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.


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)




This entry was posted in Aveilut, Philosophy, Politics, Shoah / Holocaust, War and Conflict. Bookmark the permalink.

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