Teach­ing To­rah in Is­rael

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - The writer is a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Rab­bini­cal Assem­bly and a mem­ber of its Com­mit­tee on Jewish Law and Stan­dards. Two of his books re­ceived the Na­tional Jewish Book Award. His most re­cent book is Akiva: Life, Leg­end, Legacy, avail­able both in English

Books based on the parasha have be­come very com­mon. Af­ter all, that is the way most peo­ple hear the To­rah and the way in which it is most of­ten taught. I think that this way be­came even more pop­u­lar be­cause of the work of the late beloved teacher Nechama Lei­bowitz. Even be­fore the state was born, she de­vel­oped a method of teach­ing the parasha through work­sheets, bas­ing them on pas­sages from tra­di­tional com­men­taries, dis­sect­ing them and com­par­ing them and re­quir­ing the stu­dent to com­ment on them in depth.

What was most re­mark­able was that she took it upon her­self to then read all of those sent to her and com­ment on them. Where she found the time to do that I do not know, but it left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on her hun­dreds of stu­dents, my daugh­ter among them. Al­though strictly Ortho­dox, there was noth­ing su­per­fi­cial or apolo­getic about her ap­proach. She brought new life to an­cient texts and made them speak to mod­ern times.

One of her fore­most pupils was Rabbi Ben Hol­lan­der. He be­came a true dis­ci­ple, taught along with her and car­ried on her meth­ods, even though he came from a to­tally dif­fer­ent back­ground. He was a Con­ser­va­tive rabbi, brought up in Amer­ica and or­dained by the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, where Bi­ble was taught in a very dif­fer­ent, aca­demic fash­ion. Ben – who was a friend and col­league – passed away 10 years ago in 2008 at the age of 72. How­ever, he was youth­ful and his death was a tragic loss for the many pupils he in­flu­enced and the many in­sti­tu­tions, rep­re­sent­ing so many dif­fer­ent facets of Is­raeli Ju­daism, at which he taught. He left be­hind a fan­tas­tic liv­ing legacy, but very lit­tle in writ­ing. Per­haps he was too busy liv­ing To­rah and teach­ing it to spare much time for any­thing else.

The thou­sands of young peo­ple who had the priv­i­lege of learn­ing with him never for­got him. Much like his men­tor Nechama Lei­bowitz, his per­sonal in­volve­ment with each stu­dent brought To­rah to life and made it part of the in­ner world of each one. Ben was one of the founders of Rab­bis for Hu­man Rights. His un­der­stand­ing of Ju­daism was that the essence of To­rah was the strug­gle for jus­tice, mercy and hu­man dig­nity for all peo­ples.

When his friends at the Rab­bis for Hu­man Rights or­ga­ni­za­tion de­cided to honor his mem­ory, they were for­tu­nate to dis­cover that in 1993-4 Rabbi Hol­lan­der had pre­sented a weekly broad­cast of Kol Yis­rael English news each Fri­day de­voted to the weekly To­rah por­tion. Each broad­cast was four min­utes long – I re­mem­ber be­cause I, too, did that series one year and re­call how dif­fi­cult it was to com­pose some­thing mean­ing­ful in such a brief time. Ben had thought to use those talks as a ba­sis for a book, edit­ing and ex­pand­ing them. He ac­tu­ally be­gan the work, but never lived to com­plete it.

His friend, Rabbi Michael J. Schwartz, to­gether with oth­ers, un­der­took the task of edit­ing the man­u­script, fill­ing in the gaps and adding a few other ar­ti­cles Ben had writ­ten, to cre­ate a book ti­tled To Be Con­tin­ued…, which has now been pub­lished. It is a fit­ting me­mo­rial to a re­mark­able hu­man be­ing and a very tal­ented and de­voted teacher of To­rah. Read­ing his com­men­taries is in­spir­ing, giv­ing those who did not know him at least a taste of what it meant to learn with him.

In the in­tro­duc­tion he wrote to the book he was pre­par­ing he dis­cussed Rashi’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the story of Ge­n­e­sis in which he con­nects it to God’s grant­ing the Land of Is­rael to the Jewish peo­ple and there­fore to the mitz­vah of liv­ing in Is­rael. “It is the re­turn to the Land of Is­rael in our time that re­stores the Jewish Peo­ple to be­come play­ers again on the cho­sen stage of sa­cred his­tory.” But this is also the chal­lenge – “defin­ing and grap­pling with these three ba­sic el­e­ments of Jewish ex­is­tence: the peo­ple, the Land and the re­li­gious/ moral mis­sion man­dated by To­rah.”

His com­mit­ment to Zion­ism is clear, but so is his ded­i­ca­tion to peace and to strength­en­ing Jewish-Arab re­la­tions. He wrote a piece, for ex­am­ple, ti­tled “Ake­dat Ish­mael.” In it, he points out that on Rosh Hashanah we read both the story of Ish­mael’s near death in the desert and of Isaac’s near death on Mount Mo­riah. The les­son here is that “Ish­mael is dear to God, and that just as God heard the voice of Ish­mael ‘where he is,’ so must we... by learn­ing to walk to­gether in the path of One God to do jus­tice and right­eous­ness in the Land.”

Rabbi Hol­lan­der wrote that in his weekly talks he “sought to ar­tic­u­late... the high­est aspi­ra­tions of Ju­daism, the To­rah val­ues which ought to guide us as we seek – in our dis­parate ways – to ap­ply them prac­ti­cally to the com­plex prob­lems and dilem­mas con­fronting our so­ci­ety. My mes­sage was... the need for a Jewish­ness rooted in our source... but... also in­formed by a sen­si­tiv­ity to all peo­ple be­ing cre­ated in the im­age of God’ and a com­mit­ment to our be­com­ing a ‘bless­ing for all the fam­i­lies of the earth.’”

What we des­per­ately need to­day in Is­rael is a cadre of rab­bis in all the var­i­ous de­nom­i­na­tions who share Rabbi Hol­lan­der’s pas­sion for mak­ing the To­rah a source for en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to live ac­cord­ing to the moral and eth­i­cal val­ues of Ju­daism as de­vel­oped over the cen­turies.

We need teach­ers who feel that the To­rah must be ex­am­ined in depth through the prism of the tra­di­tion but never as a frozen text with­out rel­e­vance to the dilem­mas of life to­day, com­bin­ing in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty with emo­tional fer­vor. Ben Hol­lan­der was such a rabbi. ■

What we des­per­ately need to­day in Is­rael is a cadre of rab­bis in all the var­i­ous de­nom­i­na­tions who share Rabbi Hol­lan­der’s pas­sion for mak­ing the To­rah a source for en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to live ac­cord­ing to the moral and eth­i­cal val­ues of Ju­daism...

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

‘HAGAR GIV­ING Ish­mael Wa­ter From the Mirac­u­lous Well in the Desert,’ Charles Paul Lan­don.

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