Last month, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, the dean of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maale Adumim, passed away at the age of 92 years old. As a tribute to him at the end of thirty days of mourning, I will devote a post to his philosophical writings about Jewish law. He had a unique Maimonidean intellectual perspective of rationality, autonomy, historic situation, and applying the law to achieve its uplifting purpose. We will look at three of his essays, two of which were written in Hebrew as part of his 1991 book The Way of Torah (Darkhei Hatorah) and one in English.(You may want to download the three essays before we start- Way of Torah, EmunatHakhamim, Rambam Science Taamei Mitzvot) We will conclude with some quotes from his recent Hebrew lectures to students. (I am always happy for lists of typos)
Most of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s thought has been edited into a single Hebrew volume Mesilot bi-Levavam- this is the volume to buy.
But first, a little background the life of Rabbi Nahum L. Rabinovitch, a giant of a rabbinic figure. Born in Montreal, Canada in 1928, He studied under the Pinchas Hirschprung, who ordained him at the age of 20, afterwards he studied at the Ner Yisroel yeshiva in Baltimore, Maryland. He served as a congregational rabbi, first in South Carolina and later in Toronto, where he dealt with the nuts and bolts of basic congregational life even teaching primary grades in the day school he founded. While in Toronto, he completed a doctorate in the history of science at the University of Toronto specializing in Rabbinic probability and statistics as well as the mathematics of the medieval Jewish thinkers Gersonides and Crescas. In 1971, he accepted the spectacular offer to become principal of Jews’ College in London. He could have been the head of any institution in the North American or the UK. In 1983 Rabbi Rabinovitch immigrated to Israel to accept an offer to become dean of the hesder yeshiva, Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, in Maaleh Adumim. For those who read Hebrew, there is a FB page collection of tributes from his students, including many entries from Rabbi Yoni Rosenzweig, an interesting one from Dror Bondy, and many others-here
The best tribute to Rabinovitch was penned two years ago by Prof. Allan Nadler as “Maimonides in Ma’ale Adumim.” Nadler points out the Maimonidean nature of Rabinovtch’s thought in its emphasis on rationality, purpose, and close readings. Specifically, that “Maimonides must be interpreted through Maimonides” and not through the later commentaries encrusting Maimonides’ shine. Nadler describes how Rabinovitch’s public reputation for some is as a liberal universalism and for others as hardline ultrarightist.
As a universalist liberal has praise for “both Christianity and Islam as movements that spread the originally Judaic principles of monotheism, morality, and even messianic hope to the entire world. He has praised the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, even citing the text of Nostra Aetate as correcting what he regards as the historical perversions of Paul’s true attitude toward the Jews, which was in the end one of love.” Rabinovitch has a principled break with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on their intolerant approach to conversion. Nadler wrote: “Rabinovitch’s works as a practicing halakhist have always aimed to make traditional life as livable as possible for his fellow Jews.”
On the other hand, “after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995,” a false report “was widely reported that Rabinovitch was among those who had applied the “laws of the rodef” (a lethal pursuer whom one is permitted to kill in self-defense) to Rabin.” Nadler thinks the report is entirely erroneous, but the damage was done and public opinion is less kind. (For more on his views of politics and religion- see here)
Rabinovitch is known for completely removing Christianity from the category of foreign worship. He also gave permission for Jews to contribute to the rebuilding of the Tabgha Church of the Loaves and Fish after an arson attack by Jewish extremists. He allows using electronic keys in hotels and considers allowing electricity, even turning it off, on Yom Tov. He allows disappearing skin lotions on Shabbat. He allows inviting guests who will drive for shabbat meals. He thinks non-Jews in Israel should have full equality and equal rights the way are treated in the USA. They should have been fully integrated into the culture.
Most notably, and in contrast to many other Orthodox rabbis, Rabinovitch is in favor of women learning the same rabbinic curriculum as men, he supported women in leadership roles, and affirmed their capability to decide Jewish law on any topic a man can decide.
Rabbi Rabinovitch developed a historical reading of Maimonides combining rationality with autonomy and historical development. He believed the Bible had a clear telos for both the individual and the community that we can know if we study the Bible correctly. The study of the Talmud and halakhah has to be done with this Biblical vision clearly in from of one’s understanding in order to derive the divine purpose. In a Maimonidean way, he saw Talmud as conceptualization and mitzvot as having an intellectual-ethical purpose. Rabinovitch rejects the Brisker conceptual approach as swerving from the direct meaning and intentions of Maimonides. Halakhah is less formalistic and more about purpose than other rabbinic figures. He could be compared to other Maimonides halakhic approaches such as those of Rabbi Yosef Kapach, Rabbi Yosef Rozin (Rogochover), Rabbi Prof Isadore Twersky, and various approach of the older generation of Kibbutz Hadati.
In the 1970’s, there was a conference volume Modern Jewish Ethics that published Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s famous essay about how the rabbinic scholar has to incorporate ethical values in decision making and Prof Akiva Simon’s essay of a universal Jewish ethic of love they neighbor. Yet, it also contained an intriguing early adumbration of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s ethical thought “Halakhah and Other Systems of Ethics” where he presented his ethical system. In it, the Bible has an ethical aspiration to improve humanity, however each age has to rethink the implementation of the ethical goal afresh. He claims an ethical evolution as part of God’s plan whereby it is incumbent upon us to understand Torah anew in every age of history. Rabinovitch demonstrated that there is no halakhic or spiritual reason to deny a higher ethical realization in the historical unfolding of the halakhic process.
Rabinovitch develops his ideas fully a decade later in a Hebrew essay (1988) and then a short book (1999) by the title of “Darkhah Shel Torah,” Me’aliyot: Jerusalem, 1999), and reworked in his 2015 book. Fortunately, several pieces of the book have been translated. The entire volume deserves to be translated along with his other conceptual essays. As you read it, think how it compares to other halakhic methods. (If anyone wants to write a conceptual analysis, let me know.)
The essay translated as “The Way of Torah” begins by defining the image of God (Tselem Elohim) in each person as free choice to choose good without any coercion. Intellectually informed choice is the goal of the Torah. Just as knowledge accumulates in science, so too it accumulates in Torah. And just as science is a universal, making the entire world better, so too the Torah
Each generation acquires knowledge and power from the efforts of its ancestors, and, like a dwarf perched on the shoulders of a giant, its vision can penetrate a bit farther into the distance. Sometimes, a generation will advance beyond its predecessors and thereby become equipped to teach its descendants to advance even further
The nation of Israel, which has already succeeded in producing such choice individuals, serves as a vehicle for this process, whose goal is to establish a society in which the kingdom of heaven will be realized on earth
Section Two- Progress
From that beginning, Rabinovitch makes the leap that there is an evolution of moral values in history, i.e. from polygyny to monogamy, from slavery to human rights of the individual, from war to peace, and from coercion to liberty.
There were original Torah ideals which were always applied based on the standards of a given era. Many of the Torah laws as expressed in the Bible or Talmud were only an accommodation for that time because that was the best they could achieve. Some Torah laws are given in accordance with minimal standards of the era, some for study alone to teach Torah values, and some for realization of moral and spiritual ideals.
Punishments and the system of legal coercion function heuristically to fashion social improvement without having any practical application today. However ideally the Torah should not be kept because of coercion and punishments are only allowed on an ad hoc basis when there is demonstrable communal benefit along with the consent of the entire community.
In the time of the rishonim (rabbinic authorities of the mid-eleventh through mid-fifteenth centuries), R. Gershom, Beacon of the Diaspora, saw that his generation was ready for a ban on divorce with-out the wife’s consent and for eliminating polygyny, at least within the communities of Western Europe.By now, his enactments have spread through all Israel.
Thus, from Creation itself the Torah teaches us that all men are truly equal. Maimonides read it as follows: “‘The mold of primeval Adam’ – the form of the human species, within which lies man’s humanity and in which all human beings share.” However, humanity went astray. Men subjugated one another and distinguished between slaves and masters. These distinctions of status lack substance and are not grounded in reality, for the Creator regards them all as equal.
Despite these limitations, the institution of slavery remained, for the prevailing conditions precluded its abolition The Sages directed so much attention to remedial legislation related to slaves, and the doctrine of equality so penetrated the national consciousness, that these attitudes eventually became characteristic of Judaism and oppressive regimes attempted to uproot them.
The Torah’s intent was originally against slavery as shown in the emphasis on how we all have the image of God. But already in the Torah, there were concession to allow it. The Rabbinic sages saw the original intent and restricted the application of slavery. In modern times, scientific and technological discoveries made slavery irrelevant. [AB Editor’s note- except we have more slaves globally than ever and even more prison slaves in the US than the 19th century.]
Was this “Jewish religious precept” an innovation? Of course it was; but it was born of and nourished by the Torah, and its origins are rooted in Scripture, though the world at the time of the Bible was not yet fit for it. Over the course of time, knowledge increased throughout the world, new scientific and technological discoveries produced sources of energy far mightier than human labor and opportunities for leisure grew. Divine providence then led to the abolition of slavery nearly everywhere.
The abolition of slavery is simply a partial realization of the exalted ideal taught by the Torah; and the history of the West makes it clear beyond all doubt that one of the decisive factors in that process was the widespread knowledge of the Torah.
His third example is the concession of armies despite the value of peace. [AB- editor’s note -In the 21st century, the post WWII sense that warfare was on its way out does not have the same force anymore.]
The final example bears on international relations. “R. Joshua said: Great is peace, for the name of the Holy One blessed be He is called peace, as Scripture says, ‘And he called it “the Lord is peace.’
A nation not prepared to defend itself and its land will be unable to maintain itself and will quickly pass from the world…All the commandments related to war were given in order to restrict the scope of warfare and to replace an attitude that glorifies war and its heroes with one that longs for peace
Section Three – The importance of study of seemingly obsolete topics to understand the Torah’s value system of building a kingdom of heaven on earth.
The Torah’s 613 commandments fall into two categories. Some commandments are destined to endure, in their present forms, at the end of days; and as a person rises higher in character and intellect, he becomes aware of broader opportunities for fulfilling those commandments and understanding their meanings. But there are other commandments that are primarily a mechanism for bettering society and moving it toward the formation of circumstances that permit carrying out the purposes for which man was created – the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. These commandments apply only in certain situations, and our aim is to move beyond them, to a state in which we will no longer be bound to fulfill them
These commandments are presented in detail in the written Torah, and the oral Torah supplements them with a multitude of additional rules and laws. Nevertheless, we have learned three surprising baraitot:”The stubborn and rebellious son never existed and never will exist”;” The wayward city never existed and never will exist”; and” The afflicted house never existed and never will exist.”
Schoolchildren who are aware of the laws of the stubborn and rebellious son will never become one. A community whose adults study the laws of the way-ward city can be assured that it will never give rise to the “root bearing gall and wormwood” of idolatry. And one who has learned to recognize the hand of God in natural phenomena and natural disasters will no longer need afflicted buildings to inspire in him thoughts of repentance. Similarly for all the commandments whose object has already been achieved in the betterment of life in practice; they retain their heuristic force. Even if human-ity has progressed and risen above the minimal level that certain commandments were given to ensure, continued study of the laws associated with those commandments can refresh the intellect and direct it to even higher levels, while preserving its existing accomplishments.
Over the course of generations, students of Torah develop modes of critical thinking that can slice through issues, distinguishing illusion from reality, imaginings from truth, vain puffery from glorious responses to God’s voice.
Coercion and Punishment: Means or Ends?
Lastly, the essay argues that legitimate governmental authority is based on consent of the community with no jurisdiction over religious matters. The government is therefore barred by halakhah from legislating and religious coercion. In general, one should seek compromise and not the strict law, except as needed to prevent criminality. In this section the Torah is explained as requiring today a John Locke, US legal theory approach of governance by consent in contrast to the Torah’s seeming acceptance of the divine right of kings.
One should seek compromise even if it circumvents the given law because the Torah’s ways are peace. “Does compromise circumvent the entire array of laws pointing toward a given determination? It certainly does; but all the ways of the Torah are peace.”
In this, Rabbi Rabinovitch follows one side of a Talmudic debate that he thinks is an “elevation of the judicial process to a higher level.”
It thus turns out that the source of the leadership’s authority lies in both the Torah and the community. The consent of the community must be expressly granted to specific individuals recognized as authoritative. It is clear that if the community votes unanimously, or even by majority, to confirm specific procedures through which compulsory measures may be adopted, the usefulness of those measures will be apparent to all. And in that case, the Torah as well will confirm them. There is an ongoing tension between aspiring to the Torah’s social ideal of undisturbed peace and recognizing reality, with its very real need to do battle against the dangerous manifestations of a few undisciplined evildoers. Even if the majority of a nation is suffused with a love of truth and peace, it cannot give up the power to block criminal tendencies at its margins… The key to resolving this tension is to make the will of the people an anchor of the government’s authority to compel. Those whom “the masses have recognized as authoritative” enjoy authority, and that authority does not detract from the principles to which we aspire.
[T]he king’s juridical authority is confined to interpersonal (i.e., non-ritual)matters, where he can act to remedy society through righteousness and judgment. But this authority is rooted as much in the consent of the nation as in the king having been chosen by God’s prophet… One of the rishonim summed it up nicely “Whatever honor the masses are willing to give him, thatis the sovereignty he will have, to the point that if they wish to take away all honor from him, all sovereignty will be taken away from him.
Two forms of authority: Torah and Govt authority
In Judaism according to Rabbi Rabinovitch, there is a separation of secular and religious authority. Even the authority of the Rabbis is only granted by the consensus of the laity. Even in Israel, the government is only by the will of the people. Major issues should have a referendum [AB- For Rabbi Rabinovitch, democracy is only consensus of the people. The rest of democratic structure such as a bill of rights, guaranteed freedoms and representational government are not discussed.] His thought should be compared to that of Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson and other
As a practical matter, most large communities through most of history have had two types of leadership. The community appointed a rabbi and judges who were greatly learned in Torah, excelling in “the quality of Torah scholarship” to the extent now possible. In addition, they appointed a community leader and council – the select-men of the town – to manage the various matters that required attention. Even the appointment of the rabbi and other religious functionaries was up to them, subject to the approval of the community.
The Knesset should deal solely with matters related to the improvement of society, the arrangement of relationships among citizens, and matters of security and foreign affairs…The power to compel by force is essential to the existence of a sound social order, but that power is given to the government only in accordance with the will of the people, and it should be used as little as possible. If there is a need for far-reaching changes in the tax laws, in the military draft, or in other matters involving compulsion, the desirability of submitting the matter to referendum should be weighed, and the principle of majority rule is widely recognized
The Torah authority should never use compulsion, except with the consent of the community that accepted it as authoritative and granted it that power. Even then, compulsion should be used only in instances where harm may be inflicted on others, such as in family law matters related to divorce, support, and the like. It is desirable that the Torah authority never employ force
Value of liberty
The punchline to this essay is that our age of individualism and personal liberty is better for the development of the Torah’s spiritual goals than prior age despite having less religious observance.
Our age is characterized by the widespread view that individual liberty is a value greater than any other human need. There is much that is good about that phenomenon, for only one who values free choice can come to recognize how that choice should be used to advance lofty spiritual goals. And even though our generation compares poorly to its predecessors with respect to faith and religious observance, its deepening sense of individual liberty represents definite progress over past achievements. Until modern times, there prevailed an authoritarian worldview, which regarded discipline as the highest value. Today, liberty enjoys the highest priority. Only a person conscious of his power to choose can act entirely out of free will.
God’s kindnesses overpower us. We now can illuminate Him as He illuminated us. The nation returning to its land has the capacity to renew the eternal covenant through its own free will, and now only the personal example of faithful adherents of the Torah can exert influence and cause the Torah to be spread throughout all segments of the nation.
Text #2 The Talmudic Term Emunat Ḥakhamim
A different section of the book on Emunat Hakhamim was translated in a different journal. Here the concern was the meaning of the Rabbinic idea of having to have faith in the sages. The style of the translation differences greatly than the first piece. I left each essay in the translator’s style.
For Rabbi Rabinovitch, belief in the Rabbinic Sages means that their texts have deep significance and that it is incumbent upon us to comprehend the deep meanings of those texts. It does not mean giving contemporary rabbis authority or seeing them as having special powers of understanding. We keep the functions of the Biblical prophet who hears a direct divine voice separate than the Sage who authority is based on knowledge.
Emunat ḥakhamin thus has two parallel planes. On the one hand is the faith that the words of our Sages contain deep significance and truths that are worth seeking out. On the other hand is faith and self-confidence that with one’s G-d-given mind it is possible to comprehend the wisdom hidden in the words of the Sages.
Rambam carefully and clearly explains the difference between a ḥakham and a prophet. The authority of an established prophet derives from the commandment “To him shall you listen” (Devarim 18:15). We are not to ask him for reasons or explanations. The main purpose of a prophet is to guide those to whom he was sent, in non-halakhic matters.
The authority of a Sage is different. Although we are commanded to honor and fear him, it is only because of his Torah knowledge, which can be evaluated with straightforward logic. Unlike a prophet, a ḥakham is obligated to provide a reason for what he says.
Citing Nahmanides, he reiterates that Torah is subject to debate unlike mathematics. In the end, we have to follow truth not authority. Even ordinary students of the Torah have an obligation to seek the truth and not rely on codes or authority.
Since the wisdom of Torah is unlike the study of mathematics, there is room for opposing opinions. One ḥakham sees one aspect prevailing, while a second sees the opposite. It is clear, however, that both sides justify their position on recognized principles and criteria. To this person, a particular component carries more weight, while to the other, it carries less. Therefore, even one who disagrees with a certain ḥakham still has emunat ḥakhamim that the words of this ḥakham are not meaningless,
If at the end of this process it is necessary to choose between differing opinions, emunat ḥakhamim places upon the decider the weighty obligation to act according to truth—to the degree that he is capable of perceiving it.
The Responsibility of the Individual
Rabbi Rabnovitch opens up the search for the meaning of the text to anyone with sufficient background and to go back to the original sources rather than rely on codes or formalism
This obligation to work at achieving and clarifying the truth is not limited to those who are on the level of deciding halakhah. The Torah was given to all Jews, each of whom is obligated to learn the Torah sufficiently to be capable of arranging all his actions according to halakhah
For this reason many [poskim] prohibit issuing halakhic rulings out of books which summarize the laws without providing reasons or background. It is therefore not permitted to postpone studying the reasoning behind the halakhot….”
Finally, a notable characteristic of Rabbi Rabinovitch cited by many of his students is that he encourages he students to understand the reasoning of a decision and more importantly to ask themselves how they would have answered.
Yet, even when one asks a rav to rule for him and the rav renders a psak, he is not relieved of his responsibility to understand the reasoning behind the psak.
Thus, one who consults even an outstanding rav is considered negligent if he does not attempt to clarify and confirm that the psakhe received is indeed correct. This is how great is each individual’s responsibility for his actions; this is how effectively he must clarify the correct ruling, as well as what Hashem expects of him in each situation
True emunat ḥakhamim obligates one to delve deeply to find the reasoning behind the ḥakhamim’s words while at the same time requiring the student or inquirer to be critical and to investigate rigorously, in order to verify that there is no room for dissent.
He rejects the Ultra-Orthodox use of the term to ascribe prophetic status to rabbis.
Recently, some have begun applying the term “emunat ḥakhamim” to something else entirely, something that Ḥazal never discussed—that ḥakhamim also have prophetic authority in divrei reshut. There are those who label such childish behavior as “emunat ḥachamim” while in reality it is a distortion of this great attribute. Instead of acquiring true Torah, those who cling to this distorted “emunat ḥakhamim” distance themselves from the light of the Torah and are ultimately incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong.
Text #3 RAMBAM, SCIENCE, AND TAAMEI HAMITZVOT
Here is one of his articles from 1997 called Rambam Science Taamei Mitzvot a topic he wrote often about in the 1970’s. In this one, he emphasizes the importance of freedom of inquiry and the compatibility of Torah and science but then connects it to the very project of Torah. He also cites approvingly T H. Huxley’s idea of seeking perfect intellectual freedom guided by reason. Rabinovitch affirms evolution, the artificial creation of life in a laboratory and that one can accept the scientific negation of human uniqueness. These are not against Torah because what matters is scientific proof.
Others Rabbinic scholars has given the same esteem to science but in the second part of the essay he compares scientific method to Torah. For the most part, both science and Torah are about observation and seeking the reasons of the rational system. He shows how Maimonides used the scientific thought of his era to understand Torah, meaning that they have similar structures. Unlike Rabbi Soloveitchik’s characterization of science as forming conceptual schemes, Rabbi Rabinovitch see observation, cause & effect, and functional application.
The first principle of science assumes that there are natural effects which can be observed. So too there are observable consequences of obedience to the Torah. Naturally, there are some laws with effects that can be foreseen, and even human legislators could design such rules in order to achieve desired ends.
Many of the commandments can be broadly described as concerned with ethical character-traits, On this issue, most of the commentators have made the most of the fact that Rambam adopted the Aristotelian ideal of the mean in its entirety. Both in his. early discussion, in· the Commentary ‘to the Mishnah, and in the later development; in the Mishneh Torah, in many passages the very language used is reminiscent of the Nicomachean Ethics. After a· discussion of what constitutes utility or useful ends withreference to human behavior, Rambarn cites extensively from a treatise by Galen, On the Utilities of the Parts of the Body. Then he proceeds to point out an analogy with respect to human psychology. There is a parallel between the psychological and physical functions of the human being both in structure and development. (195)
From this parallel of science and Torah, Rabinovitch asks about applying contemporary psychology to understand Torah and helping it lead to our betterment. There are always new vistas.
Can psychology today cast more light on this basic issue? What can modern theories of the subconscious add to our understanding of the function of ritual in maintaining and restoring mental health? Can the observance of [mitzvot],to help to generate spiritual and mental energy to sustain the individual and society
These and similar questions arise naturally out of the Rambam’s discussion… In astronomy, for example, the search for new data must continue unabated as new vistas constantly open up for investigation. So too “The judgments of the Lord are true, they are righteous altogether” (Psalms 19:10). Yet much of that truth and righteousness are hidden from us, “and we do not know the manner
Quotes from Lectures
A distinctive trait of Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch was that he would ask his students of “What do you think?” He wanted to instill in his students the lesson that it is not enough to be given an answer or know the answer. Rather, one must master the ability to think for yourself. He stressed independence rather than submission. This in turn lead to many of his students, even relatively young, writing their own responsa to answer contemporary questions based on their own understanding the logic of the text. The approach is to test a hypothesis through experimentation as in science, a realist approach. Here are some quotes from classes on his approach to Torah study (freehand translation). Sources –Here andHere You can compare this approach to that of Rabbi Lichtenstein and others.
We have to think about how we arrive to truth. A person can only arrive at truth through experimenting how to understand according to the best of his ability the matter. This is Torah Lishmah, learning to understand the matter to understand the meaning of the text that one studies…But if at some point, one discovers that what one thought was a mistake, it does not mean that all the Torah one learned… were a waste of time. … One needed to test the possibilities…if one tries several interpretations and proved that they are not correct, at least you know where not to look. This too is understanding. (freehand translation)
“A major principle in understanding in learning and every quest for truth. Everyone who loves truth needs to be prepared to work for many years…only to discover that everything one thought was not correct.”
“God wants us to take responsibility. God gave us intelligence to understand what true responsibility is. Dogs and cats should be trained for obedience. But a human is not for obedience training. A person has values which are the source of his motivations. These establish his path in life.
The Torah attempts to instill in us values before enumerating the commandments…To understand true values we need a common sense. Someone who thinks they are not required to evaluate anything with their own mind but think all correct action is the results of an explicit text is making a grave mistake. We do not need Torah for an explicit text.
The principle of the Torah is to act with responsibility. To act with responsibility means to act according to the correct value of human responsibility to oneself, one’s surroundings, to one’s family, to one’s nation, and to the entire world. This is what God wants from us. Someone who thinks that one single factor of what one should do is what is written in a book falls into one of two types of ignorant thinking. If the book is a true book, then he does not understand what is written there, and if the book is not true, then he is doing nonsense.