A Haredi Humanist In Jerusalem – Introducing Rav Tukachinsky’s Gesher HaChayim

In the 1940s, whilst the Second World War ravaged Europe, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (1871-1955) composed what would become an authoritative work on the laws, practices and philosophy of Jewish mourning. He called it Gesher HaChayim, or, The Bridge of Life.

It has long been considered a classic, not only for its halachic mastery, but also for its combination of halacha with midrash, Zohar, quirky personal footnotes, and deep human empathy, and I hope at some point to write a piece that draws out some of the work’s unique features. For now however I have translated the final part of the book’s introduction, which reflects on the author’s feelings about writing such a work during World War II.

The translation follows below and can be downloaded as a pdf with both Hebrew and English here. Before that however I have sketched a few reflections. The introduction is remarkable for a number of reasons:

Universalism. Notwithstanding the challenging Rabbinic Hebrew, the intended audience is humanity as a whole – a call for the world to pause in its mutual destruction and consider the purposes and value of life in itself.

WWII vs. The Holocaust. Jews today are accustomed, and understandably so, to first think of the word ‘Shoah’ and only then ‘World War’ when reflecting on that dark period. Astonishingly, in R Tukachinsky’s introduction, the Holocaust is not mentioned. Even if this is out of ignorance of what was taking place, R Tukachinsky could not have been unaware of the rise of anti-Semitism in the preceding years, and yet rather than placing the emphasis of his introduction to what is after all a halachic work on the Jewish and the particular (which would have been eminently understandable) he directs his message to mankind as a whole.

Critique of modernity. In R Tukachinsky’s eyes, the rise of machines and technology since the industrial revolution that was made possible by the great growth in human knowledge has led not only in the functional sense to the potential for extermination on an unprecedented scale but also in an essential sense, for it has entailed an exclusive consideration of the means of living and a neglect of the ends, the telos, of life. The critique is not a novel one. It is probably most deeply associated with the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and others – who were writing at exactly the same period. But it is certainly fascinating to find it not in the arms of a Marxist critical theorist or a Conservative reactionary, but employed and developed by one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem and given a halachic-humanist twist.

The understanding of Aveilut. There is a wide-spread superstition amongst Jews, that the Torah of death and bereavement, the halachot and minhagim of Aveilut, should only be studied by those who need to know them for immediate practical purposes. Rav Tukachinsky would have considered this a tragedy – and I agree. I struggle to think of another area of Jewish law and practice where the connection between the written legal texts and questions of life and loss, meaning and mortality are so deeply connected to one another. In his words, ‘Remembering the day of death, even if only in a superficial manner, reminds man that he is alive, and this memory has the power to open his eyes to the immense goodness and light which is hidden in life’. Students of Rav Lichtenstein zt”l, my own teacher and a great religious humanist in his own right, will be interested to see that Rav Tukachinsky’s vort towards the end of the introduction about the eglah arufa preempts an almost identical dvar Torah by Rav Lichtenstein.

I hope that this ‘taster’ of the work of a great Halachic master provides people with nourishing and provoking Torah for the period leading up to Tisha B’Av.

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Rav Tukachinsky 

Rav Yehiel Michel Tukochinsky’s Introduction To Gesher HaChayim

And fate has decided that this work should be completed and printed b’ezrat Hashem specifically at a time of a most terrible war, the like of which has never been seen before. A war that broke the definition of what war is, and has become a global catastrophe, where nations and peoples are at war not only through their armies, but one involving entire countries and their residents, killing, murdering, exploding, destroying and wiping out all existence. A world where man controls man, destroying man – this is his work.

A war such as this is the direct result of the loss of faith in life and its purposes. The faith in the greatness and destiny of man has been destroyed – for what and for who then is man? If man has no purpose in life, and there is no value to life – then what value is his life? And it must come as no surprise if he will agree to give up his life and the lives of others, and for it to be no great matter in his eyes to be killed and to kill…

And how painful and vile is this fact: that all of the wisdom of mankind (the first and wisest of all creatures on the earth) now serves only to increase destruction and devastation, using all of his knowledge to invent all sorts of ways to speedily wipe out the masses of mankind!

For a long time now, wisdom and knowledge have ceased to serve life itself. For the spirit of man has been almost entirely dedicated to improving the means and conditions of existence. All of his skills and ingenuity dedicated only to finding ways to make his life easier and more pleasant. All of his learning and knowledge serve only his wealth and ease (whether or not he has achieved this desire through all of his inventiveness – is a question in and of itself) and he has totally neglected the study of life itself and its meaning. And now wisdom is wreaking its revenge on man, a tragic revenge… his inventions that made his life easier now make easier his death.

And at a time such as this, when life has become so cheap, and the end of life has become so commonplace and insignificant – is there a place for a ‘sefer’ dedicated precisely to the value of exactly this moment and the many issues surrounding it?! The answer is clear: precisely at a period such as this when the majority of men do not know the value of life, of death, of nothingness, neither in death nor in life – do we need works such as this one which direct the heart to the wisdom of Torah and  of our sages and teachers (who all their days dealt with the meaning of life and its purpose), who exemplify the great affirmation (hayesh hagadol) of life, and in the journey onwards from life, and of the life that exists in  death.

At a moment like this, where the atmosphere is so full of murderous war, and is so soaked with the blood of man, are we most in need of turning our attention to the Torah of life which so venerates the life of man on this earth, and which understands the end of man, ‘the day of death’ to in fact not be an end at all but rather a continuation and consequence of his original life.

[Take note: the chapter concerning the ‘eglah arufa’  (Devarim 21:1-10), which describes the complex protocol that the local officials are obligated to perform when a murder victim is found without any indication of who the murderer is, our holy Torah placed these laws specifically in the middle of the laws of warfare (between the passage of ‘when you go out to war against your enemies’ at the end of Parshat Shoftim, and the passage of ‘when you go out to war’ at the beginning of Ki Tetze), to show us that even, and especially, and a time when you are obligated to protect yourself, and to kill and to spill the blood of enemies, do not let the value of life, even then, be a minor thing in your eyes].

And the whole Torah of Israel in its entirety comes to teach us the great value of life and its purposes. And all of its commandments and teachings, demonstrate how to make the most of life and through them to fulfill the command of ‘and you shall choose life’ (Devarim 30:19).

The difficulties of life in general, and of the wars of life in particular, cause man to forget not only his value, but also his essence and (the reason for) his existence. Not only does he not ask himself why and for what does he live and exert himself, he does not even realise that he is alive. Remembering the day of death, even if only in a superficial manner, reminds man that he is alive, and this memory has the power to open his eyes to the immense goodness and light which is hidden in life.

And when a person recognizes the value of life, he will recoil from all that leads to murder and from all of the acts that lessen the image and dignity of man

וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ בְּאַחֲרִ֣ית הַיָּמִ֗ים יִ֠הְיֶה הַ֣ר בֵּית־ה’ נָכוֹן֙ בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הֶהָרִ֔ים וְנִשָּׂ֥א ה֖וּא מִגְּבָע֑וֹת וְנָהֲר֥וּ עָלָ֖יו עַמִּֽים׃ וְֽהָלְכ֞וּ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֗ים וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ ׀ וְנַעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר־יְהוָ֗ה וְאֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְיוֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹֽרְחֹתָ֑יו כִּ֤י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ וְשָׁפַ֗ט בֵּ֚ין עַמִּ֣ים רַבִּ֔ים וְהוֹכִ֛יחַ לְגוֹיִ֥ם עֲצֻמִ֖ים עַד־רָח֑וֹק וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבֹתֵיהֶ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים וַחֲנִיתֹֽתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת לֹֽא־יִשְׂא֞וּ גּ֤וֹי אֶל־גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְד֥וּן ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃

In the days to come, The Mount of the Lord’s House shall stand Firm above the mountains; And it shall tower above the hills. The peoples shall gaze on it with joy, And the many nations shall go and shall say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem. Thus He will judge among the many peoples, And arbitrate for the multitude of nations, However distant; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war (Michah 4:1-3)

 

 

 

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Biblical Paradigms of Conversion: Avot, Sinai and Rut. A Shiur for Shavuot

Shavuot is the festival of the Jewish people’s conversion. The gemara in Masechet Keritut (9a) derives from the Torah’s description of Mount Sinai the necessary steps that a potential candidate for conversion needs to take. Shavuot is also the festival on which we read Megillat Rut – Rut, also represents an ideal model of geirut – yet seemingly a very different one from the model of Sinai.

This shiur (the introductory class to the course on conversion I gave earlier this semester, which I plan to upload the rest of soon) examines these various Biblical paradigms of conversion, examining how each of them contributed to Chazal’s understanding (and our own) of what the core nature of being Jewish is, and what the potential candidate for conversion needs to do in order to become a member of the Jewish people.

Audio is here and source sheet is here.

And in the spirit of Shavuot and Rut, here is the first piece I ever published on this website, entitled ‘Why Rut‘ – a close reading of the megilla and an attempt to understand its power and relevance.

 

1200px-mount_moses

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On The Second Yahrzeit Of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

Today is the second yahrzeit of my great teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. One of the experiences I am most grateful for is to have spent some of my most formative years sitting in the same Bet Midrash as him listening to his shiurim and sichot, absorbing his teachings.  Talmud Torah was what he lived for. Intimate and vast was his knowledge. Fiery and passionate about many issues, gentle and kind relating to individuals. Balancing and harmonising diverse commitments of Torah and public service, religious and secular knowledge, community and family. Linked here is a piece I wrote a few years ago when he received the Israel Prize and here is an excerpt about one of the aspects of his personality that made the strongest impression on me – on the tension and necessesity of being both passionate people and complex people.

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A number of years ago I sat in on a question and answer with Rav Lichtenstein with some visiting high school students from Manchester. One asked the obvious question for an eighteen year old formulating his gap-year plans, ‘what is it that makes your yeshiva unique?’ After a few moments of insisting that there were many wonderful yeshivot to choose from, Rav Lichtenstein came up with the following formulation about what he hoped characterised Yeshivat Har Etzion. There is a tension, Rav Lichtenstein explained, between two values: complexity and passion. Complexity entails being able to see multiple sides to an issue – the understanding that no single perspective captures the whole truth, that our own deeply held convictions will not necessarily be shared by others, for perfectly valid reasons. Passion entails a sense of absolute commitment to a cause, a love and determination to see a task through, to be bound up totally in one’s belief.

Passion does not naturally lead to complexity for passion is far easier to engender when one views the critical issues as black and white – when you are right, and the other is wrong. Complexity does not naturally lead to passion, for an appreciation of multiple angles and perspectives can leave one disinclined to commit to any single perspective. Said Rav Lichtenstein, his hope for the unique character of the yeshiva is that a synthesis is attained between passion and complexity – not a lukewarm halfway house, which pays lip-service to one without truly fulfilling the other, but a true and deep combination; to be as passionate as possible on the one hand, and as sensitive to nuance and complexity as possible on the other.

On hearing or reading these words an understandable response is that such a fusion is admirably idealistic, yet in practise unattainable. We all know in ourselves that we often achieve one of these values at the cost of the other. Yet all who have come into contact with Rav Lichtenstein recognise in him an exquisite balance of the two. I have never met someone as passionate as Rav Lichtenstein, nor anyone as complex as him, with such an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an issue, not only in the study of a sugya, but when engaged in public debate or helping a student address a delicate and personal issue. In my mind this should be a central aspiration not only of Yeshivat Har Etzion, but of modern orthodoxy as a whole, and Rav Lichtenstein’s example provides a model for us all.

May his memory be a blessing

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Six Shiurim on Shemot To Illuminate Pesach

I have loved Shemot (Exodus) for many years and so this year we chose to study it over the Spring Semester so that in the run up to Pesach we would have spent time in-depth time with the critical stories that make up the background to the Jews’ slavery, their liberation, Mosheh’s leadership, and the journey to Sinai, enriching our understanding of our most important national story.

All the shiurim focus closely on the Biblical text and have accompanying source sheets – although listening ‘on the go’ is definitely feasible.

1. Introducing Shemot – What’s In A Name

2. Introducing Mosheh – The First 80 Years

3. The Time God Tried To Kill Mosheh

4. Religion, Politics & Understanding The Lineage Interruption

5. Unmasking The Plagues

6. The Midrashim Of The Splitting Of The Sea

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!

Shemot image.jpg

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Pahad Yitzhak on Hanukah – Listening To God’s Silence

Yishayahu  (54:1) said: ‘Greater are sons of the desolate one…’ upon which the Sages expanded: more righteous ones arose for me in a time of destruction than in a time when the Temple stood.

Rav Hutner in his classic work Pahad Yitzhak develops these sources to explain the role of the Anshei Knesset HaGedola, the men of the great assembly, and the place of Hanukah in Jewish history. In doing so he touches upon key questions at the heart of Jewish thought: what marks the line between the Biblical and post-Biblical periods, what is the relationship between wisdom and prophecy, and what it means to listen not only to God’s words but also to his silence.

A piece for Hanukah and for ‘light in the darkness’ in the deepest and darkest sense of the phrase.

Recording and sources here

light

 

 

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Kibbud Av V’Em – On The Mitzvah and Difficulties of Honouring Parents

For the second half of the Fall Semester at NYU in our gemara class, we decided to study the sugyot of Kibbud Av V’Eim (honouring parents).

Kibbud Av V’Em is one of the most taken for granted of all halachic topics – be a good boy and do what your parents say, right? On reflection however nothing could be further from the truth. Kibbud Av V’Eim is unique in many respects – accompanying a person throughout their life yet changing from one stage to the next, almost impossible to fulfill, with no simple distinction between machmir and meikel. No two families are alike and every individual is frequently their own posek.

In our classes we study both the halachic and the aggadic sections of the topic that appear towards the end of the first chapter of Kiddushin.

  1.  Introduction and Fundamentals -The Uniqueness of Kibbud Av V’Em, in general and in this generation, and the meaning of the comparison of honouring parents as akin to honouring God.
  2.  Repaying The Debt?
  3. The Orphan’s Question: When Kibbud Av Conflicts With Kibbud Eim
  4. Romeo and Juliet B’Halacha: When Parents Disagree With Your Choice of Partner and Other Delicate Situations
  5. What (Not) To Do With An Annoying Parent: The Story of Rav Assi’s Mother and the Maharam of Rothenburg’s Father

 

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Abrabanel’s Anti-Politics

In our fourth class on Jewish Political Thought we study the thought of Don Yitzchak Abrabanel (1437-1508). Abrabanel was one of the most distinguished politicians and statesmen in Jewish history and also one of the tradition’s finest political thinkers.
Fascinatingly, despite holding senior positions in Spain, Portugal, Venice, and Naples, he created a political philosophy which rejects not only monarchy (the mainstream Jewish position) in favour of republican democracy, but even appears to reject political association altogether. Relating to this week’s parshat hashavua: what was the sin of those who built the tower of Babel? That they built a city and engaged in political life. That was it!

To listen to the shiur and see the source sheet, click here:

If you missed them, here are the first three classes:

  1. Monarchy in The Bible: The Mitzvah To Appoint A King (or is it?)
  2. The Rambam’s Political Philosophy: Religion Serves The State, The State Serves Religion
  3. Rabbeinu Nissim’s (Ran): Separation and Coexistence of Religion and Politics

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Venice in the middle ages

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Two Shiurim for Sukkot

The Rambam on Simcha – In Our Lives, On Festivals, On Sukkot

Rav Hutner’s Pahad Yitzhak on Sukkot – the clouds of glory after the golden calf, the second tablets, Yaakov, Emet, temporary and permanence and on developing personalities which incorporate within them multiple middot (attributes), in order to ‘l’galot partzuph haTzelem. All in a single page. Mindblowing.

 

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Yamim Nora’im Torah

The start of the academic year at NYU has corresponded with Ellul, Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur, and thank God our community has been able to learn a lot of Torah.

Below are the recordings of three courses with classes ranging in length from five to forty-five minutes. Just enough time before Yom Kippur to fit a couple of them in!

Pre-Selichot Thoughts and Ideas – (5 Minutes on Average)

Hashem As Shliach Tzibbur

Who Is A Ba’al Teshuva?

Why Does Elazar Ben Durdaya Cry?

Hashem – The First Attribute

Every Mitzvah As Teshuva

Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva (15-20 minutes each)

Ch.1 – Did The Rambam Think Teshuva Was A Mitzvah?

Ch.2 – Internal and External

Ch.3 – Everyone As Perfectly Balanced Between Faults and Merits

Ch.4 – What Prevents Teshuva

Ch.5 – The Centrality of Free Will

Chs.6+7 – The Mindset of Teshuva 

Shabbat Shuva DerashaThe Hypocrisy of Teshuva (source sheet)

Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Noraim (approx. 45 minutes)

Noach As Everyman

Yechezkel, Mosheh, and the 13 Attributes

Avraham (guest lecture by Rabbi Dr Sam Lebens)

Yishmael

Yonah

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Two New Courses: Jewish Political Thought & Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Noraim

I’ve been teaching two exciting new courses at The Bronfman Center since the start of semester – both designed to be relevant to this point in the Jewish and secular calendar as well as stimulating and rigorous Torah.

The first is Jewish Political Though focusing on the range of views about the relationship between religion and state developed by the rabbis of Middle Ages. An important topic at any time,but also one which gives us ways to think about the relationship between Judaism and the State of Israel, as well as the nature of politics from the perspective of the great sages of our tradition during this election cycle.

The second is a series called Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Noraim . My claim is that although not focused around a single historical event, an appreciation for the richness of these festivals is greatly enhanced by paying close attention to the Biblical stories that make up the Torah readings and tefillot of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur,  allowing us to uncover the humanity, range and depth of the critical ideas at the heart of these festivals.

Here are the recordings and source sheets for the first two classes in each course. More to follow as the courses unfold.

Jewish Political Thought

  1. Monarchy in The Bible: The Mitzvah To Appoint A King (or is it?)
  2. The Rambam’s Political Philosophy: Religion Serves The State, The State Serves Religion

Tanakh Characters of the Yamim Nora’im

  1. Rosh HaShanah Mussaf and Noah as Everyman 
  2. The 13 Attributes of Hashem’s Mercy: Mosheh vs. Yechezkel
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