Min haMuvhar

Bernice Angel Schotten: In Memoriam

Bernice Angel Schotten: In Memoriam

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


As we mark the end of the "sheloshim" mourning period for my sister Bernice, here are some words in her memory.

   Bernice Angel Schotten passed away unexpectedly at the age of 77. She had been active pretty much until the day she died. She and her late husband Peter lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for 50 years, where Peter taught Political Science at Augustana College. After Peter's death a few years ago, Bernice decided to relocate to Brookline, MA, to live closer to her daughter. 
   Bernice was one of four siblings in our family, the only daughter. Although third-born, she was the first of us to pass away. The mourning symbol of "Keriah" comes to mind. We tear a garment as a sign of grief--but really as a sign of a tear in the fabric of our lives. The deceased has gone on to the world beyond, but the survivors feel the loss. Mourners learn to heal, but the tear leaves a permanent scar. 
    We grew up together in Seattle with wonderful parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins--a large network of family and friends. From her earliest years, Bernice was bright, energetic, thoughtful, and independent. She attended the Seattle Hebrew Day School, Franklin High School and the University of Washington and was a leader and activist in various school clubs and youth groups.  She met Peter at U of W.  Peter continued his PhD studies in Claremont, Ca., and he and Bernice lived there for a while before moving to Sioux Falls.
   Although she lived much of her life far away from us, she maintained ongoing relationships with her siblings and other family members.  She remembered birthdays; she loved when family members visited her in Sioux Falls; and she enjoyed traveling to join us for family celebrations and reunions. The last time I saw Bernice in person was in January 2024 when she came from Brookline to attend the wedding of our grandson Max and Rena.
    But the Jewish mourning practices go beyond Keriah. Mourners recite Kaddish. Significantly, the Kaddish prayer has nothing whatsoever to do with death. Rather it is a dramatic expression of God's greatness, beyond any words of praise we can possibly utter.  In praising God, we are acknowledging our faith in the ultimate wisdom of God's ways. When we tear Keriah, we bless God as the dayan ha-emet, the True Judge. It is a blessing of resignation. We don't understand the mysteries of life and death, the passing of the generations, the ongoing meaning of life in the face of death. But we bow our heads and praise God. At a time when we sense our own mortality and vulnerability, we express trust in the ultimate value of our God-given existence.
   When we observe the "shiva" and "sheloshim" mourning periods, we reminisce. We remember the wonderful times--the family celebrations, picnics, vacations, parties of all kinds. Bernice had so much for which to be grateful--and she was truly grateful. When she had to face some difficult times and troubles, she demonstrated an amazing strength of character. In one of my last phone conversations with Bernice, I told her she was gutsy and resilient in adjusting to her new life in Brookline. But she was gutsy and resilient throughout her life.
    In her years in Sioux Falls, she was an active leader of the small Jewish community there. She taught in the Sunday School. She was part of an ongoing Torah study group with the Chabad rabbi of Sioux Falls. She was a proud and active Jewish leader...principled, generous, loving, devoted.
   Her memory will be a blessing, source of strength and happiness to her daughter, her siblings, her extended family, her many friends in Sioux Falls, Seattle, Brookline and around the country.
    "The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; may the Name of the Lord be blessed."

Beyond Victimhood: A Positive Jewish Message

The Holocaust, understandably, haunts the Jewish people. We can never forget the millions of Jews who were tortured and murdered by the Germans and their collaborators. Whenever a crisis erupts that threatens Jews, there is an almost visceral reaction to call up the memory of the Holocaust.

After the Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7, Jewish media was quick to report that this was the highest number of Jews murdered in a single day since the Holocaust.

In attempting to combat antisemitism in New York, a program was initiated to bring all eighth-grade students to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where they could learn about the Holocaust. When international leaders visit Israel, a visit to Yad Vashem is almost always part of the itinerary.

The prevailing wisdom is that when people – especially young people – learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, they will become more sympathetic toward Jews and aware of the dangers of religious and racial hatred. With more knowledge about the Holocaust, it is assumed that people will be less prone to antisemitic attitudes and behaviors.

The various efforts at Holocaust education have had a positive impact on many. And yet, Holocaust education – unless handled very well – can have negative consequences. For those steeped in anti-Jewish hatred, the Holocaust may actually encourage their antisemitism. They view Jews as a despised minority group that is an easy target for hatred and violence. They see that millions of Jews were systematically slaughtered while much of the world stood aside. In the minds of rabid Jew-haters, the Holocaust is an ideal, not a disaster.

While maintaining the memory of the Holocaust is surely very important, we need also to project a positive image of Jews, Judaism, and Zionism. Much of the antisemitism we face today is directly related to anti-Zionism. We need to focus on conveying the historical connection of the Jewish people to our land going back to biblical days.

Even after being exiled from the Land of Israel several times over the millennia, in the last instance at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish People have continued to live in, pray for, and dream of a return to their historic homeland.

After nearly 1,900 years, the Jews gained sovereignty over their land with the establishment of the modern State of Israel. This is one of the most amazing adventures in human history. For an ancient people to return to their historic homeland and build a dynamic, democratic society is an unprecedented story of courage, faith, and persistence.

Our story is truly inspiring and full of hope, spirituality, creativity, courage, and resilience. Despite all the hurdles we have had to face – and still face – the Jews are a strong and vibrant people. We need to tell our story in a confident voice – not as propaganda, not in sound bites – in a sophisticated and intelligent way that will convey the power of the Jewish experience.

The re-emergence of a sovereign Jewish state is a remarkable historic achievement. Yet, as we know, it has not been received with love or understanding by many in the Arab world. In particular, we face those who foster the Hamas ideology that negates the Jewish right to our own land.

The goal of the haters, by their own admission, is the destruction of Israel. And while wars on the battlefield can achieve military victories for Israel, ultimate victory will come only when the ideology of hatred is defeated. Just as Israel devotes so much courage and brilliance to its physical defense, it needs to devote equal – and more – courage and brilliance to fighting the murderous ideology that has infected many beyond Hamas.

To combat this ideology of hatred, we need more than Holocaust education.

We need a powerful, positive presentation of Jewish history, Jewish connection to the land of Israel, Jewish idealism, and Jewish striving for peace and mutual understanding.

We would do well to remember the prophecy of Isaiah (42:6) who relates God’s wondrous promise to the people of Israel that they will become “a light unto the nations.” We need to focus on the light; on what we have given, are giving, and can give to the world.

Isaiah (51:3) foresaw a time like ours when the wasteland that was Israel turned into a beautiful and thriving country: “For the Lord comforts Zion; He comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”

That is Zionism that is Judaism, that is the aspiration of the Jewish people.


Short Term, Long Term: Thoughts on Israel and the Jewish Future

In the short term, things look very difficult. Israel is in the midst of military confrontations with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. In spite of the remarkable achievements of IDF in Gaza, the war lingers on with no clear end in sight. Israel faces increasing international censure from the United Nations, the International Court, and from political leaders around the world. American college campuses are rife with anti-Israel activity. Radical Hamas supporters unashamedly call for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews.

We all feel the pain and the pressure.  We are going through a protracted nightmare. And it won’t likely get better in the short term.

But the crisis will pass, sooner (hopefully!) or later. How can things change for the better in the long term?

Israel must conclude its war in Gaza as quickly and effectively as possible. It must work with allies to put into place a responsible Palestinian leadership that will eschew ongoing warfare and that will work peacefully with Israel for the benefit of all. It cannot ignore the Palestinian issue or let it fester endlessly. 

Israel has taken great strides forward through the Abraham Accords. The more Arab and Muslim countries recognize Israel, the more secure Israel becomes. Formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia would be a potential game changer in the Middle East. Aside from the political and economic benefits, it would undercut the hateful voices that call for Israel’s destruction. It would make it clear that Israel is strong, creative, and a genuine partner with other nations seeking a harmonious region.

While short term challenges must be faced courageously, we need to focus on long term resolutions of problems. It isn’t realistic to expect that the deep hatred of our enemies will dissipate overnight. The ugly anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that have exploded in recent months will not suddenly cease. But visionary leadership can help us move gradually and intelligently beyond the problematic status quo. In spite of all the battles and threats, we need to formulate sensible strategies to bring us to a lasting peace.

We need to be strong to defend ourselves from our enemies; but we need special strength and blessing to work for and attain peace.  Indeed, it may well be more difficult to achieve peace than to win wars. 

“The Lord gives strength to His people, may the Lord bless His people with peace.”

Is the American Dream Imploding?

Is the American Dream Imploding?

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

(This article appears in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, March 13, 2024


My middle name is Dwight.

That name symbolizes a great American story.

My grandparents, born in Turkey and the island of Rhodes, arrived in the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. They settled in Seattle, Washington, in the emerging community of Judeo-Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews.

My mother’s father was a barber. My father’s father had a shoe shine stand. They arrived in America with little money, little formal education, but great courage and hope. They left impoverished communities in the old world to raise their families in the land of freedom and opportunity.

Like most immigrants of that time, my grandparents wanted their families to adapt to America. Their children attended public school and grew up as a transition generation between the old world and the new. My generation were full-blooded Americans.

I was born in July 1945 and named after my maternal grandfather Marco Romey. But my mother added a middle name, Dwight, after General Dwight David Eisenhower. I was named after an American hero. I was an organic part of American life.

In school, we daily pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States. We learned about Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln. They were our forefathers. Our relatives served in the American military. Our mothers and aunts knitted clothes for American soldiers. We were in America not as guests but as equal members of society,

By my generation, almost all the grandchildren of immigrants, were well educated, hard-working and sincere believers in the American Dream. We were better educated and more affluent than our grandparents — exactly as they had hoped would happen. Our goal was to be constructive members of society and to contribute to the ongoing flourishing of America.

The virtues of America are often under-appreciated while the sins of America are highlighted and exaggerated. America is undergoing a spiritual, social and political implosion. It has become difficult to feel that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

With our children and grandchildren, we thought that the American Dream would continue to thrive and expand. But it seems that American society is increasingly marred by antisemitism, racism and violence. The virus of hatred has infected political life, universities and businesses. The virtues of America are often under-appreciated while the sins of America are highlighted and exaggerated. America is undergoing a spiritual, social and political implosion. It has become difficult to feel that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The forces of hatred and divisiveness have become more brazen.

My middle name is Dwight, and I am proud to be a bearer of the American Dream. My name symbolizes the dream of immigrants to identify with America, to become full-blooded Americans. America is at risk of losing that dream. It needs to restore confidence and pride in America as a bastion of freedom and opportunity, a land where people of all religions and races can feel safe and secure, where everyone can work together for the betterment of society as a whole.

Let us not forget the American struggles for freedom, democracy and opportunity. Let us build on the American Dream for ourselves and for our future generations.

I want to believe in that future, sure as my middle name is Dwight.


The Hatred Syndrome

It is a strange feeling to be hated by people who don’t know you and don’t want to know you. It is perplexing to hear people calling for your death and the death of all your people without ever considering your humanity, your goodness, your contributions to society.

Haters don’t see their victims as fellow human beings. They create and foster ugly stereotypes. They promote outrageous conspiracy theories that dehumanize their targets.

Hatred is an ugly thing. It not only promotes hatred of the perceived enemy, but it distorts the lives of the haters themselves. Energy and resources that could be utilized to build compassionate societies are instead diverted to hatred, weaponry, death and destruction.

We have always been aware of an under-current of antisemitic and anti-Israel attitudes, but things today seem qualitatively and quantitatively different. We witness throngs of people throughout the United States and throughout the world who brazenly and unabashedly call for the annihilation of Israel and the murder of Jews. The public display of raw hatred is alarming.

I suspect that almost all of those spewing hatred of Israel and Jews don’t even know Israelis or Jews in person. They don’t hate actual Jews: they hate stereotypes of Jews. They are indoctrinated with propaganda and are fed a stream of lies about Israel and about Jews. The haters are steeped in their hateful ideology and are not interested in civil dialogue and relationship with actual Jews and Israelis. They know little or nothing about the connection of Jews to the land of Israel going back thousands of years, from Biblical times to the present.

So why do so many haters take aim at Jews and Israel? Some of this hatred stems from anti-Jewish religious teachings. Some of it stems from jealousy at the phenomenal success of such a tiny group. Some people spew hatred as a way of making themselves seem important, as though picking on Jews somehow makes them appear stronger and braver.

Erich Fromm has written of the syndrome of decay that “prompts men to destroy for the sake of destruction and to hate for the sake of hate.” Many people poison their own lives with hatred and only feel truly alive and validated when they express hatred of others.

When societies allow hatred to flourish, they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. When universities, media and political forums condone blatantly anti-Jewish intimidation and violence, the infection spreads well beyond Jews. Civil discourse is threatened. Respectful dialogue is quashed.

All who stand for a civil society must not be intimidated by the haters, bullies and supporters of terrorism. The syndrome of hate eats away at the foundations of society. It must not be allowed to prevail.

Rav Nahman of Bratslav taught: The whole world is a narrow bridge (precarious), but the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all.



Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology

Miri Freud-Kandel, Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology," The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in Association with Liverpool University Press, 2023.

Review Essay by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


For some Jews, faith is not a problem. God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai; we have an unbroken tradition of law and ethics authorized by the great sages of every generation. We do not merely believe in God as an abstract entity; we feel God’s presence. Fulfilling God’s commandments keeps us in constant relationship with God.

For some Jews, faith is irrelevant.  Life is lived without reference to God. The Torah and mitzvoth are not on the agenda. Such Jews are Jewish by birth, by fate, be ethnicity, by emotional attachment…but not by faith in God, nor through the mitzvoth, nor by deference to the great sages of the Jewish People.

For some Jews, faith is a basic component of life but faces nagging questions. Yes, the Torah is from Heaven…but what exactly is meant by that? Yes, the mitzvoth are commandments…but how does an eternal incorporeal God communicate commandments to people? Yes, our sages were great… but they had many disputes among themselves on basic issues of faith and religious observance. What is truth, what is conjecture, what are our options?

While the first two groups are relatively comfortable with their religious worldviews, the third group must negotiate conflicting pressures. Traditional faith is confronted with Bible criticism, modern scholarship and theologies, and an anti-authoritarian zeitgeist. 

Let’s talk about the third group.

These are thinking people deeply respectful of traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. They are religiously observant. Many—probably most—of them attended university and were exposed to scholarship that challenged or denied the foundations of their faith. They consider themselves to be religious Jews but they find that they must find ways to reconfigure classic principles of Jewish faith in light of the challenges of modernity.

Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a leading figure in British Jewry who belonged to the third group and who wrote significant works dealing with their concerns. Born in Manchester, he studied at Manchester Yeshiva and then at the kolel in Gateshead.  A devout Orthodox Jew, he later attended University College in London, earning a PhD. He served as rabbi of congregations in Manchester and London and became Moral Tutor at Jews’ College where he taught Talmud. He was in line to become head of Jews’ College but Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie blocked the appointment. He felt that Jacobs’ religious views had moved him outside of Orthodoxy. The “Jacobs’ Affair” pitted the religious establishment against Jacobs’ followers. When Jacobs was invited to his previous Orthodox pulpit, Chief Rabbi Brodie blocked the appointment. Jacobs’ followers then established their own synagogue and launched the Masorti movement in England.

Miri Freud-Kandel, Lecturer in Modern Judaism in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, has authored a volume exploring the teachings and influence of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Entitled Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology, it is published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2023.

Freud-Kandel provides a generous selection of quotations from Jacobs’ various volumes, allowing the reader to “hear” Jacobs’ own voice. But she also provides her own analysis, and points out strengths and weaknesses in Jacobs’ theological positions.

Jacobs believed that “the ancestral faith becomes meaningless unless it finds its response in the depths of the individual soul.” Moreover, “for a philosophy to be true it must be ‘true for me’….The life of faith demands our total commitment.” For Jacobs, faith was not an inherited system that one simply adopted; rather it was an internal spiritual process requiring considerable effort.

Jacobs did not believe it was possible to “prove” the truth about God, since God ultimately is far beyond human comprehension. But he thought that it was possible to approach a genuine faith by factoring in various arguments from reason, personal intuition, mystical insights. Jacobs wrote: “Few believers have arrived at belief in God by starting from the beginning to work it all out by reasoned argument.”  The individual Jew—thinking, processing, feeling, praying—must build a personal theology that leads to a meaningful faith in God.

Jacobs suggested a “liberal supernaturalism” that recognized the divine nature of Torah but that the Torah was mediated through human voices. He rejected the view, listed by Maimonides as one of the 13 principles of faith, that God literally dictated the Torah word for word as Moses copied it down.  Given the findings of Biblical criticism, Jacobs felt it necessary to posit a less literal way of understanding Torah min Hashamayim (Torah from Heaven). He bolstered his argument by citing various rabbinic texts that entertained the view that not every word of the Torah was written by Moses. His basic approach was to indicate multiple “kosher” ways of understanding Revelation that did not entail a literalist interpretation. He wrote: “To point to the human element in revelation is a far cry from implying that God is not the Creator of the Torah. On the contrary, it is God who makes Himself known through the human process of redaction. How this can be is a tremendous mystery, but then, so is how God can be in control of His universe and yet leave room for human freedom and human creativity.”

Jacobs’ interest was not so much in how the Torah came into being but how it was experienced as a spiritually powerful text that brought people closer to God. Similarly, mitzvoth are “commandments” in the sense that we find our way to the divine by observing them. Although this is circular reasoning, it reflects his desire to harmonize traditional beliefs with modern thought.

Jacobs did not claim that he had achieved the definitive Jewish theology but rather that he was expressing his own thinking. He insisted that contemporary Jews need to know what Judaism says to them now, not merely what our ancient and medieval rabbis taught. As Freud-Kandel summarizes: “Jacobs’ account of how God, Torah and Israel were to be understood in their different ways was intended to encourage Jews to work on their faith, to pursue their own individual quest, and to find meaning in Judaism through individual paths” (p. 211).

Freud-Kandel not only presents and evaluates Jacobs’ work, she also points to some of its shortcomings. She reviews various attempts made by other thinkers who tackled the issues that troubled Jacobs. But no one has written the absolutely final theology…and no one actually can do so. Each of us needs to think through the issues on our own.

Miri Freud-Kandel has written an important book that not only sheds light on the thinking of Louis Jacobs but helps readers gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake when traditional Jewish faith comes into relationship with modern and post-modern challenges. 








Thoughts on the Writings of Primo Levi


   One of the great writers of the 20th century, a Holocaust survivor, was Primo Levi (July 31,1919-April 11,1987). In his book, Other Peoples’ Trades, he reminisces about his childhood home in Turin, Italy. In his nostalgic description, he remembers how his father would enter the house and put his umbrella or cane in a receptacle near the front door. In providing other details of the entrance way to the house, Levi mentions that for many years “there hung from a nail a large key whose purpose everyone had forgotten but which nobody dared throw away” (p. 13).

     Haven’t we all had keys like that? Haven’t we all faced the mystery of an unknown key! What door will it open? What treasures will it unlock? We do not know where the key fits…but we are reluctant to toss it out. We suspect that if we did discard the key, we would later discover its use; we would then need it but no longer have it!

     The key might be viewed as a parable to life. It is a gateway to our past, our childhood homes, our families, our old schools, old friends. Over the years, we have forgotten a lot…but we also remember a lot. We dare not throw away the key that opens up our memories, even if we are not always certain where those memories will lead us.

     Primo Levi’s memories led to a happy childhood in a solidly secular Italian Jewish family. He was a bright child, an avid reader, and by his early teens he developed a keen interest in chemistry. In 1937 he entered the University of Turin. But in 1938, fascist laws went into place that prohibited Jews from being educated in state-sponsored schools. Since he had already been enrolled, he was exempt from the new laws, but still felt the impact of being a pariah Jew in a fascist state. Remembering that strange time, Levi wrote: “My Christian classmates were civil people; none of them, nor any of the teachers, had directed at me a hostile word or gesture, but I could feel them withdraw and, following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well; every look exchanged between me and them was accompanied by a miniscule but perceptible flash of mistrust and suspicion” (The Periodic Table, p. 40).

     He was able to complete his studies and graduated with honors in chemistry in 1941. His diploma noted that he was “of Jewish race” and this, of course, made it very difficult for him to find employment. Levi’s father died in 1942. His mother and sister went into hiding at a home in the nearby hills, in order to avoid persecution.

     In 1943, Levi and family fled to northern Italy, and he joined an Italian resistance group. He and his group were arrested by Fascist forces later that year, and Levi was sent to an Italian prison camp in January 1944. The next month, he was deported to Auschwitz and branded with the number 174517. Because he was a chemist, he was put to work in a rubber factory, and thus was spared from immediate execution by the Nazis. When Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945, Levi journeyed back home to Turin. Of the more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the war, Levi was one of fewer than 700 who survived.

     Back in Turin, he was employed in a paint factory. But his experiences in Auschwitz drove him to tell his story, and he began to write. His first book, If This Is a Man (later published as Survival in Auschwitz), was published in October 1947, but reached only a small audience.

     He married, continued his work as a chemist…and continued to write his memoirs, poetry, short stories and fiction. In 1975, he published The Periodic Table, a collection of autobiographical stories, each one using a chemical element as a starting point. By 1977, he retired from the paint factory and devoted his full time to writing, becoming one of the most famous authors in Italy. When the first American edition of The Periodic Table was published in 1984, it was hailed as a masterpiece by Saul Bellow and many literary critics. Levi went on to publish many other important works, and he gained international prominence for his work.

      He died on April 11, 1987, and his body was found by the concierge of his apartment building at the bottom of the stairwell. The death was ruled a suicide, although others have maintained that Levi had an accidental fall. Was he a belated victim of Auschwitz?

     Primo Levi quoted Jean Amery, an Austrian philosopher who was tortured by the Gestapo because he was active in the Belgian resistance, and was deported to Auschwitz because he was Jewish: “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured….Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished. Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again” (The Drowned and the Saved, p. 15).

     Primo Levi understood personally what it meant to be isolated, tortured, dehumanized. And he wrote at length about the Holocaust. But somehow, he retained within himself a calm and wise humaneness. “I must admit that if I had in front of me one of our persecutors of those days, certain known faces, certain old lies, I would be tempted to hate, and with violence too; but exactly because I am not a Fascist or a Nazi, I refuse to give way to this temptation. I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice” (If This is a Man, p. 457).  He prided himself on his reason. In an interview, he stated: “I hardly ever lose control. Hatred per se, as I’ve written and as I ask again here, what end does it serve? It gets confused with a desire for justice, but they are two different things….I said that paradoxically I am sometimes ashamed not to be able to hate, but in fact I’m quite happy not to” (The Voice of Memory, p. 145).

     Although he overcame feelings of hatred, the experience of the Holocaust left lasting scars. It demonstrated that people can act without reason. Leaders can lie and be applauded for their lies. Tyrants can order senseless massacres of innocent people…and be obeyed. Levi thought that “if you look at recent history, you cannot but feel confusion in the face of slaughter for its own sake, with no private or collective purpose, triggered only by a form of zoological or biological hatred and, what is more, a hatred acclaimed, inculcated and praised as such” (Ibid., p. 180). The Holocaust demonstrates the depths of perversity of which humanity is capable. Tyranny, oppression, hatred…they all lead in one direction. “In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of mankind, and equality among people, you move towards the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt” (If This is a Man, p. 469).

     Primo Levi translated Kafka’s The Trial into Italian, and found the experience painful. “I fell ill doing it. I finished the translation in a deep depression that lasted six months. It’s a pathogenic book. Like an onion, one layer after another. Each of us could be tried and condemned and executed, without ever knowing why. It was as if it predicted the time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew” (The Voice of Memory, p. 10). Levi identified personally with Josef K. “The Trial opens with a surprise and unjustified arrest and my career, too, opened with a surprise and unjustified arrest. Kafka is an author I admire—I do not love him, I admire him, I fear him, like a great machine that crashes in on you, like the prophet who tells you the day you will die” (Ibid., p.156). Kafka intuited that violence comes from bureaucracy…and that modern society was becoming increasingly controlled by impersonal—dangerous—bureaucracies. Kafka “understands the world (his, and even better ours of today) with a clairvoyance that astonishes and wounds like a too intense light” (The Mirror Maker, p. 107).

     Primo Levi, like Kafka, wrote with perception and clairvoyance. But unlike Kafka, he offered a calm wisdom that offered a glimmer of hope for troubled humanity.

                                           *     *     *

          Primo Levi identified as a Jew but claimed not to be religious at all. “I envy believers, all believers. But I cannot do anything about it. Faith is something you either have or you don’t” (The Voice of Memory, p. 273). He did not have faith in God. His faith in humanity was certainly shaky. He was a scientist who placed high value on reason and careful observation. He suggested that people learn from the tragedies of the past and from the evils of Fascism and Nazism. If only people, especially leaders, could be more scientific, more reasonable, more careful in their plans.

      He wished that we would all live like chess players, “meditating before moving, even though knowing that the time allowed for each move is limited; remembering that every move of ours provokes another by the opponent, difficult but not impossible to foresee; and paying for wrong moves” (The Periodic Table, p. 146).

          Alas, not all human beings live like chess players who carefully think about the consequences of their thoughts and actions. But Primo Levi pointed humanity in the right direction. We can still avoid check mate.


The Drowned and the Saved, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1986.

If Not Now, When? Penguin Books, New York, 1985.

If This is a Man, Everyman’s Library, London, 2000.

The Mirror Maker, Schocken Books, New York, 1989.

The Monkey’s Wrench, Penguin Books, New York, 1987.

Other People’s Trades, Summit Books, New York, 1989.

The Periodic Table, Schocken Books, New York, 1984.

The Reawakening, Collier Books, New York, 1987.

Survival in Auschwitz, Summit Books, New York, 1986.

A Tranquil Star, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2007.

The Voice of Memory: Primo Levi, Marco Belpoliti and Robert Gordon, eds., Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001.


Israel and the Nations--a Book Review

Eugene Korn, Israel and the Nations: The Bible, the Rabbis and Jewish-Gentile Relations, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2023.

Reviewed by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


It isn’t easy being a “chosen people.” The history of the people of Israel has been replete with challenges of all kinds.

The Bible informs us of a covenant between God and our ancestors. God informed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would be a blessing to humanity. The prophet Isaiah (42:6) relates God’s wondrous promise to the people of Israel: “I God, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light unto the nations.”

Yes, the heirs of God’s covenant with Israel have brought great blessings to humanity. Our Bible has had massive positive impact on Western civilization. Our people have produced an incredible civilization based on righteousness and spirituality. Jewish individuals have made landmark contributions to humanity in so many fields of endeavor. That such a tiny people could have done so much for so many is one of the wonders of the world.

Yet, we have paid a high price. We have been maligned, persecuted, ghettoized and murdered in many lands over many centuries. We have been victims of inhumane treatment by Christians and Muslims who have claimed to have superseded us in the eyes of God.

We have the ideals of Torah and the prophets fostering respect for all human beings created in the image of God. But we have the reality of suffering at the hands of the very human beings we are supposed to respect.

So what is the role of Israel in its relation to the nations? How has the creation of the State of Israel established a new way of viewing old problems? 

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn addresses these and other issues in his book Israel and the Nations: The Bible, the Rabbis and Jewish-Gentile Relations (Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2023). Dr. Korn has devoted many years to interfaith work and is one of the most thoughtful Orthodox Jewish workers in this field.

Part One of his book deals with God’s covenant with the People of Israel, and how this has been understood—and misunderstood—by various Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers. If Jews are to be a blessing to the nations, how is this to be accomplished?

Some argue for a pro-active stance. Jews should seek to spread knowledge of ethical monotheism by interacting with non-Jews. Others think Jews need not interact with non-Jews directly, but rather serve as models of religious/human excellence. Yet others do not seek interaction with non-Jews at all! Based on kabbalistic notions, they believe that the entire world depends on Jews fulfilling the Torah. So if we simply devote ourselves to Torah, that’s our contribution to humanity.

Dr. Korn examines each of these approaches and clearly favors the pro-active option. As Jews relate directly to non-Jews, we establish warm lines of communication. Jewish ideas and values are shared so that non-Jews can get a clear understanding of what our tradition teaches for the benefit of all humanity.

Part Two of the book deals specifically with Jewish relationships with Christians. While reviewing the historic hostility of Christianity to Jews and Judaism, Dr. Korn believes that the situation has improved vastly since the 1960s.  Pope John XXIII and the Nostra Aetate represented a sea change in Catholic teachings about Jews. Subsequent Papal words and deeds have fostered a respect for Judaism and a declaration that anti-Semitism is a sin against God. Dr. Korn suggests that Catholic revisions of ancient anti-Jewish teachings stemmed from guilt as a result of the Holocaust. How horrifying to confront the fact that so many Christians actively participated in the murder of millions of innocent Jews. 

Dr. Korn discusses the influential essay of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontations,” in which the Rav opposed interfaith dialogue that involves theological issues. The Rav believed it was proper to work with Christians on common issues such as social justice, but the dialogues should not delve into the actual beliefs of each religion. Dr. Korn argues that the Rav’s views in “Confrontations” preceded the Nostra Aetate and was based on age-old fears that Catholics used “dialogue” as a means of converting Jews. But since Nostra Aetate, the Catholic church has specifically recognized that God’s covenant with Jews continues; that conversion of Jews is not a goal of Catholicism; that the State of Israel is recognized as the homeland of the Jewish People.  As the Catholic church reviewed and revised its teachings on Judaism and Jews, much of the Protestant world also became more receptive to respectful dialogue with Jews.

The establishment of the State of Israel has given Jews greater confidence in defending ourselves and our teachings. While Israel faces so much anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic ugliness from many non-Jews, Israel continues to thrive and to be a source of strength to Jews everywhere. But the more non-Jews know about Israel and Judaism, the warmer their attitudes become. 

Dr. Korn has presented a thoughtful volume that challenges us to think and re-think the Jewish views on interfaith relations. As an Orthodox rabbi as well as a PhD in philosophy, he offers deep intellectual knowledge along with insights gained from many years of personal experience with interfaith dialogue. If we are to be a “light unto the nations” it would be well to ponder the ideas Dr. Korn presents in this book.




Israel Should Offer its Own Peace Plan

An Israeli Peace Plan?

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

(This op ed appears in the Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2024)

As Israel is in the midst of a bitter war, it is difficult to be thinking about a peace plan. The government of Israel is adamantly opposed to the American push for a Palestinian State. This is seen as a reward for terrorism and a betrayal of the principle of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.


But the status quo is obviously not satisfactory, not for Israel and not for the Palestinians. Much of the world, even those countries most friendly to Israel, want to see an end to the endless conflicts in the region. The longer the war goes, the greater is the world's pressure to recognize a Palestinian State. 

What if Israel came forth with a realistic peace plan of its own? What if Israel would not only agree to a Palestinian State but would be the first to recognize it? What if Israel, instead of constantly being seen as an obstruction to peace, was actually the foremost promoter of a peace plan?

The precondition of such a plan would be that Israel will only negotiate with Palestinian leadership that fully recognizes Israel’s right to exist; that commits itself to maintaining peaceful relations with Israel; that makes a concerted effort to eliminate anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda, educational material. In short, Israel should very much want a peaceful neighbor free of Hamas and Hamas-like ideologies.

If the United States and its Arab allies could find and encourage such a Palestinian leadership, this would be a great blessing to Israel and the Palestinians. If Israel would produce a peace plan that would put the onus on Palestinians to agree to peace, this would be a dramatic step forward.

We pray that Israel’s current war with Hamas will end with as great a victory as possible for Israel. The victory must be not only military, but also political and diplomatic. The amazing courage and sacrifices of Tsahal are awe-inspiring. Their victory on the battlefield should be followed by victories for Israel in the areas of diplomacy and politics.

Yes, it seems highly unrealistic to find a congenial Palestinian leadership able and willing to negotiate seriously with Israel. It also seems highly unrealistic for the current Israeli government even to consider a peace gesture. But moving forward will require visionary and courageous leadership. It is easy to dismiss peace talk as being in the realm of fantasy.

 David Ben Gurion is reported to have told his advisors: “We don’t need experts to tell us it’s impossible; we need experts to tell us how to achieve the impossible.” Israel has always been able to achieve the impossible in the past: it can strive to do so now.


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Judaism and Modernity

The modern era in the Western world has witnessed numerous assaults on the patterns of traditional religious life. Science has changed the way people think; technology has changed the way they live. Autonomous, human-centered theology has come to replace heteronomous, God-centered theology. Rationalism and positivism have constricted metaphysics. Respect for authority and hierarchies has been replaced by an emphasis on individuality and egalitarianism. The challenges of modernity are symbolized by such names as Darwin, Schleiermacher, Freud, Einstein, Ayn Rand.

The modern era has also seen dramatic changes in the physical patterns of life: vast migrations from the farms to the cities; mass emigration (often as refugees) from one country or continent to another; shrinking family size; increased mobility; expansion of educational opportunities; phenomenal technological change.

Peter Berger has described modem individuals as suffering "spiritual homelessness." People have lost their sense of being part of a comprehensive, cohesive and understandable world.

For the Jewish people, the modern period has been particularly challenging. Jews were given the possibility of entering the mainstream of Western civilization. As the first winds of change swept into Jewish neighborhoods and ghettos, many Jews were enticed to leave traditional Jewish life behind. They hoped to gain acceptance into the general society by abandoning or modifying their religious beliefs and observances. Some went so far as to convert to other religions. The Haskalah--Jewish "enlightenment"--attracted numerous intellectuals who sought to modernize Jewish culture. The result was a secularization and objectification of Judaism.

The traditional religious framework was threatened by the Reform movement. Reform was an attempt of 19th century Western European Jews to "sanitize" Judaism by discarding Jewish laws and traditions. Reform wanted to make Judaism appear more "cultured" and socially respectable.

Whereas in previous eras, the masses of Jews accepted the authority of Torah and halakha, the modern period experienced a transition to the opposite situation--the masses of Western Jews no longer accepted the authority of Torah and halakha. In their desire to succeed in the modern world, many were ready to cast aside the claims of Jewish tradition. When large numbers of European Jews came to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this phenomenon continued and expanded. A sizable majority of American Jews came to be affiliated with non-Orthodox movements or chose to remain unaffiliated with any movement at all.

In the face of tremendous defections from classic halakhic Judaism, the Orthodox community fought valiantly to maintain the time-honored beliefs and observances which they had inherited from their ancestors. But the Orthodox responses to the challenges of the modern situation were not monolithic. Some advocated a rejectionist stand, arguing that modern Western culture was to be eschewed to the extent possible. The "outside world," including non-Orthodox society, presented a danger to the purity of Jewish religious tradition; isolation was the best approach for Jews who wished to remain loyal to Torah and halakha. On the other hand, another Orthodox approach called for the active participation of Jews in general society while at the same time maintaining a strict allegiance to halakha. The task was to keep a balance of Torah with derekh eretz (worldly concerns/culture), Torah with madda (general knowledge).
These attitudes within Orthodoxy, as well as variations within the themes, have characterized Orthodox Jewish life since the mid-nineteenth century.

The strength of Orthodoxy has been its heroic devotion to Torah and halakha, even in the face of criticism and hostility. Orthodoxy alone maintains a total commitment to the Divine nature of the Torah and the binding authority of halakha. Orthodoxy is inextricably bound to all past generations of Torah observant Jews, and is faithfully confident that with the coming of the Messiah all Jews will return to traditional Torah life. Yet, it is the peculiar genius of Modern Orthodoxy to be thoroughly loyal to Torah and halakha while being open to modern thought and participating creatively in society.

Non-Orthodox detractors accuse Orthodoxy of being too bound by tradition, inflexible, unreceptive to modernity.
Non-Orthodox Jews have often found it expedient to stereotype Orthodox Jews as being "pre-modern," narrow-minded, irrational, insular, those who use religion as an escape from the realities of the world. They criticize Jewish law as being dry and tedious. They describe followers of halakha as unthinking slaves of ritual and detail, lacking in deeper spiritual feelings.

These criticisms and stereotypes are refuted in one name: Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik.

The Rav and Modernity

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known to his students and followers as the Rav (the rabbi par excellence), is Orthodoxy's most eloquent response to the challenges of modernity and to the critics of Modern Orthodoxy. A Torah giant of the highest caliber, the Rav was also a world-class philosopher. In his studies in Lithuania, he attained the stature of a rabbinic luminary. At the University of Berlin, he achieved the erudition of a philosophical prodigy.

A Talmudic dictum teaches that the path of Torah is flanked on the right by fire and on the left by ice. If one moves too far to the right, he is consumed by fire. If he moves too close to the left, he freezes to death. Rabbi Soloveitchik was that model personality who walked the path of the Torah, veering neither to the right nor to the left.

The Rav's unique greatness made him the ideal symbol and spokesman of Modern Orthodoxy. In his own person, he demonstrated that the ideal Torah sage is creative, open-minded, compassionate, righteous, visionary, realistic and idealistic. He showed that one could be profoundly committed to the world of Torah and halakha and at the same time be a sophisticated modern thinker. Rabbi Soloveitchik was the paradigmatic 20th century figure for those seeking mediation between classic halakhic Judaism and Western modernity. He was the spiritual and intellectual leader of Yeshiva University, the Rabbinical Council of America and Mizrachi; his influence, directly and through his students, has been ubiquitous within Modern Orthodox Jewish life. He was the singular rabbinic sage of his generation who was deeply steeped in modern intellectual life, who understood modernity on its own terms; he was, therefore, uniquely qualified to guide Orthodoxy in its relationship with modernity.

The Rav was appreciative of many of the achievements of Western civilization. But he could not ignore the shortcomings of modernity. He was pained by the discrepancy between dominant modern values and the values of traditional religion. It is lonely being a person of faith in "modern society which is technically-minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 8). Utilitarianism and materialism, as manifestations of the modern worldview, are inimical to the values of religion.

In pondering the dilemma of a person of faith, the Rav explores a universal dilemma of human beings: inner conflict. He draws on the Torah's descriptions of the creation of Adam to shed light on human nature. Adam I is majestic; he wants to build, to control, to succeed. He is dedicated to attaining dignity. Adam II is covenantal; he is introspective, lonely, in search of community and meaning. He seeks a redeemed existence. Each human being, like Adam, is an amalgam of these conflicting tendencies. In creating humans in this way, God thereby underscored the dual aspect of the human personality. Human fulfillment involves the awareness of both Adams within, and the ability to balance their claims.

The Rav suggests that Western society errs in giving too much weight to Adam I. The stress is on success and control, pragmatic benefits. Even when it comes to religion, people seem to be more concerned with operating quantifiably successful institutions rather than coming into a relationship with God. In the words of the Rav: "Western man diabolically insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God. If he gives of himself to God, he expects reciprocity. He also reaches a covenant with God, but this covenant is a mercantile one. ... The gesture of faith for him is a give-and-take affair" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 64). This attitude is antithetical to authentic religion. True religious experience necessitates surrender to God, feelings of being defeated--qualities identified with Adam II.

By extension, the Rav is critical of modernizers and liberalizers of Judaism who have tried to "market" Judaism by changing its content. Any philosophy of Judaism not firmly rooted in halakha is simply not true to Judaism. The non-halakhic movements did not grow out of classic Judaism; rather, they emerged as compromising responses to modernity. Had it not been for the external influences on Western Jews, non-halakhic movements would not have arisen as they did. The litmus test of an authentic philosophy of Judaism is: is it true to Torah and halakha, does it spring naturally and directly from them, is it faithful to their teachings? If Torah and halakha are made subservient to external pressures of modernity, this results in a corruption of Judaism.

Modernity, then, poses serious problems for traditional religion. However, counter-currents within modernity offer opportunities. Already in the early 1940's, Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that the time had come for a new approach to the philosophy of religion. The "uncertainty principle" of quantum physics was an anodyne to the certainty of Newtonian physics. Thinkers in psychology, art and religion were proclaiming that human beings are not machines, but are complex organisms with religious, emotional and aesthetic sensibilities. Rationalism could not sustain and nourish the human soul. The Holocaust exploded the idealized myths of Western humanism and culture. Western civilization was moving into a post-modern phase which should be far more sympathetic to the spiritual character of human beings, more receptive to the eternal teachings of religion.

The Rav felt that a philosophy of Judaism rooted in Torah and halakha needed to be expressed in modern terms. Orthodox Jews needed to penetrate the eternal wisdom of the halakhic tradition, deepening their ability to cope with the challenges and opportunities of modernity and post-modernity. And non-Orthodox Jews needed to study classic Judaism on its own terms, freed from the negative propaganda of anti-Orthodox critics. After all, Torah and halakha are the patrimony of all Jews.

In his various lectures and writings, the Rav has provided a meaningful and powerful exposition of halakhic Judaism. He is a modern thinker, rooted in tradition, who has laid the foundation for post-modern Jewish thought.

Conflict and Creativity

The Rav has stated that "man is a great and creative being because he is torn by conflict and is always in a state of ontological tenseness and perplexity." The creative gesture is associated with agony ("Majesty and Humility," p. 25). As the Rav pointed out in "The Lonely Man of Faith," God created human beings with a built-in set of conflicts and tensions; this inner turmoil is a basic feature of the human predicament.

Religion is not an escape from conflict: it is a way of confronting and balancing the tensions that go with being a thinking human being. One must learn to be a creative free agent and, at the same time, an obedient servant of God.
Detractors of religion often portray religionists as seeking peace of mind by losing themselves in the spiritual realm.

Critics say: "it is easy to be religious; you do not have to think; you only have to accept the tenets of faith and you can avoid the responsibility of making decisions and facing conflict." To such critics, the Rav would say simply: you do not understand the true nature of religion. Religion is not a place for cowards to hide; it is a place for courageous people to face a totally honest revelation of their own inner being. Halakhic Judaism does not shield the Jew from ontological conflict: it compels him to face it directly, heroically.

It is precisely this inner tension and struggle which generates a lofty and creative understanding of life. Rabbi Soloveitchik's writings and lectures are vivid examples of religious struggle and creativity at their best. His use of typologies, his first-person reminiscences, his powerfully emotive use of language--all contribute to express his singular message: a religious person must live a creative, heroic life.

In his Ish ha-Halakha (Halakhic Man), the Rav notes that the halakhic Jew approaches reality with the Torah, given at Sinai, in hand. "Halakhic man, well furnished with rules, judgments, and fundamental principles, draws near the world with an a priori relation. His approach begins with an ideal creation and concludes with a real one" (Halakhic Man, p. 19). Intellectual effort is the hallmark of the ideal religious personality, and is a sine qua non of understanding the halakhic enterprise.

The Rav compares the domain of theoretical halakha with mathematics. The mathematical theoretician develops a system in the abstract; this theoretical construct is then applied to the practical world. The theoretical system helps define and shape practical reality. So it is with halakha. The classic halakhists immerse themselves in the world of theoretical halakha and apply halakhic constructs to the mundane world. The Rav observes that "both the halakhist and the mathematician live in an ideal realm and enjoy the radiance of their own creations" (Halakhic Man, p. 25).
The ideal halakhic personality lives in constant intimacy with halakha. Halakha is as natural and central to him as breathing. His concern for theoretical halakha is an expression of profound love and commitment to the entire halakhic worldview. This love and commitment are manifested in a scrupulous concern for the observance of the rules of practical halakha.

The sage who attains the highest level of relationship with halakha is one "to whom the Torah is married." This level is achieved not merely by intellectual acumen, but by imagination and creativity. "The purely logical mode of halakhic reasoning draws its sustenance from the pre-rational perception and vision which erupt stormily from the depths of this personality, a personality which is enveloped with the aura of holiness. This mysterious intuition is the source of halakhic creativity and innovative insight . . . . Creative halakhic activity begins not with intellectual calculation, but with vision; not with clear formulations, but with unease; not in the clear light of rational discourse, but in the pre-rational darkness" (Besod ha-Yahid ve-haYahad, p. 219). The halakhic personality, then, is characterized by conflict, creativity, imagination, vision. The world of halakha is vast and all-encompassing. One who reaches the level of being "married" to the Torah and halakha has come as close to eternal truth as is possible for a human being.

Halakhic Activism

Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasized the Torah's focus on this-worldy concerns. "The ideal of halakhic man is the redemption of the world not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of halakha. ... A lowly world is elevated through the halakha to the level of a divine world" (Halakhic Man, pp. 37–38).

Whereas the universal homo religiosus believes that the lower spiritual domain of this world must yearn for the higher spiritual realms, halakhic man declares that "the higher longs and pines for the lower." God created human beings to live in this world; in so doing, He endowed human life in this world with dignity and meaning.

Halakha can be actualized only in the real world. "Halakhic man's most fervent desire is the perfection of the world under the dominion of righteousness and loving-kindness--the realization of the a priori, ideal creation, whose name is Torah (or halakha), in the realm of concrete life" (Halakhic Man, p. 94). The halakhic life, thus, is necessarily committed to this-worldly activism; the halakhic personality is devoted to the creation of a righteous society.
The halakha is not confined to sanctuaries, but "penetrates into every nook and cranny of life." Halakha is in the home, the marketplace, the banquet hall, the street, the office--everywhere. As important as the synagogue is, it does not occupy the central place in halakhic Judaism. Halakha is too vast and comprehensive to be confined to a synagogue.

Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that non-halakhic Judaism erred grievously in putting the temple at the heart of religion. "The halakha, the Judaism that is faithful to itself ... which brings the Divine Presence into the midst of empirical reality, does not center about the synagogue or study house. These are minor sanctuaries. The true sanctuary is the sphere of our daily, mundane activities, for it is there that the realization of the halakha takes place" (Halakhic Man, pp. 94-5).

Consequently, halakhic Judaism is realistic, idealistic and demanding. Halakha is concerned with every moment, with every place. Its sanctity fills the universe.

Halakha is unequivocally committed to righteous, ethical life. The Rav points out that the great sages of halakha have always been known for their lofty ethical standards. The halakha demands high respect for the dignity of others. "To recognize a person is not just to identify him physically. It is more than that: it is an act of identifying him existentially, as a person who has a job to do, that only he can do properly. To recognize a person means to affirm that he is irreplaceable. To hurt a person means to tell him that he is expendable, that there is no need for him. The halakha equated the act of publicly embarrassing a person with murder" ("The Community," p. 16).

The ethical demands of halakha are exacting. One's personal life must be guided by halakhic teachings in every situation, in every relationship. The halakhic worldview opposes mystical quietism which is tolerant of pain and suffering. On the contrary, halakhic Judaism "wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness" ("Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah," p. 65; see also, U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham, p. 16). The Rav's stress on ethical activism manifested itself in his views on religious Zionism. He accepted upon himself the mantle of leadership for religious Zionism; this placed him at odds with many Orthodox leaders who did not ascribe religious legitimacy to the State of Israel. Rabbi Soloveitchik eloquently insists that the halakha prohibits the missing of opportunities. After the Holocaust, the Jewish people were given the miraculous opportunity to re-establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel. For centuries, Jews had prayed for the return of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. Now, in this generation, the opportunity was being offered. For the Rav, it would be tragic and unforgivable to miss the gift of the moment. Not to respond to "the knocking of the beloved," not to respond to God's message to the suffering people of Israel--this would be a tragic error of terrible magnitude. This was not a time for hesitation: this was a time to embrace the opportunity of a Jewish State, an opportunity granted to us by the Almighty. The Rav conveyed a certain impatience with those who did not respond religiously to the new Jewish State. Like the Shulamith maiden in the Song of Songs, they were drowsy and hesitant at the very moment the beloved had returned. They were not fully awake to the significance of the moment, and the halakhic and ethical imperatives which flowed from it.


All true religious action must be accompanied by appropriate inner feelings and thoughts. The exterior features of religious behavior must be expressions of one's interior spiritual sensibilities.

Yet in non-Orthodox circles, it has long been fashionable to deride halakhic Jews as automatons who slavishly adhere to a myriad of ancient rules and regulations. They depict Orthodox Jews as unspiritual beings who only care about the letter of the law, who nitpick over trifling details, whose souls are lost in a labyrinth of medieval codes of law. To such critics, Rabbi Soloveitchik would answer quite simply: you do not understand the halakha; you do not understand the nature of halakhic Judaism. Interiority is a basic feature of the halakhic way of life.

Halakha relates not merely to an external pattern of behavior. Rather, it infuses and shapes one's inner life. "The halakha wishes to objectify religiosity not only through introducing the external act and the psychophysical deed into the world of religion, but also through the structuring and ordering of the inner correlative in the realm of man's spirit" (Halakhic Man, p. 59).

For the halakhic Jew, halakha is not a compilation of random laws; it is the expression of God's will. Through halakha, God provides a means of drawing nearer to Him, even of developing a sense of intimacy with Him. To the outsider, a person fulfilling a halakhic prescription may seem like an unthinking robot; but this skewed view totally ignores the inner life of the halakhic Jew. It does not see or sense the inner world of thought, emotion, spiritual elevation.

The halakhic Jew must expect to be misunderstood. How can others who do not live in the world of halakha possibly understand the profundity of halakhic life? How can those who judge others by surface behavior be expected to penetrate into the mysterious depths of a halakhic Jew's inner life? Those who stereotype Orthodoxy are thereby revealing their own ignorance of the true halakhic personality.
"Halakhic man does not quiver before any man; he does not seek out compliments, nor does he require public approval. ... He knows that the truth is a lamp unto his feet and the halakha a light unto his path" (Halakhic Man, p. 89). The halakhic personality strives to maintain and develop inner strength. One must have the courage and self-confidence to be able to stand alone. Self-validation comes from within one's self, not from others. "Heroism is the central category in practical Judaism." The halakhic Jew needs the inner confidence "which makes it possible for him to be different" ("The Community," p. 13).

Knesset Israel

Halakhic Jews feel inextricably bound to all Jews, even those who are unsympathetic to them and their beliefs. "Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own .... However strange such a concept may appear to the empirical sociologist, it is not at all a strange experience for the halakhist and the mystic, to whom Knesset Israel is a living, loving and suffering mother" ("The Community," p. 9). In one of his teshuvah lectures, Rabbi Soloveitchik stated that "the Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is the Jew who lives as part of it wherever it is and is willing to give his life for it, feels its pain, rejoices with it, fights in its wars, groans at its defeats and celebrates its victories" (Al ha-Teshuvah, p. 98). By binding oneself to the Torah, which embodies the spirit and destiny of Israel, the believer in Knesset Israel thereby is bound to all the generations of the community of Israel, past, present and future.

The Rav speaks of two types of covenant which bind Jews to Knesset Israel. The berit goral, the covenant of fate, is that which makes a Jew identify with Jewishness due to external pressure. Such a Jew is made conscious of Jewish identity when under attack by anti-Semites; when Israel is threatened by its enemies; when Jews around the world are endangered because of their Jewishness. The berit goral is connected to Jewish ethnicity and nationalism; it reminds the Jew that, like it or not, he is a Jew by fate.

The berit yeud, the covenant of mission and destiny, links the Jew to the positive content of Jewishness. He is Jewish because he chooses the Jewish way of life, the Torah and halakha; he seeks a living relationship with the God of Israel. The berit yeud is connected with Jewish ideals, values, beliefs, observances; it inspires the Jew to choose to live as a Jew. The berit goral is clearly on a much lower spiritual level than the berit yeud; the ideal Jew should see Jewish identity primarily in the positive terms of the berit yeud. However, the Rav does not negate the significance of the berit goral. Even if a Jew relates to Jewishness only on the ethnic level, this at least manifests some connection to the Jewish people. Such individuals should not be discounted from Knesset Israel, nor should they be disdained as hopelessly lost as Jews. Halakhic Jews, although they cling to the berit yeud, must recognize their necessary relationship with those Jews whose connection to Jewishness is on the level of berit goral.

Ultimately, though, Jewish tradition is passed from generation to generation by those Jews who are committed to Torah and halakha. Thus, it is critical that all Jews be brought into the category of those for whom Jewishness is a positive, living commitment. Jewishness based on ethnicity will not ensure Jewish continuity. The Rav credited the masorah community with transmitting Judaism from generation to generation. The masorah community is composed of those Jews for whom transmission of Torah and halakha is the central purpose of life. It was founded by Moses and will continue into the times of the Messiah. Members of the masorah community draw on the traditions of former generations, teach the present generation, plan for future generations. "The masorah community cuts across the centuries, indeed millenia, of calendaric time and unites those who already played their part, delivered their message, acquired fame, and withdrew from the covenantal stage quietly and humbly, with those who have not yet been given the opportunity to appear on the covenantal stage and who wait for their turn in the anonymity of the 'about to be'" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 47).

The masorah community actually embodies two dimensions--the masorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. The Rav clarifies this point by a personal reminiscence. "The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are part of mussar avikha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imekha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor. The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four hour presence" (“Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne," p. 77).

The Rav teaches that Knesset Israel is a prayerful community and a charitable community. "It is not enough to feel the pain of many, nor is it sufficient to pray for the many, if this does not lead to charitable action" ("The Community," p. 22). A responsible member of Knesset Israel must be spiritually awake, must be concerned for others, must work to help those in need. "The prayerful-charity community rises to a higher sense of communion in the teaching community, where teacher and disciple are fully united" ("The Community," p. 23). The community must engage in teaching, in transmitting, in passing the teachings of Torah to new generations.

The Rav, Our Teacher

The Rav, through his lectures and writings, was the most powerful and effective teacher of Orthodoxy of our times. In his lectures, he was able to spellbind huge audiences for hours on end. His Talmudic and halakhic lessons pushed his students to the limits of their intellects, challenging them to think analytically. His insights in Torah were breathtaking in their depth and scope. Those who were privileged to study with him cherish their memories of the Rav. And those who have read his writings have been grateful for the privilege of learning Torah from one of the Torah giants of our time.

The Rav described his own experience when he studied Talmud. "When I sit to 'learn' I find myself immediately in the fellowship of the sages of tradition. The relationship is personal. Maimonides is at my right. Rabbenu Tam at the left. Rashi sits at the head and explicates the text. Rabbenu Tam objects, the Rambam decides, the Ra'abad attacks. They are all in my small room, sitting around my table."
Learning Torah is a trans-generational experience. It links the student with the sages of all previous generations. It creates a fellowship, a special tie of friendship and common cause. It binds together the community in a profound bond of love, and provides the foundation for future generations. Halakhic Judaism represents a millennial Jewish tradition dedicated to Torah and halakha, truth and righteousness, love and fear of God. It demands--and yearns to bring out--the best in us. One who strives to be a member of the trans-generational community does not suffer from spiritual homelessness.

When we and future generations sit down to study Torah, we will be privileged to share our room with Rashi and Maimonides, with Rabbenu Tam and the Rashba. And sitting right next to us will be Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his penetrating insights leading us to greater heights in our quest to become "married" to the Torah.

Al ha-Teshuvah, written and edited by Pinchas Peli, Jerusalem, 5735.
Besod ha-Yahid ve-ha-Yahad, edited by Pinchas Peli, Jerusalem, 5736.
"The Community," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 7–24.
"Confrontation," Tradition 6:2 (1964), pp. 5–29.
Halakhic Man, translated by Lawrence Kaplan, Philadelphia, 1983.
"The Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition 7:2 (1965), pp. 5–67.
"Majesty and Humility," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 25–37.
"Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 55–72.
"A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 73–83.
"U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham," Hadarom, Tishri 5739, pp. 1–83.