A Man of Substance
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
I love to get feedback. Even when it is critical. Given the range of human opinions that’s hardly surprising. But there is one criticism I feel the need to respond to. Why do I sometimes quote or pass on opinions from people I often disagree with on many other issues? A recent example was Melanie Philips whom I admire for her guts and passionate support for Jews and Judaism, even if I think she is wrong on other issues.
Consistency, as they say, is the hobgoblin of little minds. I know I am inconsistent and so are most people I have met. I cannot think of anyone I always agree with. I wander from right to left and back again. I believe you can admire part of a person and their viewpoint on certain issues, while strongly disagreeing with others. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in matters of religion and politics.
This week I am writing about someone I greatly admired. And yet when it came to one significant area, I not only disagreed, but I strongly objected to his stance. Still, it was the passion, the commitment that I admired even if on occasion I thought it was misguided.
Nahum Rabinovitch was one of the important rabbis of the past generation. He was born in Montreal in 1928 and died in May of 2020 in Israel. Not only was he a rabbinic scholar of the first rank, but unlike many rabbis of the so-called Charedi world nowadays, he also had several Ph. Ds. In most of the Charedi world today, having a Ph.D. is a veritable handicap and a sign of not being quite orthodox enough. To add to his non-conformity to conventional Charedi attitudes, he was also a passionate Zionist. Some might say too passionate. His brilliance, his courage, and his independence are described in an excellent essay by Rami Schwartz in the Torah U-Madda Journal published by Yeshiva University.
After a stellar career in the Rabbinate in Canada, he moved first to London and then to Maaleh Adumim, outside Jerusalem, and on the West Bank. He became the head of a Yeshivah that combined studying Torah with military service. This was a strong statement of his religious Zionism. He regarded settling in lands once inhabited by the patriarchs as a Biblical imperative.
His major work of Torah Scholarship was an epic commentary on Maimonides’s great legal work the Mishneh Torah. He was an admirer of his rationality and wrote a collection of halachic responsa that dealt with the moral issues of a war of self-defense, facing soldiers in the Israeli army. He was not opposed to the principle of Land for Peace. But he also opposed the Oslo accords because he did not believe they would guarantee peace. He did not trust the world to support a genuine peace settlement that would ensure the safety of the Jewish State. But he was no xenophobe or fanatic and strongly opposed actions of zealots on the West Bank.
He was often more liberal in social and religious matters than many in the religious Zionist movement. He backed Talmudic studies for women and did not see a problem in their making halachic decisions. On the other hand, he did not approve of religious women serving in the Armed Forces because he felt that the atmosphere of the army was not appropriate for religious girls.
He ruled that Israel combat medics had an obligation to treat and try to save the lives of Palestinians even those who were bent on attacking and killing Israelis. And he regarded Christianity and Islam positively despite their record of anti-Semitism because they were trying to spread the values of monotheism and ethical behavior to the world at large.
He differed from many religious leaders in that he did not view the State of Israel as having a Messianic role. He argued that the Talmud was opposed to trying to predict when the Messiah would come because after each failed prediction (and there have been thousands of them over the years) people would lose faith in the whole concept. He argued for greater separation between religion and state in Israel and intensely disliked religious parties. Often his iconoclastic positions were deeply influenced not only by Jewish tradition but by the core ideas of political liberalism as well.
He was influenced by the British rationalist philosophers Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. He fused their ideas of government with Torah principles. For example, that the King, according to the Torah was subject to its laws and not above them. Post-Biblical rabbinic law modified this to give the King certain extra-judicial powers, adding a new form of execution exclusively for royal use which he felt could no longer apply in a democratic world. He approved of the Hobbesian principle that if a King or any other kind of ruler failed in his or her duties and responsibilities, they could and should be removed. He applied the idea of partnership (the Talmudic principle of Shutfut) to a government in which the ruler and ruled agreed to work together for the welfare of the nation. And the concept of a just state had to apply to non-Jewish citizens equally.
On almost every Jewish philosophical and practical issue I accepted his authority. However, there was one issue that has cast a long dark shadow on his reputation when he argued that soldiers had to refuse superior orders to evacuate Gaza. I felt this could undermine military discipline, essential to a controlled efficient army, which anyway was subject to the concept of “ the Purity of Arms” and ethical standards much higher than those practiced around the world, even if on occasions they were betrayed by rogue individuals. His stand attracted widespread dismay and the attention of the secret service. It was a vain and unnecessary decision. But that does not mean one cannot quote other things he said with approval and admiration.
Too often those who are most frequently quoted do not take unpopular moral stands because they are more concerned with their legacy and public image than in following the prophetic tradition of speaking up even if it does land one in trouble. He was fearless. A giant of a man.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.