Min haMuvhar

The Jews of Rhodes and Cos: In Memoriam

(Rabbi Marc D. Angel is Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. A descendant of Jews of Rhodes, his doctoral dissertation (and first book) was a history of the Jews of Rhodes.)

One of the great writers of the 20th century, himself a Holocaust survivor, was Primo Levi. 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, Primo 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.

The mysterious key not only may open up or lock away personal memories; it also functions on a national level. As Jews, the key can unlock thousands of years of history. Today, with trembling, we take the key that opens memories of the Jews deported by the Nazis in late July 1944, the brutal torture and murder of the Jews of Rhodes and Cos.
Some doors lock away tragedies so terrible that we do not want to find the key to open them. But if we do not open them, we betray the victims and we betray ourselves.

I remember my first visit to Rhodes in the summer of 1974, as I was completing my doctoral dissertation on the history of the Jews of Rhodes. I had intended to stay for several weeks; but I left much sooner. I felt very uncomfortable as I walked through the once Jewish neighborhood, now almost totally devoid of Jews. I instinctively resented the many well-tanned European tourists strutting through the streets without a care in the world. I felt that I was witnessing a circus built atop a graveyard.

The Jews are—unfortunately—well experienced in coping with tragedy. How have we managed to flourish for all these many centuries? How have we maintained an indomitable optimism in spite of all that we have endured?

Some years ago, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz (known as the Bostoner Rebbe) wrote an article in which he described two concepts in the Jewish reaction to the destruction of our Temples in Jerusalem in antiquity. During those horrific times when the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second Temple was razed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish people may have thought that Jewish history had come to an end. Not only was their central religious shrine destroyed; many hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, or sold into slavery, or exiled from their land.

The rabbinic sages of those times developed ways to remember the tragedies—but not to be overwhelmed and defeated by them. One concept was zekher lehurban, remembering the destruction. Customs arose to commemorate the sadness and sense of loss that pervaded our people’s consciousness. One custom was not to paint one’s home in full but to leave a part of the ceiling unpainted…zekher lehurban. Fast days were established to commemorate the destructions; dirges were composed to be chanted on those sad days. On Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor as mourners…zekher lehurban. Even at a wedding—a happy occasion—the bridegroom steps on a glass to remind us that all is not well in the world; the shattering experiences of antiquity and the destructions of our Temples continue to be remembered.

But our sages developed another concept as well: zekher lemikdash, remembering the Temple. Practices were created whereby we literally re-create the rites and customs that took place in the Temple. At the Passover Seder, we eat the “Hillel’s sandwich”—zekher lemikdash, to re-enact what our ancestors did in the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times. During Succoth, we take the lulav and etrog for seven days and we make hakafot in the synagogue—zekher lemikdash, to re-enact the practices of the ancient Temples. We treat our dinner tables as altars, akin to the altars in the Temples: we wash our hands ritually before eating; we put salt on our bread before tasting it—zekher lemikdash. Our synagogues feature the Ner Tamid, eternal light; they often have a menorah—because these things were present in the ancient Temples.

Whereas zekher lehurban evokes sadness and tears, zekher lemikdash evokes optimism. We carry the Temple ritual forward…even in the absence of the Temples. We continue to live, to thrive, to move forward.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz wisely observed: “Our people has come to deal with its need to mourn in an unusual, almost paradoxical way. We not only cry in remembrance of the Temple, we dance too.”

Among our Sephardic customs is the meldado, a study session held on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. I well remember the meldados observed in my childhood home and in the homes of relatives. Family and friends would gather in the hosts’ homes. Prayer services were held. Mishnayot were read. The rabbi would share words of Torah. The event evoked a spirit of family and communal solidarity, solemnity, reminiscing. But meldados were not sad occasions! After the prayers and study, there was an abundance of food prepared by the hostess. People ate, and chatted, and laughed. People would remember stories about the deceased person whose meldado was being observed, drawing on the good and happy memories. The memorialized person would have wanted family and friends to celebrate, to remember him or her with happiness and laughter.

Today, we are in a sense observing the meldado of our fellow Jews in Rhodes and Cos who were humiliated, tortured and murdered…solely because they were Jews. When the key to the past opens to the Holocaust, we cannot help but shudder. We are shocked by the mass inhumanity of the perpetrators. We are distressed by the suffering of so many innocents.

But our key must open doors beyond grief and despair. Those Jews who died in the Holocaust would not want us to mourn forever. They would want us to respect their memories by carrying on with life, by ensuring that Jewish life flourishes, by maintaining classic Jewish optimism and hope.

We come together as a community, very much as the victims of the Holocaust would have appreciated. We sense strong bonds of solidarity as we pray in this synagogue—Congregation Ezra Bessaroth—that was established over a century ago by Jews who had come to Seattle from Rhodes. We sing the same prayers, chant the same melodies that the Holocaust victims prayed and sang. We announce to them, and to the world: we are alive, we are carrying forth our sacred traditions, we have not forgotten and will never forget. Our key is firmly in hand.

Years ago, my wife and I took our children to Rhodes. On the Friday night that we were there, our son Hayyim and I led services in the Kahal Shalom, in the same style as services here at Ezra Bessaroth. The synagogue in Rhodes was empty except for a minyan of tourists. Yet, I felt that our voices went very high, that the ghosts of all the earlier generations of Rhodeslies somehow heard our prayers and rejoiced that the tradition has continued through the next generations.

I had that same feeling here in synagogue this morning. We are not only praying for ourselves; we are in some mysterious way praying with our ancestors, with all the earlier generations of our people. Our generation is linked with theirs; our lives are tied to theirs. And our generation is linked to the younger generations and the generations yet to come. The eternal chain of the Jewish people is indestructible.

The keys of life open up many doors of sadness and consolation, many doors of commitment, joy and rebuilding. Each of us, knowingly or unknowingly, carries a key to the Jewish future of our families and our communities. As we remember the Jewish martyrs of Rhodes and Cos, we also must remember the sacred privilege that is ours: to carry forth with a vibrant, happy and strong Jewish life.

Am Yisrael Hai. Od Avinu Hai. The people of Israel lives; our Eternal Father lives.

Emunat Hakhamim: Surrender or Challenge?

     In 1990, I met with the Chief Rabbi of a major city in Israel, a man who was known for his great erudition and who authored a number of volumes of halakhic responsa. He told me that a military leader of Israel had asked him to encourage yeshiva students to serve in the army. He had responded to the general:  instead of getting yeshiva students to serve in the army, all the soldiers should put down their weapons and start studying Torah.  He quoted a Midrash that God will protect the Jewish people if they all study Torah. I asked the rabbi if he would risk the security of Israel based on that Midrash. He told me without hesitation: “yes, of course! We don’t need an army, we need everyone to study Torah. We have the words of hazal, and our Sages spoke truth.”

     When I expressed my astonishment that he actually thought Israel did not need military defense, he expressed his astonishment that I doubted the truthfulness of the words of the Midrash. The two of us were operating on different sets of assumptions.

     The Chief Rabbi was living in a pre-modern spiritual/intellectual bubble. He relied faithfully on the words of our ancient Sages; they knew the real truth. Their words were uttered in pure holiness. The teachings of our Sages are absolutely reliable, far more trustworthy than anything that could be said or taught by military, political, or governmental experts—especially those who were not religiously observant.

     The Chief Rabbi thought it was a lack of faith on my part to give more credibility to the experts than to statements made by our Sages. For my part, I was horrified that an intelligent and pious Chief Rabbi would genuinely think that Israel did not need military defenses if everyone simply studied Torah and kept the mitzvoth. We sat in the same room, we believed in and observed the same Torah…but we were in different spiritual/intellectual worlds.

     This rabbi and others of similar mindset are advocates of their version of emunat hakhamim, requiring us to have absolute faith in our Sages and their teachings. For them, all genuine truth exists within the ken of our Sages. All “outside” information is not credible…unless the Sages themselves gave it credibility.

     This kind of thinking has gained traction within Orthodox Judaism in recent decades. It has led to an Orthodoxy that fosters authoritarianism and obscurantism. It has relegated immense power to gedolim who are supposed to have a monopoly on truth. It has fostered negative attitudes toward secular sources of knowledge, since the Sages have the keys to all real knowledge themselves. It discredits those fine Orthodox Jews who do not share their worldview, and ostracizes Orthodox rabbis who do not fall into line with their faith in the almost infallible wisdom of the gedolim.

     A venerable exponent of the emunat hakhamim view was Rabbi Avraham Karelitz,(1878-1953) popularly known as the Hazon Ish. He taught that “everything written in the Talmud, whether in the Mishnah or in the Gemara, whether in halakha or in aggadah, were things revealed to us through prophetic powers…and whoever deviates from this tenet is as one who denies the words of our Rabbis, and his ritual slaughtering is invalid and he is disqualified from giving testimony. (Kovetz Iggerot 1:59. This is cited by David Weiss Halivni, in The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought and History, ed. Michael Fishbane (Albany: State University of NY Press, 1993, p. 40, n. 13)

     Not only are we instructed to believe in the prophetic powers of ancient Talmudic sages (even though they never claimed these powers for themselves), we are asked to suppress our own minds to the opinions of the sages. Even if we think their statements are unreasonable, we should assume they are right and we are wrong. Thus taught Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, an influential Hareidi leader of the 20th century:   “Our rabbis have told us to listen to the words of the Sages, even if they tell us that right is left and not to say, heaven forbid, that they certainly erred because little I can see their error with my own eyes. Rather, my seeing is null and void compared with the clarity of intellect and the divine aid they receive….This is the Torah view [daas Torah] concerning faith in the Sages. The absence of self-negation toward our rabbis is the root of all sin and the beginning of all destruction, while all merits are as naught compared with the root of all—faith in the Sages.” (Mikhtav me-Eliyahu 1:75-77, cited by Lawrence Kaplan “Daas Torah; A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority,” Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, ed. M. Sokol Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, 1992, pp. 16-17).

     Proponents of emunat hakhamim ascribe divine powers to the sages of all generations, including our own. They not only know Torah better than anyone else; their Torah knowledge gives them the right and authority to guide the Jewish people in all areas of life. In the words of Rabbi Bernard Weinberger:  “Gedolei Yisrael possess a special endowment or capacity to penetrate objective reality, recognize the facts as they really are and apply the pertinent halakhic principles. This endowment is a form of ru’ah haKodesh [Divine inspiration], as it were, bordering, if only, remotely, on the periphery of prophecy. ….Gedolei Yisrael inherently ought to be the final and sole arbiters of all aspects of Jewish communal policy and questions of hashkafa.” Cited by Lawrence Kaplan, p. 17).

     Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich has pointed out that emunat hakhamim actually has a very different meaning and intent (“Emunat Hakhamim, Mah Hi?”, in Darka shel Torah, Maaliyot Press, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 206-214). We are expected to respect the wisdom of our sages, but not to assume their infallibility or their quasi-prophetic status. Rather than blindly following their words, we are expected to examine their comments carefully; to try to understand their intent; to accept or reject them only after careful consideration. “True emunat hakhamim requires deep analysis to seek the reasons for the words of the sages; this entails an obligation on the part of the student or questioner to a very careful and critical examination, to determine if there is place to dissent. Certainly their words have reason, but one is still obligated to clarify whether to follow [their words] in actual practice” (p. 213).   

     It is up to each individual to make informed decisions; it is wise to consult the advice and teachings of sages. But one is not allowed to suspend personal judgment. “There is a difference between one who seeks advice and then ultimately acts based on personal responsibility, and one who relies on a “great tree” without independent thought. There are those who ascribe this childish behavior under the name emunat hakhamim, whereas this is a perversion of this important virtue. Instead of acquiring true Torah, people who cling to this mistaken notion of emunat hakhamim thereby distance themselves from the light of Torah, and in the end don’t know their right from their left” (p. 214).

     For Rabbi Rabinovich, emunat hakhamim does not foster an attitude of blind obedience. On the contrary, it demands careful attention to the words of our sages…followed by a personal evaluation of whether those statements ought or ought not to be accepted. His views are very much in line with a long rabbinic tradition that calls for respect for the words of our sages, but not a belief in the infallibility or divine inspiration of their words.

     The Talmud and Midrashim are replete with statements by great sages on various topics…medical cures, demons, seemingly far-fetched interpretations of biblical verses. It is not a religious virtue to ascribe “truth” to all their statements, although it is important to try to understand the context of their words.

     Rabbi Hai Gaon taught that the aggada should not be considered as divinely revealed tradition. The authors of aggada were merely stating their own opinions, and "each one interpreted whatever came to his heart." Therefore, "we do not rely on them (the words of aggada)." Rabbi Hai Gaon maintained that aggadot recorded in the Talmud have more status than those not so recorded—but even these aggadot need not be relied upon (See Otsar Ha-Geonim, ed. B. M. Lewin. Jerusalem, 5692, vol. 4 (Hagigah), pp. 59–60).

Rabbi Sherira Gaon taught that aggada, Midrash, and homiletical interpretations of biblical verses were in the category of umdena, personal opinion, speculation (Ibid., p. 60). Another of the Gaonim, Rabbi Shemuel ben Hofni, stated: "If the words of the ancients contradict reason, we are not obligated to accept them" (Ibid., pp. 4-5).


     Rabbi Abraham, son of Maimonides, in an important essay concerning aggada, maintained that one may not accept an opinion without first examining it carefully. (See his Ma-amar Odot Derashot Hazal, printed in the introductory section of the EinYaacov.) To accept the truth of a statement simply on the authority of the person who stated it is both against reason and against the method of Torah itself. The Torah forbids us to accept someone's statement based on his status, whether rich or poor, whether prominent or otherwise. Each case must be evaluated by our own reason. Rabbi Abraham stated that this method also applies to the statements of our sages. It is intellectually unsound to accept blindly the teachings of our rabbis in matters of medicine, natural science, astronomy. He noted: "We, and every intelligent and wise person, are obligated to evaluate each idea and each statement, to find the way in which to understand it; to prove the truth and establish that which is worthy of being established, and to annul that which is worthy of being annulled; and to refrain from deciding a law which was not established by one of the two opposing opinions, no matter who the author of the opinion was. We see that our sages themselves said: if it is a halakha (universally accepted legal tradition) we will accept it; but if it is a ruling (based on individual opinion), there is room for discussion."


     This is not to say that the words of our sages should not be taken seriously. On the contrary, statements of great scholars must be carefully weighed and respected. But they may also be disputed, especially in non-halakhic areas. In his introduction to Perek Helek, Maimonides delineates three groups, each having a different approach to the words of our sages. The majority group, according to Rambam, accepts the words of our sages literally, without imagining any deeper meanings. By taking everything literally—even when the words of the sages violate our sense of reason—they actually disparage our rabbis. Intelligent people who are told that they must accept all the midrashim as being literally true will come to reject rabbinic teaching altogether, since no reasonable person could accept all these teachings in their literal sense. "This group of impoverished understanding—one must pity their foolishness. According to their understanding, they are honoring and elevating our sages; in fact they are lowering them to the end of lowliness. They do not even understand this. By Heaven! This group is dissipating the glory of the Torah and clouding its lights, placing the Torah of God opposite of its intention."


     Maimonides described the second group as also taking the words of the sages literally. But since so many of the statements of the rabbis are not reasonable if taken literally, this group assumes that the rabbis must not have been so great in the first place. This group dismisses rabbinic teachings as being irrelevant, even silly. Rambam rejected this point of view outright.


     The third group, which is so small that it hardly deserves to be called a group, recognizes the greatness of our sages and seeks the deeper meanings of their teachings. This group realizes that the sages hid profound wisdom in their statements, and often spoke symbolically or in riddles. When one discovers a rabbinic statement that seems irrational, one should seek its deeper meaning. While Rambam argued forcefully for a profound understanding of aggada and Midrash, he did not argue that all rabbinic statements are of divine origin. When one finds rabbinic statements to be unreasonable or incorrect—even after much thought and investigation—he is not bound to uphold them.


     Following Maimonides’ line of thinking, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that "aggadic sayings do not have Sinaitic origin . . . they reflect the independent view of an individual sage" (See Joseph Munk, "Two Letters of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a Translation," L'Eylah, April, 1989, pp. 30–35). Rabbi Hirsch went on: "Nor must someone whose opinion differs from that of our sages in a matter of aggada be deemed a heretic, especially as the sages themselves frequently differ. . . ." He rejected the opinion that the authority of aggada is equal to the orally transmitted halakha. Indeed, he thought this was "a dangerous view to present to our pupils and could even lead to heresy."


     The Hareidi-promoted understanding of emunat hakhamim is not only rejected by significant rabbinic authorities, but is deeply offensive to those who insist on the right to think for themselves and make their own decisions. To ascribe quasi-prophetic powers to a small clique of Talmudic scholars is intellectually unsound. It undermines a thinking faith and condemns the public to sheepishly follow the opinions of an unelected group of “gedolim.


     Aside from the untenable intellectual position, the Hareidi approach has serious practical flaws. Many questions arise. Who qualifies to be listed among the gedolim who are deemed to have divine insight? Why do different groups of Hareidim rely on different authorities? Why are gedolim often at odds with each other, sometimes bitterly opposed to each other? Why is it assumed that a Hassidic Rebbe or a Rosh Yeshiva has perfect judgment on all topics by virtue of being considered a gadol among his followers?


     Many gedolim in 20th century Europe did not foresee the Nazi onslaught and did not warn their communities to flee or fight back. Many gedolim did not lend a hand in the establishment of the State of Israel; many continue to deny or downplay the religious significance of the return of Jews to their ancient homeland. Some gedolim encourage followers to rely on (and pay for!) their blessings, red strings and amulets. Many gedolim may have expertise in Talmud, but have little or no general knowledge in science, medicine, politics, economics, literature, history etc. Why should people be expected to trust narrowly educated men to pass judgment in areas where they have no particular expertise?


     In my article, “Reclaiming Orthodox Judaism,” (Conversations, no. 12, Winter 2012, pp.1-23), I pointed to the vital need for revitalization of a modern, intellectually vibrant Orthodox Judaism that repudiates the Hareidi notion of emunat hakhamim. How can we promote a Judaism that is faithful to tradition, and that also respects the autonomy and critical thinking of its adherents?


     In my article, I wrote: “To reclaim Orthodox Judaism, we first need to transform the intellectual climate within Orthodoxy—to foster an intellectually vibrant, compassionate, and inclusive Orthodoxy that sees Judaism as a world religion with world responsibilities. We need to halt the slide to the right, and to battle fundamentalism, authoritarianism, and obscurantism in our homes, our schools, in our communal life.”


     While it is a virtue to respect the wisdom and insights of our sages, it is not a virtue to forfeit our own individual judgment. Orthodox Judaism, at its best, challenges us to think, to take responsibility, and to act wisely. Let us rise to the challenge.

Drunkenness, Politics, Pessah and the Omer: Rabbi Marc Angel Responds to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it appropriate for just anyone to get drunk on Purim?

The Talmud (Megillah 7b) quotes Rava’s opinion that one must become drunk on Purim so as to be unable to tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.” But the same passage goes on to report that Rabba and Rav Zeira became so drunk on Purim that Rabba slaughtered Rav Zeira with a knife. The latter was revived only by a miracle. When Rabba invited Rav Zeira to a Purim celebration the following year, Rav Zeira wisely declined.

Some people read this passage but stop right after Rava’s opinion that one must become drunk on Purim. Others correctly read the entire passage and recognize that the anecdote is a blatant refutation of Rava. The Talmud’s lesson is: don’t get drunk; terrible things can happen if you become intoxicated.

Drunkenness is a shameful state. Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 5:3) states: “One who becomes intoxicated is a sinner and is despicable, and loses his wisdom. If he [a wise person] becomes drunk in the presence of common folk, he has thereby desecrated the Name.” In his section on the Laws of Holiday Rest (6:20), Maimonides rules: “When one eats, drinks and celebrates on a festival, he should not allow himself to become overly drawn to drinking wine, amusement and silliness…for drunkenness and excessive amusement and silliness are not rejoicing; they are frivolity and foolishness.”

Not only does drunkenness impair one’s judgment, it demeans a person in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God. Drunkenness is an affront to one’s own dignity and an affront to the ideals of Torah.


Is Torah-true Judaism inherently aligned with conservative politics, liberal politics, a combination, or neither -- or is this the wrong way to think about the Torah? 


Torah-true Judaism is inherently aligned with policies that foster love of God, respect for fellow human beings, and the wellbeing of society as a whole. We strive for a world of honesty, justice, peace, a world in which the ideals of our prophets can be realized.

Rabbi Benzion Uziel (1880-1953), late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote of our responsibility for yishuvo shel olam, the proper functioning of a moral society. Judaism demands that its adherents live ethical and upright lives. Religious Jews must feel troubled by any injustice in society and must strive to defend and protect the oppressed. Striving to create a harmonious society is not merely a reflection of social idealism; it is a religious mandate.

Sometimes Torah values are more aligned with conservative politics, and sometimes they are more aligned with liberal politics. Our real concern isn’t with political labels, but with the over-arching values that conduce to a more righteous society.

Although our concerns need to relate to society in general, we can’t ignore issues that specifically impinge on Jewish life and on the State of Israel. If conservatives or liberals promote policies that are detrimental to our physical and spiritual welfare, we obviously must oppose them. If they advance bills that weaken or endanger Israel, we have the right and responsibility to object. Our universal commitment to society does not negate our particular commitment to our own wellbeing.

In spite of the many problems Torah-true Jews face, we are optimists.  We believe, with the prophet Amos (8:11), that righteousness will prevail: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine in the land; not a famine for food nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the Lord.” Amen, Kein Yehi Ratson!!


Is it proper to eat kosher l'Pesach rolls, pasta, cakes, pizza and "bread" on Pesach?

It’s best to leave it up to people to decide for themselves what they do or don’t want to eat on Pessah, as long as all the ingredients are kasher for Pessah. For those who want to add stringencies to the already stringent rules of Pessah, that’s their business. But no one should stand in judgment of others who choose not to add unnecessary stringencies. We should each worry about what’s on our own plates, not on what’s on the plates of others.

Moadim leSimha.


Is it proper to listen to a cappella music during Sefiras Ha'Omer?

The real question is: why would it not be proper to listen to such music during the Sefirah period? Although the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) reports a tradition that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pessah and Lag L’Omer, no formal mourning prohibitions are indicated for this period. Sefirah mourning practices are first reported in a Gaonic collection, Sha’arei Teshuva 278. The Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 493: 1-2) refers to the customs of restricting weddings and haircuts, but mentions no prohibition relating to music.

It seems that restrictions relating to music only developed in the Middle Ages, and not consistently throughout the Jewish world. In recent centuries, various stringencies have been added including the limitation of dancing, music, and even recorded music. Some now also wish to prohibit a cappella music. These prohibitions do not go back to the Talmud, Rambam or Shulhan Arukh. If people wish to adopt these stringencies, or if they are part of communities that consider these stringencies as obligatory minhagim, then that is their right.

But there is no fundamental halakhic prohibition to listening to music, let alone a cappella music, unless one has adopted this stringency as a minhag; or unless one follows posekim who rule stringently on this.




Between Prudery and Promiscuity: The Case for Modesty (Tseniut)

In her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan asserted that “American women no longer know who they are. They are sorely in need of a new image to help them find their identity.” Originally published in 1963, her book became a rallying cry for the feminist movement. Friedan lamented the fact that women were expected (and expected themselves) to model themselves after the stereotypical image of mother and home-maker; that their self-image was vastly influenced by images of women in glossy magazines and the movies.

Friedan argued that woman needed to become equal partners in society—socially, politically and economically. “There is only one way for women to reach full human potential—by participating in the mainstream of society, by exercising their own voice in all the decisions shaping that society. For women to have full identity and freedom, they must have economic independence….Equality and human dignity are not possible for women if they are not able to earn.”

The Feminine Mystique played an important role in triggering a re-evaluation of the role of women in society. The feminist movement has achieved monumental changes since 1963. When the book was reprinted in the 1990s, Friedan wrote an epilogue in which she rejoiced over past progress, and foresaw an era of true equality. “We may now begin to glimpse the new human possibilities when women and men are finally free to be themselves, know each other for who they really are, and define the terms and measures of success, failure, joy, triumph, power, and the common good, together” (from her epilogue, written April 1997).

Friedan’s hopes are reminiscent of Martin Buber’s philosophy of “I and Thou.” Ideally, people should relate to each other as full, dignified human beings. Relationships between an I and a Thou are characterized by respect, sympathy, sensitivity. When relationships operate on an I-It level, the “It” is reduced to an object, someone whose full humanity is not encountered.

When it comes to relationships between men and women, things can become complicated. Regardless of the ideals of human equality and mutual respect, we also have to deal with the reality of sexuality. Human beings are not pure spiritual beings; physical appearance and sexual drives must be taken into account.

Some communities/societies attempt to curtail male/female relationships so as to avoid sexual improprieties and abuses. The most extreme example of this is in Muslim societies where women are expected to stay out of the public domain to the extent possible, and only to appear in public while totally covered from head to toe, including the face (except for the eyes). Less extreme examples can be found in other communities—including the so-called ultra-Orthodox Jewish community—where women are restricted to wearing clothing deemed to be modest by their rabbinic leaders and are limited in their social interactions with men. The goal is not to foster equal and dignified relationships between men and women, but to keep the genders as separated as possible for fear of falling into temptation and sin.

On the other extreme are societies that foster sexual promiscuity, where women and men interact according to their own feelings rather than by norms of religious modesty. While such societies ostensibly foster equality between men and women, the ubiquitous sexual component can tend to foster relationships of the I-It mode, rather than the I-Thou ideal. Since the bars of religious or cultural morality have been dropped, men and women may see each other as potential objects of sexual pleasure rather than as dignified human beings.

Betty Friedan believed that our society was beginning “to glimpse the new human possibilities when women and men are finally free to be themselves, know each other for who they really are.”  But is this really so? With all the permissiveness and freedom in our society, have relationships between men and women actually become I-Thou?

Although it is argued (correctly) that women should be viewed as human beings rather than as objects, in fact much of our popular culture promotes women as objects of sexual attraction. Female models, movie stars, and television personalities often are dressed in highly provocative clothing. Even women reporters on local television news programs wear sleeveless, or low-neckline, or overly tight clothing. Whether they are required to dress in this fashion, or whether they do so on their own, the fact is that women present themselves in immodest dress (or undress!).  The goal—stated or unstated—seems to be: I need to be sexually attractive.

Popular women’s fashions promote the view of women as objects. Women’s clothing is often too revealing or too tightly fit to be classified as modest. Why do women wear such clothes? Why do designers keep designing such clothes, unless there is a market for them?

For men and women to operate on an I-Thou basis rather than an I-It basis, we need to avoid the extremes of prudery and promiscuity. We need to focus on the nature of modesty--tseniut.

Tseniut is not simply a system of prevention from sin. Rather, it encompasses a positive philosophy relating to the nature of human beings. While acknowledging the power of human sexuality, tseniut teaches that human beings are more than mere sexual beings.  By insisting on modest dress and behavior, tseniut promotes a framework for human relationships that transcends the physical/sexual aspects.

Non-tseniut behavior signals a person’s desire to be seen as an object of sexual attraction. When people dress provocatively, what they are communicating is: notice me, I crave your attention, please don’t ignore me. Underlying this non-vocalized plea is the feeling that one will not be noticed unless prepared to become an object of attention or unless one conforms to the prevailing fashions, even if those fashions violate one’s sense of decency and propriety.

It is normal and natural for people to want to appear pleasing to others. That is why they spend so much time and money on clothing and grooming. Dressing nicely, neatly, and modestly is a sign of self-respect as well as respect for others. If, though, one specifically dresses or behaves in a manner that is aimed at arousing sexual attention, this crosses into the non-tseniut mode. One has chosen to be an It rather than a Thou.

Human beings all have feelings of insecurity; we need to be needed, appreciated, and loved. Although these tendencies are often exacerbated in teenagers, they continue to exist throughout adult life. Exhibitionism is a short-cut to gaining the attention—and hopefully the affection—of others. Yet, underneath the veneer of showiness is a layer of essential insecurity, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with self. Exhibitionism may gain the attention of others, but it does not gain their respect and love.

Tseniut should be understood as a framework for maintaining our human dignity. It teaches us to treat ourselves and others as valuable human beings, not as objects. Non-tseniut behavior and dress serve to diminish our full humanity, reducing us to the level of objects of sexuality. Tseniut is a manifestation of holiness. Exhibitionism is a manifestation of crudeness and feelings of insecurity.

Genuine modesty avoids the extremes of prudery or promiscuity. It fosters self-respect and respect for others. In a real sense, tseniut is not “old fashioned;” it is the avant garde of those who wish to live as dignified human beings.

(For a fuller discussion of tseniut, please see my article, “A Modesty Proposal: Rethinking Tseniut,” on the website of jewishideas.org   The direct link is: https://www.jewishideas.org/article/modesty-proposal-rethinking-tseniut)


Thoughts on the Teachings of Elie Wiesel


  Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Actually, it was against all odds that he should have been alive, let alone become a powerful voice for world peace. When he was only fifteen years old, he—along with all the Jews in his town of Sighet—was rounded up by the Nazis and shipped to concentration camps where most of them were murdered. His mother and younger sister perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. His father died before war’s end. His two older sisters survived. The young Elie Wiesel—a religious, pious young man—was spiritually scarred for life by his traumatic experiences in the hell of Nazism’s death camps.

           After the war, he was sent to France, along with other orphans. He could not then find words to describe the Holocaust. The pain was too raw and too deep. He found work as a journalist. In the early 1950s he interviewed the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist François Mauriac, who encouraged Wiesel to write about the concentration camps and to bear witness for the millions whose lives were snuffed out by the Nazis and their collaborators. This led to Wiesel writing an extensive work in Yiddish, later edited down and published in French in 1958, and in English in 1960: The Night. That book was widely read and acclaimed; and Wiesel went on to write many more books, win many awards, teach many classes, give thousands of lectures.

           Upon moving to the United States in 1955, his career as writer and teacher flourished. He held professorial positions at the City University of New York, Yale University, and Boston University. He received numerous awards for his literary and human rights activities, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Liberty Award. President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel chairman of the United State Holocaust Memorial Council in 1978. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he and his wife established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

            Elie Wiesel, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, was not only to be a voice and a memorial for the murdered millions. His life’s mission was to serve as a conscience to the world, to remind humanity of the horrors of war and mass murder, to help humanity understand that there should never again be concentration camps, genocide, ruthless and merciless tyranny.

            Throughout his life, Elie Wiesel was a religiously observant Jew; but his faith in God—and humanity--was conflicted, sometimes angry; in spite of his grievances, though, he sought to remain optimistic.  “I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either…..There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man” (Open Heart, pp. 72, 73). 

            Wiesel’s approach found expression in his description of biblical Isaac, the son of Abraham who was brought to the mountain to be sacrificed to the Lord. At the last moment, an angel appeared to Abraham and commanded him not to put the knife to Isaac’s throat.  In Hebrew, the name Isaac (Yitzhak) means: he will laugh. Wiesel asked: “Why was the most tragic of our ancestors named Isaac, a name which evokes and signifies laughter?” And he provided his answer: “As the first survivor, he had to teach us, the future survivors of Jewish history, that it is possible to suffer and despair an entire lifetime and still not give up the art of laughter. Isaac, of course, never freed himself from the traumatizing scenes that violated his youth; the holocaust had marked him and continued to haunt him forever. Yet, he remained capable of laughter. And in spite of everything, he did laugh” (Messengers of God, p. 97).

            Wiesel’s religious worldview was strongly influenced by the Hassidic movement. He wrote much about Hassidic masters and drew heavily on their teachings. A central element of Hassidism was the role of the Rebbe, the rabbi and teacher, who was—and was expected to be—a tzaddik, a truly righteous person who was deemed to have great powers.

            The Hassidic movement began with Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), born in a small town in the Ukraine. The Besht, as he came to be known, brought a message of hope to the poor and oppressed Jews. A man of humble origins, he taught that the less fortunate were beloved by God, “that every one of them existed in God’s memory, that every one of them played a part in his people’s destiny, each in his way and according to his means” (Souls on Fire, p. 25).  The simple, unlearned Jew could serve God through piety, joy, song, love of nature. What God required was a sincere and pious heart. When people criticized the Besht for associating with lowly individuals, he replied: “A small Tzaddik loves small sinners; it takes a great Tzaddik to love great sinners” (Somewhere a Master, p. 65). This was a basic principle of Hassidism: love for our fellow human beings must resemble God’s love; it reaches everyone, great and small.

            The Besht’s successor was Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. He drew hundreds of students and thousands of followers. To the more erudite, he taught the hidden truths of the faith. To the simple, he explained that their mere recital of the Sh’ma Yisrael prayer with proper devotion would make them worthy of redemption. The Maggid inspired loyalty. He was an excellent strategist and administrator and succeeded in spreading Hassidism throughout Eastern Europe. Although the Besht was the first leader of the Hassidic movement, it was Rabbi Dov Baer who established the role of the Hassidic Rebbe as a Tzaddik.  “As he saw it, the Tzaddik had to combine the virtues and gifts, as well as fulfill the roles and obligations, of saint, guide and sage. Spokesman for God in His dealings with man, intercessor for man in his dealings with God” (Souls on Fire., p. 66). An essential role of the Tzaddik was to encourage Hassidim never to consider themselves as being useless, abandoned, or neglected by the Almighty.

            As Hassidism grew and spread, new Rebbes emerged, each with his own distinctive style. The common denominator, though, was that each had to be a Tzaddik, a righteous person who could connect the people with God, and God with the people. Some Tzaddikim were ascetic and humble; others enjoyed a degree of luxury. Some were compassionate in the extreme, while others were more remote, less personally involved with the individual struggles of their followers. Some were expected to be wonder workers who could perform miracles; others were respected for their insistence on individual responsibility.

            Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809) was known for his unlimited love of each Jew, even the most sinful and ignorant among them. The notables of Berdichev chided him for associating with people of inferior rank. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak replied: “When the Messiah will come, God will arrange a feast in his honor, and all our patriarchs and kings, our prophets and sages will of course be invited. As for myself, I shall quietly make my way into one of the last rows and hope not to be noticed. If I am discovered anyway and asked what right I have to attend, I shall say: Please be merciful with me, for I have been merciful too” (Ibid., p. 99).

            A Tzaddik of a later generation, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), was known for the rigorous demands he made on himself and others. He sought no compromises with truth, no short cuts, no evasions. Wiesel describes him as “the angry saint, the divine rebel. Among the thousands of Hassidic leaders great and small, from the Baal Shem’s time to the Holocaust, he is undeniably the most disconcerting, mysterious figure of all. Also the most tragic” (Ibid., p. 231). The Kotzker always seemed to be yearning, to be reaching for something beyond. He once explained that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was punished and had to forever crawl in and eat the dust. It has been asked: why is eating dust a punishment? In fact, this makes it very easy for the serpent to eat without having to search for its sustenance. The Kotzer replied: “That is the worst punishment of all: never to be hungry, never to seek, never to desire anything” (Somewhere a Master, p. 101). The Kotzker spent the last years of his life as a melancholy recluse. Yet, his sharp wisdom and keen erudition made him a sainted figure among his followers, and one of the most quoted Hassidic Rebbes through modern times.

            Elie Wiesel was especially drawn to those Tzaddikim who were torn by internal conflict and doubts. Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz (1728-1791) taught that even if some questions are without answers, one must still ask them. Doubts are not necessarily destructive, if they bring one to a Rebbe. One must realize that others have gone through the same sorrow and endured the same anguish. “God is everywhere, even in pain, even in the search for faith” (Ibid., p. 12). 

            The Tzaddik invariably lives a double life. He must at once be a humble soul, aware of his limitations—and he must be a seemingly perfect person in the eyes of his followers. If he is too humble, he cannot gain their trust. If he thinks he indeed is perfect, then he is a deeply flawed human being. “A saint who knows that he is a saint—isn’t. Or more precisely, no longer is. A conscience that is too clear is suspect. To ever be clear, conscience must have overcome doubt. As Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav put it: No heart is as whole as one that has been broken” (Ibid., p. 59).

            Elie Wiesel was drawn to Hassidic masters who were epitomes of religious faith and leadership…and who had their own questions, self-doubts, feelings of melancholy. In spite of personal internal struggles, the Tzaddik had to be available to his followers with a full and loving heart. “Just tell him that you need him and he will receive you. Tell him that you are suffering and he will be your companion. Tell him you need a presence and he will share your solitude without invading it. This may seem unusual today, but in those days many Hassidic Masters treated their followers in that way, with similar compassion” (Ibid., p. 142).

            Wiesel writes nostalgically, especially about the early Tzadikkim of Hassidism. But as the movement grew and expanded, it also lost some of the initial energy and idealism of its founders. Many different and competing groups emerged, each with its own Rebbe/Tzaddik.

To the outside observer, Hassidim appear to be cult-like groups blindly devoted to their charismatic Rebbes; they dress in distinctive garb, follow distinctive customs, and speak primarily in Yiddish rather than the language of the land. Yet, Hassidim are living testimony of the power of survival. Vast numbers of Hassidim perished during the Holocaust. Their communities in Europe were decimated. Yet, the survivors did not lose faith. They rebuilt communities in Israel, the United States and elsewhere; a new generation of Rebbes emerged, attracting thousands of adherents. Elie Wiesel’s emotional connection to Hassidism and Hassidim are an expression of his faith in humanity’s ability to overcome horrors…and survive with renewed vigor and optimism.

                                                *     *     *

          When it was announced in 1986 that Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize, many (including me) supposed it was the prize in literature. After all, he was a famous author of numerous highly acclaimed books. But the prize was not for literature, but for peace.

            Apparently the Nobel committee thought that his universal messages relating to peace were more important than his literary production. Some have felt that Wiesel’s writing is overly emotional, sometimes pretentious; it tries too hard to appear profound. While his books will be read for many years to come, his role as a conscience for humanity was deemed most significant.

                       In presenting the Nobel Peace Prize, Egil Aarvik, chair of the Nobel Committee, said this about Wiesel: “His mission is not to gain the world’s sympathy for victims or the survivors. His aim is to awaken our conscience. Our indifference to evil makes us partners in the crime. This is the reason for his attack on indifference and his insistence on measures aimed at preventing a new Holocaust. We know that the unimaginable has happened. What are we doing now to prevent its happening again?”


Conversations with Elie Wiesel, E. Wiesel and Richard D. Heffner, Schocken Books, New York, 2001.

Messengers of God, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1976.

Night, Bantam Books, New York, 1960.

Open Heart, Schocken Books, New York, 2012.

Somewhere a Master, Schocken Books, New York, 1982.

Souls on Fire, Random House, New York, 1972.



Wise, Naïve, Foolish and Dumbfounded: Thoughts for Pessah

Thoughts for Pessah

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

The Haggada features the “four children” to whom parents are to explain the message of redemption from slavery. They are presented as four different individuals, each of whom requires a distinctive approach. The wise child is given full explanations; the naïve is given a simple story; the wicked is chastised; the dumbfounded is fed answers to questions never asked.

But what if we see these four children not as different people—but as aspects of just one person, ourself?

The grand message of Pessah is redemption from servitude. While the focus is on the national liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian oppression, the theme also relates to the life of individuals. We each have experienced moments when we’ve felt oppressed, unappreciated, abused, spiritually exiled. We’ve also experienced moments of validation, exultant victory, love and joy. Life is a series of ups and downs, oppressive moments and moments of liberation.

Sometimes the world perplexes us. We feel helpless in the face of challenges confronting humanity as a whole and Jews in particular. The problems seem so vast: warfare, climate change, crime, economic downturns etc. Is disaster inevitable? We can’t even verbalize all our concerns and anxieties.

Sometimes we feel so mentally overloaded that we look for simple answers to complex problems. We want to feel good, peaceful. We try to shut out the bad news, we look for amusements and entertainments. We don’t want to hear all the details, just simple headlines.

Sometimes we feel frustrated and angry about the way things are going. It seems that the whole system is corrupt, leaders are hypocritical, violence and hatred are rampant, the future is bleak. We rebel against the status quo in whatever ways we can.

Sometimes we are calm and reasonable. We want to know as much as we can about the problems that face us, and we seek intelligent answers to our dilemmas. We don’t want glib soundbites or superficial analyses. We think carefully, we speak carefully and we act responsibly.

The “four children” struggle within each of us. Each has legitimate claims; but how are we to address all the children within us?

The Haggada provides a framework for dealing with the internal struggles we all face.

When we feel perplexed by the challenges, the Haggada reminds us: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord redeemed us from Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm. What could have been bleaker than the situation of the ancient Israelite slaves? What could have seemed more hopeless than generations of demeaning servitude? But the seemingly hopeless and overwhelming situation was overcome. God redeemed the slaves. They left Egypt in high spirits. They found words in the beautiful Song of Moses sung after the Israelites crossed the Sea. They were silent no more.

When we are mentally overloaded and only want simple answers to our questions, we need to remind ourselves: Yes, there are short answers available, and these are important for calming us temporarily. But avoidance is ultimately self-defeating. The problems don’t disappear on their own. When the Israelite slaves heard Moses speak of freedom, they initially did not take heed due to their crushed spirits and hard labor. They wanted to go from day to day without contemplating long-term solutions to their dilemma. The Haggada teaches us to deal patiently with ourselves and with the desire for simple answers.  Be patient, but get over the impasse! We have a Promised Land ahead of us.

When we feel angry and disappointed, it’s easy enough to blame the “leaders,” the “system,” and God. We allow negativity to overcome us and we want to lash out however we can. The Haggada reminds us that these feelings are part of who we are, and actually are healthy in some ways. We should be angry and frustrated by evil, foolishness, and immorality. But the Haggada tells us that we must not let negative emotions dominate us. It reminds us that negativity is essentially a dead end; it does not lead to redemption. When we feel the negative emotions arising within us, we need to direct them constructively.

When we feel wise and reasonable, that’s a good feeling. We can analyze, think, dream, plan for the future. We feel competent and confident.  But beware: unless we listen to the other three children within us we can become complacent and self-righteous.

The story of Pessah is a realistic/optimistic story. It tells candidly about slavery, hatred, cruelty, loss of human dignity. But it also tells of redemption, freedom, God’s providence, human development. As it relates to the national history of the people of Israel, it also relates to each one of us.

Our individual stories—our lives—are composed of a variety of experiences and emotions—some negative and painful, some positive and redemptive. The ultimate message of Pessah is that optimism and redemption will ultimately prevail.

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord redeemed us with strong hand and outstretched arm. The four children within us crave for redemption…and the redemption will surely come through our personal efforts and with the help of God.



Israel on My Mind--Thoughts from Rabbi Marc D. Angel

The Talmud (Hagiga 12b) records an enigmatic statement by Rabbi Yosei: “Woe unto people, who see but do not know what they see; who stand, but do not know on what they stand.”

This passage came to mind as we observe the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel.

We often see Israel without realizing what we are actually seeing. The State of Israel is an amazing historical phenomenon. It is the unique story of the Jewish People, robbed of sovereignty, plundered and exiled by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago. It is the story of a people who never gave up hope of return to their historic homeland. It is the story of faith and heroism rarely if ever matched in human history. Many people see Israel but don’t know what they are seeing: the State of Israel is a modern day miracle.

We often stand for Israel but don’t know on what we stand. The State of Israel stands on foundations established in the Bible, in God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants. Israel stands on the prayers of millions of Jews in hundreds of lands spanning twenty centuries. Many people see Israel as just another country; they do not know the foundations upon which Israel stands.

In its 75 years of statehood, Israel has absorbed millions of new immigrants from around the world; it has become a first rate power in culture, science, agriculture, medicine, the arts, the military and so much more. It has created a dynamic, vibrant democracy. It has accomplished really amazing things in spite of ongoing Palestinian terrorism, boycotts, threats from Iran etc.  It has forged ahead with remarkable diplomatic achievements in the Arab world, in Africa, and with many nations throughout the world.

And yet, in spite all these many reasons to feel joy and pride on Israel’s 75th anniversary, we also feel uneasy. The ugly divisions within Israeli society have been rocking the country. Animosity between the extremes on the left and right has been seething. Tensions between religious and secular extremists are heart-breaking. The situation has become so volatile, that the Prime Minister of Israel felt compelled to pull out of a speaking engagement in Tel Aviv, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. Fears of demonstrations and rowdiness cast a pall on the occasion.

As Israeli society tears itself apart, its enemies are heartened. The Palestinian terrorists become emboldened. Iran makes ominous threats and works to arm Israel’s enemies. Anti-Israel media rejoice in slandering Israel in every possible way. Anti-Israel politicians add their hatred and lies to the ongoing campaign to vilify and isolate Israel.

Many people—Jews and non-Jews alike—see Israel, but don’t know what they are seeing. They make stands for or against Israel without knowing upon what Israel stands. When Israel is viewed through the lenses of vitriol, extremism, hatred, idealization or self-righteousness, the real Israel is not seen. When the historic and spiritual foundations of Israel are not understood and respected, then the State of Israel is not properly appreciated.

Everyone needs to calm down, take a step back, and realize what is at stake for the State of Israel.  Hatred and extremism are our real enemies and we must confront them with wisdom and courage.

We have confidence that the State of Israel will overcome the many challenges it faces. It is an amazingly creative and resilient nation.

“Woe unto people, who see but do not know what they see; who stand, but do not know on what they stand.” Blessed are those who see the greatness and promise of Israel, who see clearly and stand firmly with the State of Israel.

“When the Lord turned back the captivity of Zion we were as in a dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with joyous song” (Psalm 126).




Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel: Two Posekim, Two Approaches

When addressing a halakhic question, each posek (halakhic decisor) attempts to arrive at a decision that is objectively true. The posek will study and analyze the available halakhic literature, with the goal of understanding the halakha as clearly and accurately as possible.

At the same time, halakhic literature is characterized by a variety of decisions regarding the same questions. Different posekim arrive at different conclusions—even though they generally rely on the same source literature. Sometimes these differences are based on alternate readings or interpretations of the source texts. Or, one posek may attribute greater authority to certain halakhists, while another may prefer to depend on others. Differences in local conditions, halakhic traditions, educational backgrounds, hashkafa (religious worldview)—these and many other factors may also result in different decisions from different posekim.

The interrelationship of hashkafa and halakha may be illustrated in how two recent posekim—Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook and Rabbi Bentzion Meir Hai Uziel—dealt with issues involving the understanding of the nature of Jewishness.

Rabbi Kook (1865–1935) was born in Latvia and studied at the yeshiva of Volozhin. In 1904, he emigrated to Israel, where he became the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa. In 1919 he was appointed as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and in 1921 he became the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Erets Yisrael. Rabbi Uziel (1880–1953) was born in Jerusalem and studied under the Torah scholars of the city, including his own father, Rabbi Yosef Raphael Uziel, who was the Av Bet Din (chief justice) of the Sephardic community. In 1911, Rabbi Uziel became Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, where he worked closely with Rabbi Kook. In 1921 he became Chief Rabbi of Salonika; in 1923 he returned to Israel to serve as Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv; and in 1939 he became Rishon leTzion, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Erets Yisrael.

Both Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel were strong advocates of religious Zionism. They were outstanding communal leaders, teachers, and scholars. Both were prolific writers who made major contributions in the fields of halakha and hashkafa.

But despite these external similarities, their attitudes toward several vital issues are radically different. Their disparate understandings of the nature of Jewish peoplehood are manifested in a number of their halakhic decisions.


Let us begin with a discussion of how they dealt with the question of conversion to Judaism. How does a non-Jew enter the Jewish fold? What is the nature of the Jewishness which the convert accepts?

Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel studied the same talmudic and rabbinic sources. That their rulings were diametrically opposed to each other reflects their different hashkafot, their different understanding of the nature of Jewish peoplehood.

Both dealt with the serious problem of what to do with individuals who requested conversion to Judaism, even when it was believed that the converts were not likely to observe all of the mitzvoth. For the most part, such converts were interested in gerut (conversion) for the sake of marrying a Jewish person, and were not motivated by theological concerns. Obviously, neither Rabbi Kook nor Rabbi Uziel thought that such converts represented the ideal. On the contrary, everyone would agree that it was preferable for converts to choose to join the Jewish people from a belief in the truth of Judaism and a total commitment to observe the mitzvoth. However, a great many converts do not come with these ideal credentials.

Rabbi Kook was adamant in his opposition to accepting converts who did not accept to observe all the mitzvoth. Even if a convert followed the technical procedure for conversion, but lacked the absolute intention to observe the mitzvoth, his conversion is not valid. When the Talmud states (Yebamoth 24b) that kulam gerim hem (“they are all converts”; this passage refers to individuals who converted for the sake of marriage or because of other external factors), this refers only to those who did have the intention to accept the mitzvoth in full. Rabbis who accept for conversion those candidates who come for worldly reasons, but who will not fulfill the mitzvoth, are making an error. Much evil will befall such rabbis. They are guilty of bringing thorns into the house of Israel.

Rabbi Kook argues that rabbis who accept such converts are transgressing the prohibition of lifnei ivver (placing a stumbling block in the path of a blind person; by extension, this prohibition includes acts of misleading others). If the conversions are not halakhically valid, then the rabbis are misleading the Jewish public by calling such individuals Jews when in fact they are not Jewish. Such negligence will lead to many problems, including possible intermarriage. On the other hand, if these individuals are to be considered valid converts, then the rabbis are misleading them by not stressing how they will be subject to punishment for violating the mitzvoth.1

In another Responsum, Rabbi Kook again emphasizes that converts who do not commit themselves to keep the mitzvoth should not be accepted. If unqualified individuals (hedyotot) accepted them, no rabbi should perform weddings for them even after they have been converted in this way. “And happy is the one who stands in the breach to guard the purity of Israel, may a good blessing come to him.”2

For Rabbi Kook, then, the acceptance of mitzvoth is the essential ingredient in Jewishness. One who does not accept to observe the mitzvoth simply cannot become part of the Jewish people, even if he or she were to go through the technical rituals of conversion. And even if one were to find halakhic justification to validate these conversions, we still should not allow such converts to marry Jews.

Rabbi Uziel also wrote a number of Responsa dealing with would-be converts whose commitment to observance of mitzvoth was deficient. While acknowledging that it was most desirable that converts accept all the mitzvoth, Rabbi Uziel noted that in our times many individuals seek conversion for the sake of marriage. Instead of disqualifying such conversions, however, Rabbi Uziel actually encouraged them. He felt that it was necessary for us to be stringent in matters of intermarriage, i.e., we should do everything possible to prevent a situation where a marriage involves a Jew and a non-Jew. If we can convert the non-Jewish partner to Judaism, then we have preserved the wholeness of that family for the Jewish people, and we can hope that their children will be raised as Jews. Given the choice of having an intermarried couple or performing such a conversion, Rabbi Uziel ruled that it is better to perform the conversion. He, of course, believed that rabbis should do everything in their power to break off the projected intermarriage. They should resort to conversion only when it is clear that the couple would not be dissuaded from marriage to each other.3

In another Responsum, Rabbi Uziel explains that the obligation of rabbis is to inform candidates for conversion of some, not all, of the mitzvoth (Yoreh De’ah 268:2). It is impossible for a bet din to know with certainty that any convert will keep all the mitzvoth. Conversion, even initially, does not require that the convert accept to observe all the mitzvoth. Indeed, the procedure of informing a non-Jew about the basic beliefs and mitzvoth is required initially. But if this procedure were not followed, and the non-Jew was converted ritually (circumcision and ritual immersion) without such information, the conversion is valid notwithstanding (Yoreh De’ah 268:2, 12).

Rabbi Uziel concludes that it is permissible—and a mitzvah—to accept such converts, even when it is expected that they would not observe all the mitzvoth. Our hope is that they will come to observe the mitzvoth in the future. We are obligated to give them this opportunity. If they fail to observe the mitzvoth, the iniquity is on their own shoulders, not ours. Rabbi Uziel rejects the argument that since a vast majority of converts do not observe the mitzvoth, we should not accept converts at all. On the contrary, he argues that it is a mitzvah to accept these converts. We are obligated not only to do these conversions to prevent intermarriage, but we have a special responsibility to the children who will be born of these marriages. Since they are of Jewish stock, even if only one parent is Jewish, they should be reclaimed for our people. Rabbi Uziel writes:

"And I fear that if we push them [children] away completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we shall be brought to judgment and they shall say to us: 'You did not bring back those who were driven away, and those who were lost you did not seek'" (Yehezkel 34:4).4

Whereas Rabbi Kook saw the acceptance of mitzvoth as the sine qua non of entering the Jewish fold, Rabbi Uziel thought it was not an absolute requirement at all. Whereas Rabbi Kook believed that the mitzvoth are the defining feature of the Jewish people, Rabbi Uziel stressed the importance of maintaining the wholeness of the Jewish people, even when the observance of mitzvoth was deficient. The halakhic difference between them can be apprehended on a deeper level if we consider their difference in hashkafa.

The act of conversion, according to Rabbi Kook, requires the convert to join the soul of Kenesset Yisrael (a metaphysical representation of the “congregation of Israel”). This can be accomplished only via total acceptance of the mitzvoth, which are the essence of the Jewish soul. Rabbi Kook sees Kenesset Yisrael as the highest spiritual manifestation of human existence. He propounds a notion found in kabbalah that there is an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews. Rabbi Kook writes:

"The difference between the Jewish soul, its self, its inner desires, aspirations, character and status, and that of all nations, at all their levels, is greater and deeper than the difference between the human soul and the animal soul; between the latter there is merely a quantitative distinction, but between the former an essential qualitative distinction pertains."5

Each Jew is connected spiritually to Kenesset Yisrael through the fulfillment of mitzvoth and the ethical demands of Torah. The nourishment of the Jewish soul “is the study of Torah in all its aspects, which also includes historical study in its fullness, and the observance of the commandments with deep faith illuminated by the light of knowledge and clear awareness.” 6

In stressing the distinctiveness of the Jewish people and its essential difference from all other nations, Rabbi Kook appears to downplay the ethical universalism implicit in the classic Jewish teaching that human beings were created in the image of God. Instead of focusing on the universal spiritual dignity of all people, Rabbi Kook asserts a radical distinction between Israel and the nations.

On the other hand, Rabbi Kook did recognize the existence of select individuals among the nations who can reach great spiritual heights. Whereas the supreme holiness specific to Israel is not shared by the nations, it is possible for individual non-Jews to imbue themselves with the holiness of Torah and to join the people of Israel.7

Rabbi Kook’s hashkafa, thus, plays itself out in the halakhic issue of conversion. For him, a non-Jew needs to undergo a transformation of his soul in order to become part of Kenesset Yisrael. Conversion is not just a matter of following a set of prescribed rules and guidelines; rather, it is an all-encompassing spiritual transformation, possible only for a select few spiritually gifted individuals.

Rabbi Kook’s hashkafa is imbued with mystical elements. Given his understanding of the nature of the Jewish soul, it follows that he takes an elitist position vis-à-vis accepting converts. Only those who are truly qualified spiritually may enter the fold of Israel. To accept converts who are not absolutely committed to mitzvah observance is, for Rabbi Kook, a travesty.

Rabbi Uziel, too, stressed the distinctiveness of the people of Israel. Indeed, his hashkafa is close to Rabbi Kook’s in that he also saw the people of Israel as the ideal model of humanity, embodying the highest form of harmony and spiritual unity.8

Although Rabbi Uziel recognized the distinctiveness of the people of Israel, he did not make the same sharp distinction between Jews and non-Jews as did Rabbi Kook. Rather, Rabbi Uziel stressed the connection between Jews and non-Jews, and the responsibility of Jews to set a good example from which the non-Jewish world can learn.

Rabbi Uziel was critical of those Jews who taught that one’s Jewishness should be a private matter observed in the home, and who said that one should be a “human being” when in public. He rejected such a notion as being absurd, “since Judaism and humanity are connected and attached to each other like a flame and its coal.” The goal of Judaism is to have Jews be the finest possible human beings so that they could influence humanity for the better. Judaism was not a private matter, but was for application in the world at large.9

Rabbi Uziel also rejects the position of those who claimed that Judaism was merely a faith. Clearly, the people of Israel constitute a nation with a distinctive national character. Neither the Torah nor our sages ever divorced Jewish faith from Jewish peoplehood.10

Rabbi Uziel rejects the notion that Judaism could survive only if Jews isolated themselves from the rest of society. Those who limited Jewish life to synagogues and study halls thereby were constricting the real message of Judaism. Rabbi Uziel argues that the Torah was quite capable of confronting all cultures and all peoples, without needing to surrender or hide. A living culture has no fear of borrowing and integrating concepts from other cultures, and it can do so without losing its own identity. Jews can learn from the non-Jewish world and still remain faithful to their own distinctive mission of holiness and righteousness. Moreover, as a living culture, Judaism has a message to teach others as well. To constrict Judaism into a spiritual and intellectual ghetto is not true to the mission of Israel. The Torah contains within it a full worldview on the individual and the nation; therefore it is our obligation to recognize and teach our spiritual ideal, and to try to increase our spiritual influence on humanity as a whole.11

For Rabbi Uziel, then, the distinctiveness of the Jewish people is not seen as a mystical concept which separates Jews ontologically from non-Jews. Rather, the Jewish people have a positive responsibility of reaching out to the non-Jewish world, to bring them closer to the religious ideals of Judaism.

This hashkafa manifests itself in a greater tolerance and openness when it comes to the halakhic question of conversion. Certainly, it would be best if all Jews and all converts to Judaism observed the mitzvoth in full. But since we do not live in an ideal world, we need to strive to attain the best results possible. Our first concern has to be to maintain the integrity of the Jewish people, Jewish families. Non-Jews who wish to become part of the Jewish people are thereby testifying that they wish to come closer to our teachings and traditions. Since Jews and non-Jews are all created in the image of God, the conversion process does not entail an absolute spiritual transformation of the convert’s soul, but rather a pragmatic decision to join the Jewish people and to come closer to the ideals and teachings of the Torah. This hashkafa gives greater leeway to the rabbis who must make specific decisions regarding conversion, based on the particular situation of each case. Universalism and pragmatism on behalf of the Jewish people, rather than mystical and metaphysical considerations, should guide the conversion process.


The hashkafic difference between Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel concerning the nature of Jewishness also may be demonstrated in another halakhic area: autopsies. In 1931, Rabbi Kook was asked whether it was permissible to perform autopsies as part of the training of doctors in medical schools. With the expanding Jewish settlement in the land of Israel, there certainly was a need to train Jewish doctors.
Medical training entailed autopsies.

Rabbi Kook ruled that disgracing a dead body (nivul haMet) is a prohibition unique to the Jewish people, since the Almighty commanded us to maintain the holiness of the body. He then went on to say that there is a sharp difference between Jews and non-Jews with regard to their bodies. Non-Jews consider their bodies only as biological structures. They eat whatever they wish, without restriction. They have no reason to be concerned with the issue of disgracing the dead body, so long as the autopsy was done for a reasonable purpose such as medical study. Rabbi Kook, therefore, recommended that the medical programs purchase non-Jewish bodies for the purpose of scientific research. He then stated that the whole category of disgrace of the dead body stems from the fact that humans were created in the image of God. But this image of God is manifested particularly in Jews due to the holiness of the Torah.12 The Jewish attachment to Torah and mitzvoth, thus, not only characterizes the Jewish soul, but also imparts holiness to the Jewish body.

Rabbi Uziel wrote a lengthy Responsum on the subject of autopsies, although he specified that his Responsum was theoretical rather than a formal legal ruling (leHalakha veLo leMa’aseh). In reviewing the halakhic literature on nivul haMet, Rabbi Uziel concluded that this category applies only when a dead body is treated disrespectfully. Autopsies performed in a respectful manner for the sake of medical knowledge do not constitute, according to Rabbi Uziel, nivul haMet. He points out that there have been many rabbinical sages throughout Jewish history who were also medical doctors. They could not have learned their profession without having performed autopsies. Rabbi Uziel states that “in a situation of great benefit to everyone, where there is an issue of saving lives, we have not found any reason to prohibit [and on the contrary, there are proofs to permit].

Rabbi Uziel considers the question of whether it would be preferable to obtain non-Jewish bodies for the purpose of autopsies. His response is sharp and 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—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. There is no difference between Jews and non-Jews, in the sense that all are created in the image of God. The Jew has no claim to higher status in this regard. If one were to prohibit autopsies, then no autopsies could be performed on any body—Jewish or non-Jewish. The result would be that no doctors could be trained, with a consequent result of an increase in illness, suffering, and death."13

It is clear, then, that Rabbi Kook understood the nature of Jewishness in kabbalistic, metaphysical terms. For him, there is a definite and almost unbridgeable gap between the people of Israel and the non-Jewish nations. This hashkafa influenced his halakhic decisions in the areas of conversion and autopsy. On the other hand, Rabbi Uziel stressed the human quality of the Jewish people, the essential Godliness of all people. His generally universalistic outlook recognized the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. But the distinctiveness of Israel is manifested not by separating Jews absolutely from everyone else; rather, it is shown when Jews serve as models to draw others closer to the ideals of the Torah. This hashkafa pervades his discussions of conversion and autopsy.

Women in Civic Life

Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel also differed in matters pertaining to the role of women in civic life. Their halakhic decisions reflected their different attitudes toward the role of women in a traditional society.

Women’s rights to vote and to be elected to public office were the subject of heated controversy among the Jewish community in the land of Israel in the early part of the twentieth century. In the struggle over women’s suffrage (1918–1921), the rabbinical leadership of the old Yishuv generally opposed extending to women the right to vote and hold public office. In contrast, the Sephardic rabbinic leadership generally favored granting women those rights.

Rabbi Kook, the leading Ashkenazic rabbinic personality in this debate, argued that the Torah tradition relegated civic authority only to men, and that women were to remain in the private, domestic domain. He rejected the “modern innovation” calling for an expansion of women’s role, believing this was a threat to traditional morality and family life.14

Rabbi Uziel, the leading Sephardic voice in this debate, argued that innovation was not necessarily bad. On the contrary, it was fine to innovate where there was no clear Torah prohibition involved. On the question of whether women should be permitted to vote, Rabbi Uziel stated that

"We have not found any clear foundation to forbid. It is unreasonable to deprive women of this human right, since in these elections we choose our leaders and give our elected representatives the power to speak in our names, to arrange the affairs of our settlement and to tax our property. Women, directly or indirectly, accept the authority of those elected, and obey their rulings and communal and national laws.”15

Rabbi Uziel thought it was unjust to expect women to be bound to decisions over which they had no say.
Some opponents of women’s suffrage suggested that women’s understanding was limited, and they were not competent to vote. To this, Rabbi Uziel noted that many men had limited understanding: Should they, too, be deprived of the right to vote? Moreover, Rabbi Uziel wrote that women were endowed with intelligence and sound judgment, no less than men. Experience demonstrates this to be true.

Rabbi Uziel rejected the argument that letting women vote would be a threat to morality and family life. This is a baseless claim and should carry no weight in this debate. One opponent thought that women should be excluded from voting or holding office, based on women’s status in biblical times. Rabbi Uziel brushed this objection aside, noting that it had no bearing on the question at hand. Women, as well as men, were created in God’s image. They had a basic right to be able to vote for those who would have authority to pass laws which would affect them. Not only was there no prohibition to women’s suffrage, but depriving women of this right would be unjust and would cause them humiliation and pain.

Having concluded that women had the right to vote, Rabbi Uziel then turned to the question of whether women had the right to be elected to public office. Halakhic literature includes the notion that women should not hold positions of authority over men. After analyzing these sources carefully,
Rabbi Uziel found that there was no objection to women being in positions of authority—if the community willingly accepted them in these offices. Therefore, women who were elected to office exert authority on the basis of communal approval. Rabbi Uziel stated that although men and women would be sitting together during the public deliberations, this was no breach of modesty or morality. These were not social events, but serious discussions and debates in which participants would participate with all due propriety.

In another Responsum, Rabbi Uziel offered halakhic grounds to allow women to serve as civil judges, as long as the community accepted their authority to judge. He did not personally think it was a good idea for women to serve as judges because of their innately compassionate natures, but he presented the halakhic justification for them to be judges.16

In presenting the opinions and decisions of Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel, it has not been our purpose to determine who is right or who is wrong, or if both are right—ellu veEllu divrei Elokim hayyim (“both positions are acceptable in the eyes of God”). Rather, it has been our purpose to illustrate the interrelationship between hashkafa and halakha. The philosophy and worldview of a posek are not only reflected in halakhic decisions—they help shape those halakhic decisions.

1. Da’at Kohen, Jerusalem, 5745, no. 154. The discussion on conversion and autopsies is drawn from my article, “A Discussion of the Nature of Jewishness in the Teachings of Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel,” in Seeking Good, Speaking Peace: Collected Essays of Rabbi Marc D. Angel, edited by Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Ktav, Hoboken, 1994, pp. 112–123.
2. Ibid., no. 155.
3. Mishpetei Uziel, Jerusalem, 5724, no. 18.
4. Ibid., no. 20. For a discussion of Rabbi Uziel’s rulings on conversion, see my article, “Another Halakhic Approach to Conversions,” Tradition, 12 (Winter–Spring 1972), 107–113.
5. Orot, Jerusalem, 5745, p. 156. See the article by Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun, “Nationalism, Humanity and Kenesset Yisrael,” in The World of Ray Kook’s Thought, published by the Avi Chai Foundation, New York, 1991, pp. 210 f.
6. Orot, p. 145; Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun’s article, p. 224.
7. Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun’s article, p. 227.
8. A series of articles by Nissim Yosha, under the title “Yahid ve Umah,” appeared in the journal ba-Ma ‘arakhah, nos. 300–306, dealing with Rabbi Uziel’s understanding of Jewish peoplehood. See also my book, Voices in Exile, Ktav, Hoboken, 1991, pp. 202 f.
9. Hegyonei Uziel, vol. 2, Jerusalem, 5714, p. 122.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., p. 125
12. Da’at Kohen, no. 199.
13. Piskei Uziel, Jerusalem 5737, no. 32, especially pp. 178-179.
14. Ma’amarei ha-RaAy’aH, Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 189-194. See Zvi Zohar’s article, “Two Halakhic Positions on Women’s Suffrage,” pp. 119-133, in Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries, ed. Harvey E. Goldberg, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1996. See also the discussion in my book, Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel, Jason Aronson, Northvale, 1999, pp. 204f.
15. Piskei Uziel, Mossad haRav Kook, Jerusalem, 5737, no. 44.
16. Ibid., no 43.

Simone Veil: From Survivor to World Leader

Simone Veil (1927-2017) was born in Nice, France, into a secular middle class Jewish family. Her pleasant childhood was abruptly ended by the rise of the Nazis and the fall of France to German control. In 1944 she was deported to Auschwitz. Her father and brother were deported and murdered. Her mother died of typhus before the concentration camp was liberated in April 1945. She and two sisters survived.

Veil considered herself to be French; she felt betrayed that France allowed its Jewish citizens to be oppressed, deported and murdered. Yes, there were good French people who saved Jews, who spoke up for their Jewish neighbors. But too many did not. Moreover, after Jewish survivors began to return to their homes in France, they were not greeted with the warmth and understanding that Veil expected. Even the government remained aloof. “From top to bottom of the government, the same attitude prevailed: no one felt concerned by what the Jews had suffered. You can imagine how shocking this was for everyone whose lives had been disrupted by the Holocaust” (A Life: A Memoir by Simon Veil, p. 87).

After the liberation, she decided to study law at the University of Paris, where she met her future husband Antoine Veil. They were married in October 1946, and had three sons. She practiced law for several years, and in 1956 she passed the national examination to become a magistrate. She received a senior position at the National Penitentiary Administration, under the Ministry of Justice. From May 1974 to March 1977, she served as Minister of Health, and was responsible for advocating a number of significant laws, including legalizing abortion in France.

In 1979 she was elected as a member of the European Parliament; in the first European parliamentary election she was elected President, a position she held until 1982. She continued with her active political life, including years of service in the cabinet of France’s Prime Minister. During the course of her remarkable career, she won many awards and honors. When she died, her funeral was conducted as a national ceremony. It was attended by President Macron and many dignitaries, along with Holocaust survivors. President Macron announced the decision to rebury Veil and her husband in the Pantheon, a rare honor, and this was done on July 1, 2018.

Veil devoted her career to efforts to improve society. “No doubt what I suffered in the camps developed my extreme sensitivity to anything in human relations that generates humiliation and loss of human dignity” (Ibid. p. 101). She worked for prison reform; she advocated for women’s rights; she was a champion of environmental issues. Her devotion to France was central to her life…even though France had betrayed her and its Jewish citizens during World War II. She was sympathetic to Israel and saw its role as “a home for people who no longer had one, to provide a haven of peace for all those who had been displaced and lost families, houses and professions, and to give them a piece of land where they could finally put down roots” (Ibid., p. 118).

In 2003, she accepted the Presidency of the International Victims’ Claims Fund in the International Criminal Court. She made it clear that she was doing so in defense of the rights of victims, not to pose as a judge of actions from which they had suffered. “After the war, when the survivors of the Holocaust returned to France, they had to provide proof of the expropriations they had suffered. Even so, they were poorly compensated and only after a struggle. Seldom did money deposited in banks or contracts underwritten by insurance companies result in the payment of damages” (Ibid., p. 171).

It was not until 1995 that France officially recognized its complicity in the crimes against its Jewish citizens during the Second World War. President Jacque Chirac, on July 16, 1995, called on France to face its past and to make amends to the extent possible. A commission was established to deal with the immense losses of Jews whose property was expropriated during the war. The commission found that 50,000 Jewish businesses had been “Aryanized” and 90,000 Jewish bank accounts and insurance contracts had never been honored; 38,000 Jewish apartments had been looted of their furniture. Restoration of assets to Jewish families was arranged, to the extent possible. The commission pointed to France’s responsibility to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust, and Simone Veil was asked to serve as the first President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust.

On January 27, 2005, she spoke at Auschwitz on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. To an audience including survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, she recounted the horrors of those days; she remembered the more than one and a half million people murdered here, simply because they were born Jewish. “Today, sixty years later, a new pledge must be made for people to unite at least to combat hatred of other people, anti-Semitism and racism, and intolerance….It is the right and duty of us, the last survivors, to put you on your guard and to ask you to turn our companions’ cry ‘never again’ into reality” (Ibid., pp. 248-49).

            She not only worked to foster an understanding of the Holocaust and its victims; she also strove to highlight the heroism of those righteous people who fought against Nazism, who saved Jewish lives, who behaved honestly and admirably during a very difficult period of time. On January 18, 2007, she spoke as President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust at a ceremony honoring the righteous of France. “All of you, the Righteous of France, to whom we pay tribute today, illustrate the honor of our country which thanks to you, found a sense of fraternity, justice and courage….For those of us still haunted by the memory of our loved ones who vanished in smoke and have no gravestone, for all those who want a better world, more just and more fraternal, cleansed of the poison of anti-Semitism, racism and hatred, these walls will resonate now and forever with the echo of your voices, you, the Righteous of France, who give us reasons to hope” (Ibid., pp. 284-85).

Although she was fully and personally aware of human viciousness and cruelty, Simone Veil wanted very much to believe in the ultimate victory of a righteous, compassionate and humane society. She stressed the role of righteous French non-Jews who acted nobly during the war years. “I am convinced that there will always be men and women, of all origins and in all countries, capable of doing what is right and just. Based on the example of the Righteous, I should like to believe that moral strength and individual conscience can win out” (Ibid.,  p.295).


                                              *     *     *

Although Simone Veil did not identify herself as being religious, her life embodied significant elements of a religious worldview. If faith in God was not part of her mindset, her faith in humanity was remarkable. After all she witnessed in Auschwitz, it might have been expected that she could no longer trust the goodness of human beings. After the cold reception she and other survivors experienced upon returning to France after the war, it would have been natural for her to feel alienation from France and the French people. But she did not lose faith in humanity, in the French people, in France. This faith was—in religious terms—messianic. She believed in a future age when humanity would overcome its hatreds and prejudices, when people of all nations, religions, races would live in peace and mutual respect.

But her faith was not merely a matter of lip-service to high ideals. She devoted her life to working for the betterment of her society. She strove to enact policies that enhanced human rights and human dignity.

In my more than fifty years of rabbinic service, I’ve learned to pay more attention to what people do rather than to what they say. Professions of faith and pious preachments may be fine, but they do not define one’s religiosity. Righteous action is the true test.


A Life: A Memoir by Simone Veil, Haus Publishing, London, 2007.





Haver Ha-Ir: A Model of Rabbinic Leadership

Among the titles that rabbinic literature ascribes to Torah scholars is Haver Ha-Ir. This phrase denotes someone of great learning, integrity and commitment to the welfare of the community.[1] Rabbi Benzion Uziel noted: “The rabbi of a community is called by our Sages Haver Ir because he tends to the needs of the public and gathers them for prayer and Torah study.”[2]

The Haver Ha-Ir model of rabbinic leadership deserves careful attention. The rabbi is literally to be a “friend” of the city, a person who is engaged in people’s lives, who strives to make society a better place. He is to feel personal responsibility for the spiritual and material wellbeing of the community. The Haver Ha-Ir is not an aloof scholar nor an otherworldly mystic, but is with the people and for the people.

We may explore the Haver Ha-Ir model by considering the teachings of four rabbinic figures of the modern period: Rabbi Benzion Uziel (1880–1953); Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993); Rabbi Haim David Halevy (1924–1998); and Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (1928–).


Rabbi Benzion Uziel: Yishuvo shel Olam


Rabbi Uziel was the pre-eminent Sephardic rabbi and posek of his generation. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he distinguished himself as an outstanding Torah scholar and communal leader. He was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1939 until his death in 1953. A prolific author, he is well known for his volumes of responsa, Mishpetei Uziel.[3]

At a rabbinic conference held in Jerusalem in 1919, Rabbi Uziel urged his colleagues to take an active role in the development of Jewish life in the land of Israel. He called on them to live and work among the people, to share their worries and aspirations, and to be an integral part of their lives: “This is our duty to our God and to our nation: to walk in the midst of the people, in the work of the people, to join ourselves in the task of building in all its forms, very carefully watching for the soul of the nation.” It is incumbent upon rabbis to conduct themselves “with words of pleasantness and with love for each individual Jew.” The religious message is best conveyed by establishing rapport with the public, by working with them and respecting them. “Let us walk on our path together with all the people, to love and appreciate, to learn and to teach the Torah of Israel and its tradition in the presence of all.”[4]

During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, a group of yeshiva students approached Rabbi Uziel and asked him to arrange exemptions for them from military service. They claimed that their study of Torah should take priority to serving as soldiers. Rabbi Uziel rebuked the students sharply. He told them that religious Jews, including yeshiva students, were obligated to share in the defense of the nation. If they were to influence society to live according to Torah, they themselves had to set an example that the public would respect and wish to emulate.[5]

Among the concepts that Rabbi Uziel emphasized in his teachings was the imperative to work for the general wellbeing of society—yishuvo shel olam. Judaism demands that its adherents live moral and upright lives. Religious Jews must feel troubled by any injustice in society and must strive to defend and protect the oppressed. Striving to create a harmonious society is not merely a reflection of social idealism; it is a religious mandate:


We are all workers and employees, each person according to his physical and intellectual abilities and talents; we are workers in the workplace to improve human life, to raise the level of culture and to fulfill the human charter for which we have been created and through which we live: to bring peace and truth, and the love of compassion and truth, throughout our world.”[6]


Each person who works honestly and efficiently is thereby helping to build a better world and is participating in yishuvo shel olam. Individuals who only seek their own interests, even if they are honest in their dealings, are not living up to the proper religious standard. A religious person should be constructive, honest, and concerned for the welfare of others.

The concept of fostering yishuvo shel olam not only relates to individuals; it is also a responsibility of the Jewish people as a whole. Just as we learn and benefit from other nations, so we are to contribute our own talents and energies for the advancement of humankind. Rabbi Uziel wrote:


Each country and each nation that respects itself does not and cannot be satisfied with its narrow boundaries and limited domains. Rather, they desire to bring in all that is good and beautiful, that is helpful and glorious to their national [cultural] treasury. And they wish to impart the maximum flow of their own blessings to the [cultural] treasury of humanity as a whole….Happy is the country and happy is the nation that can give itself an accounting of what it has taken from others; and more importantly, of what it has given of its own to the repository of all humanity. Woe unto that country and nation that encloses itself in its own four cubits and limits itself to its own narrow boundaries, lacking anything of its own to contribute [to humanity] and lacking the tools to receive [cultural] contributions from others.[7]


Rabbi Uziel noted that the Jewish people have contributed vastly to the idealism and morality of the world. Likewise, Jews have learned much from other nations. On balance, though, we have given far more than we have received.


As much as Israel drew from others…far, far more did it give of its own to others: Torah and light, purity of heart and the holiness of life, righteous justice and true ethics; love and appreciation of its Torah, a Torah for the world; the words of its prophets and sages from generation to generation, all of whom were imbued with an elevated love of the God of the universe and all who were created in His image, of all His creations of nature, a wise ethics, words of peace and truth.[8]


Yishuvo shel olam is an obligation to seek the benefit of humanity. This entails not only a responsibility for the physical wellbeing of others, but also a commitment to expand human knowledge, technology, and general culture. Yishuvo shel olam is


a precondition and vital need for our attaining our proper way in life. In the settlement and building of the world, knowledge is increased. From our knowledge of the mysteries of nature, our eyes are opened to new and very wide horizons, from which we will arise and announce the wonders of God, Creator of the universe, and the ways of His wondrous and hidden providence, all of which are love, justice, kindness and compassion.[9]


When Rabbi Uziel became Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel in 1939, he delivered a radio address to the nation. He stressed the need for all residents of the land to work together in harmony:


Our first task is the establishment of true peace and strong unity among all segments of the people, its communities and ethnic groups, its organizations and parties; to call “peace, peace to those who are far and near” among ourselves; and peace with all our neighbors in the land, of all religions and peoples.[10]


Later in his address, he spoke in Arabic to the Arab population:


We reach our hands out to you in peace, pure and trustworthy. We say: the land is stretched out before us, and with joined hands we will work it, we will uncover its treasures, and we will live on it as brothers who dwell together. Know and trust that the word of God will rise forever. Make peace with us and we will make peace with you. Together all of us will benefit from the blessing of God on His land; with quiet and peace, with love and fellowship, with goodwill and pure heart we will find the way of peace.[11]


In his role as a Haver Ha-Ir, Rabbi Uziel was a role model of rabbinic leadership that was imbued with a keen sense of responsibility to individuals, to society, to people of all backgrounds. His grand religious vision sought unity and harmony in a world often characterized by dissension and violence.


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Moral Courage


Rabbi Soloveitchik, the Rav, was the pre-eminent Orthodox rabbinic thinker of twentieth-century America. For many years, he taught Talmud at Yeshiva University and signed the rabbinic ordinations of thousands of disciples. He was the posek of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the Religious Zionists of America. He was the founder of the Maimonides Day School in Boston. Through his classes, public lectures and writings, he has had singular impact on the recent generations of Modern Orthodox Jews.

In his own rabbinic career, he drew inspiration from the teachings of his illustrious grandfather, Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk. When R. Hayyim was asked to describe the function of a rabbi, he replied: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”[12] In reporting these words of his grandfather, Rabbi Soloveitchik notes:


Neither ritual decisions nor political leadership constitutes the main task of halakhic man. Far from it. The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halakhic man follows, when he, as a rabbi and teacher in Israel, serves his community.[13]


Whereas some religions have an otherworldly focus, Judaism—as represented by halakhic man—is concerned primarily with this world. The goal is to bring comfort to those who suffer, justice to those who are oppressed, and kindness to those who are neglected:


Halakhic man is characterized by a powerful stiff-neckedness [sic] and stubbornness. He fights against life’s evil and struggles relentlessly with the wicked kingdom and with all the hosts of iniquity in the cosmos. His goal is not flight to another world that is wholly good, but rather bringing down that eternal world into the midst of our world.[14]


To wage a battle for righteousness requires tremendous courage. One must be prepared to confront powerful opponents, people who wish to maintain their own control over others. “Halakhic man does not quiver before any man; he does not seek out compliments, nor does he require public approval.”[15]

Rabbi Soloveitchik refers to an incident in the life of his grandfather, R. Hayyim of Brisk. It happened once that two Jews died in Brisk on the same day. In the morning, a poor shoemaker died. Later, a wealthy and prominent member of the community passed away. According to halakha, the one who dies first must be buried first. However, the members of the burial society decided (after they had apparently been given a handsome sum from the rich man’s heirs) to attend to the rich man’s burial first. When R. Hayyim learned of this, he sent a message to the burial society to desist from their disgraceful behavior. The members of the burial society refused to heed R. Hayyim’s directive, and they continued to prepare for the burial of the wealthy man.


R. Hayyim then arose, took his walking stick, trudged over to the house of the deceased, and chased all the attendants outside. R. Hayyim prevailed—the poor man was buried before the rich man. R. Hayyim’s enemies multiplied and increased. Thus have true halakhic men always acted, for their study and their deeds have blended together beautifully, truly beautifully.[16]


Halakha is unequivocally dedicated to fostering righteousness. The hallmark of great halakhic sages has been their lofty ethical standards and their deep 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 Halakhah equated the act of publicly embarrassing a person with murder.[17]


Halakhic Judaism is the antithesis of mystical quietism that views pain and suffering in a passive, fatalistic manner. Rather, the halakha “wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness.”[18]

In one of his teshuvah lectures, the Rav elaborated on the connection a Jew must feel toward Knesset Israel, the community of Israel that transcends time and place.


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.[19]


The Haver Ha-Ir must have moral courage so as to set an example to others. For Rabbi Soloveitchik, “heroism is the central category in practical Judaism.”[20]


Rabbi Haim David Halevy: Kevod HaBeriyot


Rabbi Haim David Halevy was a prolific author and teacher, a gifted halakhic scholar, a devotee of kabbalah, and a creative thinker who applied Torah wisdom to the dilemmas of the modern world. From 1972 until his death in 1998, he served as Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.

For a number of years, Rabbi Halevy conducted a popular Israeli radio program, Asei Lekha Rav, in which he answered a wide range of questions posed to him by listeners. He later wrote up and elaborated on his responses, publishing them in a series of volumes also entitled Asei Lekha Rav. In the first responsum in Volume One of this series, Rabbi Halevy noted that a rabbi was not simply a decisor of rabbinic law who ruled on what was forbidden and what was permitted. “Rather he is also—and perhaps mainly—an advisor to everyone in his community for all questions, small and large.”[21]

A recurring theme in his voluminous writings was the respect due to fellow human beings. Sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others is a basic feature of proper religious life. An example of this sensitivity is evident in a responsum he wrote relating to wedding ceremonies.

Some rabbis had the practice of reciting the wedding blessings and then taking a sip of wine themselves. They then gave the wine to the groom and bride for them to drink from the wine cup. Rabbi Halevy ruled that rabbis should not drink from the cup before giving it to the couple. Some people feel uncomfortable drinking from a glass from which someone else has drunk. Even if many people do not mind drinking from the cup of others, “Aren’t we obligated to worry about even the one in a thousand who is particular, and who will drink the wine and feel hurt?”[22] Rabbi Halevy added that when he recited Kiddush at home, he would pass it to family members who did not mind drinking from a shared cup. But whenever he had a guest at the table, he poured from the Kiddush cup into a separate cup from which he drank. He would then pass the Kiddush cup to the others so that they could pour a bit of wine into their own clean cups.

In another case, Rabbi Halevy dealt with the following situation. On a Shabbat, a large group of family and friends attended a synagogue to celebrate with a bridegroom. Among the guests was a young man, who had become blind through an injury in battle while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. The family requested that this blind young man be given an aliya, but the rabbi of the synagogue cited the Shulhan Arukh, who ruled that a blind person may not be called to the Torah. The blind soldier told the rabbi that he was called to the Torah in his regular synagogue, but the rabbi was not swayed. Feeling angry and humiliated, the soldier and some members of his family left the synagogue.

When Rabbi Halevy heard of this case, he was deeply pained. The young soldier, who had sacrificed so much on behalf of his country, was treated shabbily. If the soldier told the rabbi that he had been receiving aliyot in his regular synagogue, the rabbi should have given credence to this. “How careful one must be when it comes to kevod haBeriyot, who were created in the image of God.” Rabbi Halevy noted that the Sephardic community generally did not accept the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 139:3) forbidding aliyot to blind people, but rather followed the opinion of other rabbinic authorities permitting this practice.[23]

Rabbi Halevy was asked if non-observant Jews should be allowed to participate in the celebration of finishing the writing of a Torah scroll. Usually, a qualified scribe would write the entire Torah, leaving the last few letters to be filled in by the sponsors or donors of the writing of the scroll. Rabbi Halevy permitted non-observant Jews to participate in this happy occasion. “If we prevent them from doing this, there is a fear of complaints, Heaven forbid, since the general practice [is to let non-observant Jews participate].” How embarrassing it would be for the non-observant people to be turned away from participating in this mitzvah. It would be a public humiliation that could deepen their alienation from religious observance.[24]

Rabbi Halevy criticized a practice of some religiously observant Jews to publicly scream at those who were violating Shabbat or other ritual laws. These pietists are vocal in their protest of laxities in ritual observances, yet “they remain quiet and take things in normal stride when they see social and ethical breakdowns in many areas of our public life, when people swallow each other alive, and the moral thread of our life is broken.”[25] For Rabbi Halevy, religious Jews should demonstrate concern for all society and for the general moral health of society.

Rabbi Halevy’s concern for society included his concern for the wellbeing of non-Jews. He argued that Christians and Muslims were not to be considered as “idolaters,” nor were they to be subjected to talmudic rulings that related to idolaters. “Providing their sustenance, visiting their sick, burying their dead, comforting their mourners are all to be performed because of the human ethical imperative, not specifically [only] for the sake of peace.”[26] Relationships between Jews and non-Jews, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, were to be governed by the moral obligations that bound all human beings.


Rabbi Nahum Rabinovich: Shutafut


Rabbi Nahum Rabinovich has served as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maale Adumim for many years. A respected posek and thinker, his teachings provide important insight into the role of a Haver Ha-Ir.

Rabbi Rabinovich draws on the halakhic idea that members of a community are in a partnership relationship. They each share equally in rights and obligations. Since societies include members with different views, the notion of shutafut, partnership, is very important. Instead of each individual or group struggling in an adversarial manner against those with different opinions, all members of society should recognize that they are partners in the same venture. In spite of differences, they need to find ways of working together for the betterment of society as a whole.


In order to reach a practical agreement and cooperation among various groups of society, it is necessary to open doors of genuine dialogue among these groups. Dialogue among the various groups in society will enable them to overcome the deep rifts and conflicts that exist and that are growing.[27]


Rabbi Rabinovich pointed out that the religiously observant community had a responsibility to society as a whole, not merely to their own religious enclaves. Since the religious, along with all other citizens, are partners with equal rights and obligations, they need to be concerned with issues beyond their own neighborhoods. For example, since the Torah was given to all Jews, it is incumbent upon the religious education leaders to recognize their responsibility to the entire public. They should work in harmony with the general education system in order to meet the needs of all students, not only the students in the religious school system. They need to work for the inclusion of Torah values, without diminishing the need for students to study science and technology and other subjects that are essential for the social and economic life of the nation.


We must create religious schools not only for children [from religious families] but also for children whose parents want them to excel in computers, mathematics, vocations and other fields. In these schools children will also learn Torah…. Religious education can draw to itself a large portion of children in Israel, if only it would know how to approach the various groupings of society.[28]


As another example of how the religious community should be working in partnership with other segments of society, Rabbi Rabinovich points to economic issues. All society is impacted negatively by rampant inflation. Why then are the religious parties not front and center in dealing with this problem? Shouldn’t rabbis throughout the land be preaching and teaching about the ills of inflation, the sufferings of the poor, and so forth? Why should economic issues be relegated to the domain of the “secular” community, when this is an area that impacts on society as a whole?[29]

Another striking example: seat belts. Many Israelis are killed or injured in automobile accidents each year. Some years ago, a suggestion was made to make wearing seat belts a legal requirement. This would save lives and reduce injuries. Yet, before a seat belt law was enacted in Israel, there were delays so that studies could be made to determine the effectiveness of seat belts. Yet, such studies had already been made in other countries and the evidence was clear that seat belts are an important safety feature. Why was so much time lost before enacting the law in Israel? Why wasn’t this issue high among the priorities of the religious community? “The time has come for us to recognize that confronting such issues is a moral and religious obligation, and we must be the acute prodders in confronting situations which involve safety to life.”[30]

   Rabbi Rabinovich notes that


the light of Torah cannot be revealed or shown as long as Torah manifests itself as the Torah of a particular group, but only when the Torah is the Torah for all society. The challenge at the door of the sages of Torah is to demonstrate how great is the power of Torah for arranging the life of the community at large….We have the genuine opportunity to spread Torah among large segments of the Israeli public, and ultimately to almost all the residents of the State, if only we can succeed to break the sectarian or religious party muzzle. This will not be an easy task, and there are those on all sides who wish to protect their narrow interests and who strive to strengthen those muzzles. Nevertheless, we must undertake this task.[31]


For Rabbi Rabinovich, the principle of shutafut is at the heart of creating a vibrant and healthy society. Each member of society needs to feel a sense of partnership with all other members of society. Breaking into small self-contained “interest groups” undermines the general harmony of society.

The Haver Ha-Ir model of leadership entails a grand religious vision, courage, respect and a sense of partnership with all members of society. The rabbi, as an exemplar of this model of leadership, must strive not merely to study and teach Torah, but to live Torah.



[1] See Encyclopedia Talmudit, Jerusalem, 1978, volume 12, columns 532–536.

[2] Sha’arei Uziel, Jerusalem, 5751, Volume 1, 52.

[3] For more on Rabbi Uziel, see Marc D. Angel, Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1999).

[4] Mikhmanei Uziel, Tel Aviv, 5699, 328.

[5] Reported by Shabbetai Don Yihye, HaRav Benzion Meir Hai Uziel: Hayav uMishnato (Jerusalem: Histadrut HaZionit, 5715), 227.

[6] Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 5713, 206–207.

[7] Hegyonei Uziel, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 5714, 127.

[8] Ibid., 128.

[9] Ibid., 109.

[10] Mikhmanei Uziel, 424.

[11] Ibid., 429.

[12] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 91.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] Ibid., 89.

[16] Ibid., 95.

[17] Idem, “The Community,” Tradition 17:2 (1978), 16.

[18] Idem, “Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah,” Ibid., 65.

[19] Idem, Al haTeshuva, ed., Pinchas Peli (Jerusalem: 5736), 98.

[20] “The Community,” 13.

[21] Rabbi Haim David Halevy, Asei Lekha Rav, Tel Aviv, 5736, 1:1. For more on Rabbi Halevy, Marc D. Angel and Hayyim J. Angel, Rabbi Haim David Halevy: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker (Jerusalem: Urim, 2006).

[22] Asei Lekha Rav, 8:74.

[23] Ibid., 6:20.

[24] Mayyim Hayyim, 2:57.

[25] Asei Lekha Rav, 8:32–35.

[26] Ibid., 9:33.

[27] Nahum Rabinovich, Mesilot Bilvavam (Maale Adumim: Maaliyot, 5775), 372.

[28] Ibid., p. 393.

[29] Ibid., p. 396.

[30] Ibid., p. 397.

[31] Ibid., p. 400.