilization, our goal is to lead humanity

in the paths of proper ethics and social harmony.[21]

 

     Rabbi Uziel saw Abraham, our forefather, as his model for outreach

to general society. Abraham's teachings brought people closer to

a proper understanding of God; indeed, he was successful in converting

many to his beliefs. By lovingly guiding people in the ways of God, he

set a pattern for his descendants to emulate. A basic responsibility of the

Jewish people is to teach monotheism and ethical behavior to the peoples

of the world. [22]

 

Unlike some other religions, Judaism does not claim a monopoly

on the world to come. All people--Jewish or not--have access to God,

and will be rewarded for a life of righteousness. [23]

 

     Judaism teaches responsibility towards each human being and

every nation. The ultimate redemption of Israel is not the success of

one people, but rather the redemption of all humanity. The entire

world will become free of war, rid of false beliefs and ideologies; it will

be free of political, military and religious coercion.[24]  A cornerstone of

Jewish religiosity is the recognition of the "image of God" found in all

human beings. This insight leads to the love of individuals and to the

love of humanity. [25]

 

     Since all human beings are created in the "image of God," all are

entitled to loving concern and respect. Rabbi Uziel’s commitment to

this principle is evident in a halakhic controversy which erupted concerning

autopsies. Already in the early 1930's in Erets Yisrael, the issue of

autopsies arose in connection with training Jewish doctors in emerging

Jewish medical schools. Medical training necessitated performing autopsies,

but how could this take place under halakhically correct conditions?

Rabbi Kook ruled in 1931 that it was not permissible to perform autopsies

on Jewish bodies for the sake of medical education. He recommended

that non-Jewish bodies be purchased for the sake of scientific

research. In sharp contrast, Rabbi Uziel theorized (le-halakha ve-lo lema'ase)

that autopsies could be permitted according to Jewish law if

conducted with proper respect. "In a situation of great benefit to everyone,

where there is an issue of saving lives, we have not found any reason

to prohibit (autopsies), and on the contrary, there are proofs to permit

them." In considering whether it would be preferable to obtain non-

Jewish bodies for autopsies, Rabbi Uziel’s response was unequivocal:

"Certainly this should not even be said, and more certainly should not

be written, since the prohibition of nivul stems from the humiliation

caused to all humans. That is to say, it is a humiliation to cause the body

of a human being--created in the image of God and graced with knowledge

and understanding to master and rule over all creation--to be left

disgraced and rotting in public." According to Rabbi Uziel, if one were

to prohibit autopsies, then no autopsies could be performed on anyone,

Jewish or non-Jewish. The result of this policy would be that no doctors

could be trained. [26]

 

     Rabbi Uziel’s appreciation of the “image of God" in everyone was

manifested in his abhorrence of discrimination based on religion or race.

In the early days of British rule over Erets Yisrael, Rabbi Uziel was

already imagining how halakha would be implemented in a new Jewish

state. He posed the theoretical question: may the testimony of non-Jews

be accepted in Jewish courts according to the rules of the Torah? "It is

impossible to answer this question negatively, because it would not be

civil justice to disqualify as witnesses those who live among us and deal

with us honestly and fairly. Weren't we ourselves embittered when the

lands of our exile invalidated us as witnesses? If in the entire enlightened

world the law has been accepted to receive the testimony of every person

without consideration of religion or race, how then may we make such a

separation?" He then went on to write a comprehensive responsum in

which he demonstrated the propriety of establishing a regulation allowing

testimony from non-Jews. [27] This responsum demonstrates Rabbi Uziel's

concern for creating ajust Jewish society which respected the rights and needs

of the non-Jewish population.

 

     In his speech to the rabbis of Erets Yisrael (1919), he stated that

the Jewish nation was a people of peace, never wanting to advance itself

by causing destruction to others. Non-Jews should not feel threatened

by the emergence of a Jewish state, since a Jewish government would be

a source of peace and blessing.[28]  In his address at his installation as Chief

Rabbi of Israel (1939), Rabbi Uziel stressed the need to forge links of

peace and fellowship among all segments of society in Erets Yisrael. [29] In

his radio address in honor of his installation as Chief Rabbi, he made a

special appeal to the non-Jewish population in the land of Israel: "We

stretch out to you a hand of peace, true and trustworthy. We say to you:

The land is spread out before us and we will work it with joined hands.

We will uncover its treasures and will live in it as brothers together." [30]

 

Rabbi Uziel, who spoke Arabic fluently, felt it was vital for Jews to

establish good relations with their Arab neighbors. He strenuously criti-

cized those individuals who, in the name of Judaism, fomented anti-

Arab attitudes. This was a perversion of Judaism. "The Torah of Israel,

all of whose paths are ways of peace, calls for the peace and love of its

people and all who are created in the image ofGod."[31]  It was up to rabbis

to decry negative attitudes towards the Arabs. In 1927, Rabbi Uziel

visited Baghdad and spoke to the Jewish community there, inspiring

them with his message from Zion. In his speech, which he delivered

both in Hebrew and Arabic, he called on the Jews of Baghdad to share

in the religious Zionist ideals, to settle in Israel, to maintain their religious

traditions in the land of Israel. The Arabic newspapers of Baghdad

praised Rabbi Uziel’s speech, and lauded his call for peace and

friendship between the two great nations (Jews and Arabs), both peoples

being descendants of our forefather Abraham.[32]

 

     In 1921, a battle erupted between Jews and Arabs in the outskirts

of Tel Aviv. When Rabbi Uziel learned that both sides were shooting at

each other, he went out to the battleground in his rabbinical garb. Fearlessly,

he walked between the two camps. The gunfire stopped. Rabbi

Uziel spoke to the Arabs with emotion. He reminded them that Jews

and Arabs are cousins, descendants of Abraham. "We say to you that

the land can bear all of us, can sustain all of us. Let us stop the battles

among ourselves, for we are brothers."

 

     Rabbi Uziel fully believed that peace and harmony were achievable

if goodwill could prevail. He was faithful to this vision throughout his

life, even though it was rejected by political and religious leadership on

both sides.

 

     When Rabbi Uziel died in 1953, hundreds of thousands of people

mourned his passing. All the people of Israel, Sephardim and Ashkenazim,

Jews and non-Jews, had lost a religious leader of the highest

stature. The motto of his life had been the words of the prophet Zekharya:

"Love truth and peace." The grandeur of his life and his religious

vision were an inspiration to his generation, and will stand as a

lasting monument for generations to come.

 

NOTES

 

[1] R. Benzion Uziel, Mikhmanei Uziel, Tel Aviv, 5699, p.328.

[2] For more on the life and career and Rabbi Uziel, see Shabbetai Don Yahye,

HaRav Benzion Meir Hai Uziel: Hayav uMishnato, Jerusalem, 5715. See

also Yaacov Hadani, "HaRav Benzion Uziel keManhig Medini,” Hamidrashia,

Vol.. 20-21, 1987, pp. 239-266. [See also Marc D. Angel, Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel, Jason Aronson, Northvale, 1999.]

[3] R. Benzion Uziel, Hegyonei Uziel, VoL. 1, Jerusalem, 5713, p. 99; and

Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 2, Jerusalem) 5714, p. 120.

[4] Hegyonei Uziel, VoL. 2, pp. 121-125. See also, Mikhmanei Uziel, p.460.

[5] Mikhmanei Uziel, p.324.

[6] Mikhmanei Uziel, p.331.

[7] Mikhmanei Uziel, pp. 364-365.

[8] Mikhmanei Uziel, p.391; Mishpetei Uziel, Yore De'a 3, Vol. 2 Addendum

No.3; Sha'arei Uziel, Jerusalem, 5751, p.l0. See also Marc D. Angel, Rhythms

of Jewish Living, New York, 1986, pp. 70-72; and Marc D. Angel,

Voices in Exile, Hoboken, 1991, pp. 194-196.

[9] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 557.

[10] Mikhmanei Uziel, pp. 456 and 458.

[11]  Quoted in Shabbetai Don Yahye, pp. 227-228.

[12] Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 2, pp. 96-97.

[13] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 405.

[14] Mikhmanei Uziel, pp. 406-407.

[15] Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 2, p. 98.

[16] Mikhmanei Uziel, pp. 552-553.

[17] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 345.

[18] Mikhmanei Uziel, pp. 382-383; 393.

[19] Sha'arei Uziel, introduction, pp. 35 and 37.

[20] Mikhmanei Uziel, pp. 516-517.

[21] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 120.

[22] Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 1, pp. 98-99.

[23] Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 1, p. 176.

[24] Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 2, pp. 146-147.

[25] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 344.

[26] For Rabbi Kook's opinion, see Da’at Cohen, Jerusalem, 5745, No. 199.

Rabbi Uziel's opinion is found in Piskei Uziel, Jerusalem, 5737, No. 32, especially

pp. 178-179. See also my article, "A Discussion of the Nature of

Jewishness in the Teachings of Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel," in Seeking Good, Speaking Peace,

edited by Hayyim J. Angel, Hoboken, 1994, pp.112-123.

[27] For a discussion of Rabbi Uziel’s position, see Rabbi Haim David Halevy,

"The Love of Israel as a Factor in Halakhic Decision Making in the Works

of Rabbi Benzion Uziel," Tradition, Vol. 24, Spring 1989, pp. 17-19.

[28] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 330.

[29] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 424.

[30] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 429.

[31] Mikhmanei Uziel, p. 523.

[32] Shabbetai Don Yahye, pp. 107-108.

[33] Shabbetai Don Yahye, p. 77.