I love reviewing books, and specifically responsa works, rabbinic biographies, and those that explore the relationship between Jewish law and Jewish ethics. Here are some of my favourite reviews:
AVO BEITEKHA: MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LAW RESPONSA
by Rabbis David and Avraham Stav
One of the most fascinating developments over the last twenty years has been the shift in the types of questions that some Rabbis have been prepared to address in their responsa.
Primarily prompted by increased access to rabbis through technology, along with the proliferation of numerous ask-the-rabbi websites where questioners have been able to present their queries anonymously, Rabbis have begun to comprehend and face up to the true challenges confronting the Jewish people – especially in the field of human relationships. As Rabbi Yuval Cherlow explains, ‘halakhah is now confronted with questions that were seldom presented to rabbis due to the intimate nature of the subject and the awkwardness involved in posing such questions’  and ‘this reality has two implications. The first is in regard to the evaluation of the situation… [such that] the internet exposes the halakhic decisor to a reality with which he was unfamiliar which may lead him to consider other factors in determining his ruling. The second implication is the need to clarify and respond to basic questions which simply did not arise previously or were not presented to rabbis before this format became available’ .
To date, almost no Orthodox responsa writers have made a conscious and comprehensive effort to rise to the challenge of addressing, in a serious and halakhically rigorous manner, questions pertaining to relationships that truly reflect our present reality, and in most instances where halakhic decisors have attempted to address current problems, they have generally done so while basing themselves on societal norms that do not reflect the lifestyle of the majority of Orthodox Jews worldwide. Simply put, over the past twenty or so years a significant gap have developed between the needs of Orthodox Jews for halakhic guidance regarding marriage and family law, and the halakhic rulings that have been provided by contemporary halakhic decisors.
It is for this reason that there has been much excitement surrounding the recent publication of ‘Avo Beitekha: Marriage and Family Law Responsa’ by Rabbi David Stav, and his son Rabbi Avraham Stav.
Rabbi David Stav is the Chief Rabbi of Shoham. However, for most people he is better known as the director and the face of the Tzohar organization. This means that a regular part of his work involves conversations with less religious Jews, as well as those who have become alienated from those representing Chief Rabbinate, who seek his advice concerning matters of Jewish status and marriage.
Over the years Rabbi David Stav has been asked hundreds of halakhic questions regarding Jewish marriage law, the format of the marriage ceremony, and questions pertaining to married life, and like Tzohar itself which attempts to provide an open and welcoming service that responds to the needs of the time, Rabbi Stav has had to respond to these questions with understanding, depth and clarity. It is this background which is the foundation of Avo Beitekha which contains many of the questions that Rabbi David Stav has been most regularly asked.
However, to examine and publish responsa on some of the most complex and controversial topics of our time takes considerable effort, and it was for this reason – along with the sheer pleasure of shared time, contact and conversation – that Rabbi David Stav invited his son Rabbi Avraham – himself, a significant scholar – to collaborate in this endeavor of researching and writing these important and, on occasion, groundbreaking responsa.
In terms of content, Avo Beitekha begins with a fascinating essay titled ‘Family Law in the Modern reality’ where the authors explain the differences between certain aspects of halakha that are purely rooted in halakhic sources and are simply expressed in our social reality, and other aspects of halakha that are shaped by our social reality. And as they observe while reflecting on the core contribution of Avo Beitekha, ‘without a deep understanding of the social transformations that have occurred over the past generations, it is simply impossible to render halakhic rulings in family law in our generation’ .
This essay is then followed by 25 responsa divided into 5 sections: i) BE FRUITFUL & MULTIPLY – which includes responsa on topics such as the use of contraception by young marrieds who wish to complete their academic study, whether adoption or fertility treatment is preferred for a couple who are unable to have children, and whether a single woman may have a child through AID (Artificial Insemination by Donor); ii) MARRIAGE – including responsa on topics such as what are the parameters of arranging a marriage between someone who is religious and someone who is not? What should a couple do if they find that they are Tay Sachs carriers? What information must be revealed prior to marriage? iii) WEDDING – including responsa on pre-nuptial agreements, the nature of weddings that occur in the absence of a qualified rabbi, and whether someone may attend a single-sex marriage or an intermarriage? iv) THE MARRIAGE CEREMONY – including responsa on whether interruptions between each of the Sheva Brachot invalidate the blessings, the halakhic status of a wedding whether the bride already owns her ring, and whether a bride can give her groom a ring under the Chuppah, and v) MARRIED LIFE & SEXUALITY – including responsa on couples showing affection in public, the halakhic expectations of intimacy within a marriage, whether men can ejaculate before entry for the sake of their wife’s sexual pleasure, female masturbation, and whether a woman who has had an affair during a marital separation can return to her husband.
Clearly, while some of these questions may not be new, the context and considerations reflected both in the questions and answers are. At the same time, a number of these questions have not received any – or anything close to – such thorough treatment in other contemporary responsa volumes, which makes this volume all the more welcome.
In terms of the answers in Avo Beitekha, they are unique on three levels:
Firstly, each question is treated with a thoroughness that is rarely reflected in other responsa volumes. This is because Avo Beitekha is no less a book about halakhic process as it is about halakhic decision-making. Consequently, every responsum in Avo Beitekha attempts to refer, in a clear and exhaustive manner, all prior halakhic rulings and references concerning this question or those from which a precedent can be learnt.
Secondly, and unlike other responsa volumes, the halakhic authority driving Avo Beitekha is not the halakhic weight of Rabbis David and Avraham Stav. Instead, it is that of the halakhic sources, compelling argumentation, and understanding and sensitivity towards the social reality that they present.
Thirdly, while each responsum ends with a conclusion listing principles and outcomes from the prior discussion, oftentimes aspects of the conclusion are left open for the learner to consider how to apply the law to their own situation. In doing so, Rabbis Stav themselves reflect our current social reality by empowering questioners to play a part in reaching halakhic rulings.
To my mind, Avo Beitekha is not only a fascinating work, but an important one at that. It bridges the gap between the current questions that are often poorly addressed on ask-the-rabbi websites, and the answers that currently appear in responsa volumes that show little attention to our current social reality. There are times when the conclusions in Avo Beitekha seem to veer on the side of caution – such as when discussing whether a single woman may have a child through AID, and other instances when room, albeit very limited, is given for acts that many would regard as utterly forbidden on account of meta-halakhic considerations – such as participation in weddings that run contrary to halakha.
The beauty of Avo Beitekha is that it is not the final word, and nor does it seek to be. However, it is a new chapter of our ancient halakhic conversation, and one that fuses and bridges the principles of the past with the present reality, and I hope that this book stimulates many further conversations, and more significantly, changes attitudes and – where appropriate – behaviors in matters of marriage and family law.
In his introduction, Rabbi David Stav explains that Avo Beitekha is the first in a series which he hopes will be published in the near future, and I am very much looking forward!
To order a copy of Avo Beitekha: Marriage and Family Law Responsa click here.
 Yuval Sherlow, ‘Premarital Guidance Literature in the Internet Age’ in Gender Relationships In Marriage and Out (ed. R. Blau), Yeshiva University Press, 2004 p. 141
 Ibid pp. 141-142
 David & Avraham Stav, Avo Beitekha: Marriage and Family Law Responsa, Maggid Press, 2017 p. xxxviii
TWO VOLUMES ON THE WRITINGS OF RAV MOSHE
Over the past year or so, two sefarim have been published that – in very different ways – offer further insights and perspectives on the halakhic rulings penned by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein as found in his Iggrot Moshe.
The first, published in late 5776, is volume 2 of She’elot UTeshuvot VeDibarta Bam which is a set of responsa written by Rabbi Boruch Moskowitz (nb. the title VeDibarta Bam was chosen because the acronym of Baruch Moskowitz is ‘Bam) who has been a student ofRabbi David Feinstein for the past 21 years.
In many ways VeDibarta Bam is a classic responsa volume containing 321 responsa (nb. volume 1 contained 293 responsa) addressing every area of Jewish law and practice. However, what makes it unique is that the author – Rabbi Moskowitz – ends each responsum with the words ‘and I have heard from our teacher the great Rosh YeshivaRabbi David Feinstein shlita….’ and he often discusses questions previously addressed byRav Moshe, with a number of rulings explicitly analyzing some of Rav Moshe’s most well-known rulings. To give just a few examples of the topics covered in this volume:
Responsum 58 discusses the notion of a ‘national drink’ vis-à-vis its use for Kiddush and the position of Rav Moshe (Iggrot Moshe OC 2 No 75) with reference to Soda. Based on this, Rabbi Moskowitz refers to the rulings of Rabbi David Feinstein who clarifies the position of Rav Moshe that a national drink is defined by the kinds of drinks you offer guests and not necessarily the drink that the majority of the nation drinks.
Responsum 142 discusses the status of religious books and documents, and explores a fascinating position of Rav Moshe (Iggrot Moshe OC 4 No. 39) regarding whether it is necessary to place such items (eg. Gemarot) in Geniza. Rabbi Moskowitz refers to the rulings of Rabbi David Feinstein who says that while we should be strict about this matter, in times of need can rely on the ruling of Rav Moshe. At the same time, he also reminds the reader about the dangers of making excess copies of Torah source sheets etc.
Responsum 304 discusses the ruling of Rav Moshe (Iggrot Moshe HM 2 No. 74) regarding whether a patient towards their life must undergo a medical procedure that may enable them to live a little longer and remain in pain, or whether they can choose not to have such a procedure. Based on this, Rabbi Moskowitz refers to the rulings of Rabbi David Feinstein concerning the correct procedure in a situation where the patient is unable to express their wishes on this matter.
Responsum 306-307 discuss Rav Moshe’s rulings on the definitions and time of death which, of course, have significant implications vis-à-vis organ transplantation. Given the complexity of these topics I haven’t summarized them here, although those who wish to better understand Rav Moshe’s position would greatly benefit from reading these rulings.
Finally, I’d like to mention his discussion of Shehecheyanu on fruit (Responsum No. 45) – a topic that I have studied in depth and also relevant to Rosh Hashanah. Referring to a 1964 ruling of Rav Moshe (Iggrot Moshe OC 3 No. 34) discussing whether Shehecheyanu can be recited on fruit which – due to technological advances – can be growth throughout the year, Rabbi Moskowitz raises further questions about the relevance of Shehecheyanu due to the increase of fruit importation and greater technological developments. He concludes by citing Rabbi David Feinstein who explains that while it is true that Shehecheyanu on fruit will depend on each type of fruit, ‘whoever is joyous to have a new fruit can recite the blessing at least in a place where the fruit is not available all year round.’
Contrasting this volume is Rabbi Yonatan Rosman’s Petichat HaIggrot which was published in mid-5777. In many ways, this volume also seeks to offer further insights and perspectives on the halakhic rulings penned by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. However, unlikeVeDibarta Bam, it comes from a position of critique rather than mere clarification.
Aware that many poskim do not concur with some of the rulings of Rav Moshe, RabbiRosman has consulted over 500 sefarim and summarized – in a book spanning over 700 pages! – listing where and why they differ with Rav Moshe on a responsum by responsum basis.
In his introduction Rabbi Rosman explains how such a work is defendable and part of the halakhic process, while the appendices of ‘Petichat HaIggrot’ includes a number of direct challenges to Rav Moshe’s methodology as well as 67 pages from Rabbi Yaakov Adess in response to a variety of rulings by Rav Moshe.
It should be noted that Rabbi Rosman speaks of Rav Moshe in highly reverential ways. At the same time, some may find the very effort of creating a book of such length to be unsettling, especially as some of the sources that Rabbi Rosman cites as a critique of RavMoshe are somewhat questionable, and their arguments are more than shaky. Simply put, just because someone offers a critique of a ruling of Rav Moshe does not itself challenge the substance of the original ruling!
Notwithstanding this, some of the examinations of Rav Moshe’s responsa in Petichat HaIggrot are enlightening, and anyone who is interested in serious halakhic scholarship may find this work of value – at least in terms of reference.
THE SKEPTIC AND THE RABBI: FALLING IN LOVE WITH FAITH –
A Memoir, by Judy Gruen
She Writes Press, 2017
If you ever go to a large bookstore you will find that one of the most popular sections is travel writing. Such books describe the challenges inherent in moving from place to place while also speaking about the beauty of seeing and experiencing places of beauty and wonder. However, travelling is only one form of journeying, and there are many journeys that while not requiring a passport, can take a person to a destination very far from where they began.
It is noteworthy that while the Torah speaks of physical journeys and hazardous travels, it places far greater emphasis on the spiritual journeys taken by our great biblical figures, and though hard to find, I am drawn to the kind of books that discuss this second category of life-journey. Such books are personal, meaningful, and can offer the reader wisdom and inspiration which they can apply to their own lives and share with others.
Judy Gruen’s The Skeptic and the Rabbi is a rare example of a memoir that is personal, meaningful, and jam-packed with wisdom and inspiration. It is a book about the life-journey of one woman – a ba’alat teshuva – who returns to her tradition, while also being a book that can speak to anyone who has undergone such a journey, and especially anyone who is currently on that journey.
Like so many American Jews, Gruen grew up with conflicting messages about her Jewish identity. One set of her grandparents no longer believed in G-d, while the other were fervent believers while often remarking how ‘shver tzu zayn a yid’ which, as Gruen observes, was both a very understandable yet deadly motto which ‘undoubtedly sparked countless thousands of intermarriages’.
Gruen wished to maintain a connection with her faith and was scared that she would remain a spiritual adolescent for the rest of her life. But as she put it, she wanted more ‘joie de vivre’ than ‘oy de vivre’ while, at the same time, she was concerned whether the Torah could be relevant to her life and anxious that any change that she would make would be chosen by her and not pushed by others.
Encouraged by her soon to be husband Jeff, and inspired by the extraordinary RabbiDaniel Lapin, Gruen began her journey of return, and in The Skeptic and the Rabbi we join Gruen on her journey of ups and downs, highs and lows.
Unlike others who have begun a similar journey, Gruen was blessed to have access to an incredibly dynamic and approachable teacher, and she speaks with great fondness of the wisdom she learnt from Rabbi Lapin and how he encouraged her to ask questions that she had not previously thought about. However, this did not make some of her struggles any easier, and much of the book concerns the challenge of growing religiously while making sure that each religious step was an authentic expression because, ‘you have to be you-ish to be Jewish’.
In The Skeptic and the Rabbi the reader is treated to descriptions of Gruen’s ‘big fat Orthodox wedding’, the challenge of being orthodox with non-orthodox parents, the quest to find a shul that is inclusive and inspiring, the difficulties of addressing the laws of kosher wine to non-Jews, how to explain the concept of a ‘kosher lamp’, the fact that children of ba’alei teshuva will know much more Torah than their parents, and the challenges faced by married ba’alot teshuvah when deciding to cover their hair.
The Skeptic and the Rabbi is an easy yet tender read. It is light yet heavy, particular yet universal, and it will bring a smile to your face and likely move you – like me – to laugh out loud on numerous occasions.
To purchase a copy of ‘‘The Skeptic and the Rabbi’, click here.
THE RABBINATE IN STORMY DAYS: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog, The First Chief Rabbi of Israel by Shaul Mayzlish. Translation by Tanhum Yoreh.
In 1991, Shaul Mayzlish published his brilliant biography of Chief Rabbi Herzog titled ‘Rabbanut B’Sa’arat HaYamim’, and with much thanks to Gefen Books and specifically to MK Isaac Herzog – the grandson and namesake of Chief Rabbi Herzog who, along with his siblings, sponsored the translation of this book – the English reading public can now learn about the life of this truly great Rabbinic leader. Here are some of the highlights of ‘The Rabbinate in Stormy Days’ as they pertain to the life, struggles and contribution of ChiefRabbi Herzog:
Rabbi Herzog was born in Lomzha in 1888 to Rabbi Yoel Leib and Rabbanit Miriam. He was a brilliant young Torah scholar and was fortunate to spend time in his youth withRabbi Malkiel Tannenbaum, author of Responsa Divrei Malkiel.
In 1897 Rabbi Yoel Herzog was invited by the heads of the United Synagogue to preside as Chief Rabbi of the Leeds community in England, and it was during this period that his son’s devotion and mastery of Torah developed even further. By 1905 he had already studied all the tractates in the Talmud and was regarded as a budding halakhic expert. Beyond this, young Yitzchak pursued a secular education and by 1909 he had received his BA in classical and modern languages and mathematics from the University of London.
Given the paucity of yeshivot in England at the time the young Yitzchak Herzog began to write anonymous treatises which he sent to great scholars such as Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Rabbi Yosef Shlufer of Slonim, and Rabbi Yaakov David Wilovsky of Slutsk – otherwise known as the Ridbaz – who referred to him as ‘the Rabbi Akiva Eiger of our generation’. He received semicha (rabbinical ordination) from all three of these scholars in 1910, and by 1911 he received his MA in Semitic and classic languages from the University of London. That same year, Rabbi Yitzchak followed his family to Paris where his father had been appointed Rabbi, and in 1914 he received his PhD at age 25 from the Sorbonne on the topic of tekhelet.
In 1915 Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog was appointed rabbi of Belfast, Northern Ireland and in 1917 Rabbi Herzog became one of the founders of the Mizrachi movement in England and Ireland and one of the strongest voices about the importance of educating and strengthening religious Zionism.
By this stage Rabbi Herzog was still unmarried, and it was following a meeting in London attended by Chief Rabbi Hertz, Rabbi Shmuel Hillman and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook where he met his future wife. The meeting itself was significant because these four great Torah scholars had gathered just to discuss whether the food shortage due to the war effort was a sufficient reason to permit the Ashkenazi community to eat Kitniot during Pesach. After the meeting the Rabbis were invited back to the home of RabbiHillman for refreshments which were served by his daughter Sarah who was deeply impressed by the young Rabbi. By the summer of 1917 they were married and they returned to Belfast to begin their new life together. Their first child was born a year later and named Chaim, after Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik who had ordained Rabbi Hillman. In 1918, Rabbi Herzog was appointed Chief Rabbi of Dublin where he remained for 18 years, and in 1922 a second son was born to Yitzchak and Sarah whom they named Yaakov David, after the Ridbaz.
Chief Rabbi Herzog was greatly admired by the people of Dublin and it was here that he lectured on scientific topics in the Talmud and publish articles on philosophy, law and civic affairs. However, despite his active academic life Chief Rabbi Herzog did not ‘lock himself away in an ivory tower’. Instead, he ‘was famous for fighting to improve the conditions of the weaker classes’ and ‘was active in the public sphere in favour of uprooting the impoverished suburbs and building new neighbourhoods’.
During this period Chief Rabbi Herzog was offered many other rabbinical positions. However, the only destination that he sought after Dublin was Israel, and it was the eulogy that he delivered at the funeral of his father in Jerusalem in 1934 that was the precursor to him being encouraged to apply for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel after the death of Rav Kook in 1935.
One of the most startling episodes described in The Rabbinate in Stormy Days concerned the atmosphere surrounding his candidacy as the next Chief Rabbi of Israel. Posters proclaimed that ‘the Holy City will not tolerate a ‘rabbi doctor’ within it’, and that ‘if a “rabbi doctor” were chosen’, the city would end up ‘with someone who was more a doctor than a rabbi’. During all this period – as well as all future challenges – RabbiHerzog kept away from all the conflict and arguments, and in December 1936 he was elected Chief Rabbi – a position which he held until his death in 1959.
Still, Chief Rabbi Herzog was highly principled, and when he sought to challenge the discrimination against Jewish law shown by the British Mandate, he insisted that Dr. Chaim Weizmann deliver his testimony in Jerusalem and not London, because ‘there is a different validity to our words of wisdom when they are uttered here in our land and in our eternal city’.
Similarly, in response to the publication of the White Paper of May 1939, Rabbi Herzog delivered a dramatic speech in Jerusalem culminating in him tearing up his copy (which, you will recall, is what his son Chaim Herzog did in 1975 at the United Nations when he tore up the resolution that compared Zionism with Racism).
Of course, some of his greatest struggles related to his efforts during and after the Second World War to save the lives of Jews, including a famous meeting with the pope in February 1946. Both his actions and words had a huge impact on many of those with whom he spoke and thousands of lives were saved due to his involvement and intervention.
But in terms of his literary contributions, it was his struggle for Torah law in the Modern State of Israel which is, perhaps, his greatest legacy, especially as ‘the rabbi had developed an astute socio-political realism regarding goals that could be achieved, and others that had no hope of success’.
I have always had great regard for Chief Rabbi Herzog and have a studied a number of his sefarim. However, what The Rabbinate in Stormy Days provides is a macro view of this extraordinary leader whose blend of brilliant Torah knowledge, firm conviction and gentle manner was truly remarkable. By being wise and moderate, Chief Rabbi Herzog was attacked by extremists, but like his role model the Rambam, he encouraged a reasoned yet balanced path of Jewish living, and many of his most significant contributions in terms of Jewish and State legislation are beautifully described towards the end of the book.
In his foreword, MK Isaac Herzog writes about The Rabbinate in Stormy Days that ‘I read and listen and am amazed at the enormous scope of Rabbi Herzog’s knowledge and activity. I ask myself the question in the popular Israeli song “Ha’ish Hahu”: “Where are there others like that man?”. Where, indeed, are there other rabbis comparable to RabbiHerzog? For in our generation as well, our nature is in need of his stature.’
The Rabbinate in Stormy Days is a masterful book which is beautifully printed and bound in a landscape format and contains fascinating information and many wonderful pictures too. For anyone with an interest in the Chief Rabbinate, the Modern State of Israel, or Jewish law, this book is for you!
To purchase a copy of this book, click here.
FAITH SHATTERED AND RESTORED: JUDAISM IN THE POSTMODERN AGE
by Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)
Maggid Books, 2017
Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (1949-2007), or more popularly known by his acronym Shagar, was an inspired Torah teacher and a brilliant Torah thinker who fused his deep commitment to Jewish law, Jewish study and Jewish spirituality with philosophical inquiry and a deep awareness of social and intellectual developments in the modern period.
Rabbi Shagar was complex, introverted, scholarly and reflective, and he was particularly fascinated by faith, knowledge, freedom and consciousness as understood and experienced in a postmodern world. Yet what makes his ideas so refreshing is his interweaving of ideas from Talmud, Halakha, Hassidism and Philosophy to address the dilemmas of today.
Just prior to his death Rabbi Shagar asked that his writings be organised and published by his students, and so far around ten Hebrew volumes have appeared. However, while a number of his essays have previously been translated into English, ‘Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age’, which is part of the Maggid Modern Classics, is the first authoritative attempt at providing English readers with ‘an optimal representation of Rabbi Shagar’s groundbreaking spiritual approach’ (p. xi).
Faith Shattered and Restored grapples with the challenges and opportunities inherent in a postmodern world, and each of its ten essays address important themes that, whether we are aware of them or not, are present in our lives. As Rabbi Shalom Carmy explains in his brilliant ‘Afterword’, Rabbi Shagar is both the ‘diagnostician and the therapist’ (pp. 197-8) whose insights provide us with ‘fresh ideas about how to live our lives in light of these new experiences’ (p. 198).
For example, in his essay titled ‘My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World’, Rabbi Shagar describes his approach to faith. He speaks of ‘two worlds that are both ontologically real’ (p. 28) and how faith is ‘a different stratum of reality’ (p. 30). Unlike Science, ‘there is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof’ (p. 23). Instead, faith is ‘the acceptance of one’s life as part of reality, of God’s will’ (p. 34).
I was particularly fascinated by the essay titled ‘Religious Life in the Modern Age’ which explores the impact of modernity on Orthodox Judaism, Orthodoxy’s responses to non-Orthodox ideologies, and whether we are still capable of faith. For Rabbi Shagar, ‘the traditional Jew is rooted in his belonging’ (p. 46), and therefore, ‘those who question tradition, who are compelled to justify, defend, or preserve it, no longer belong to it, for it is, by definition, a function of self-identity rather than reflexivity’ (p. 46).
A corollary of this is how ‘the test of halakha is not its truth, but its ability to maintain the integrity of its character as a linguistic and practical system’ (p. 51), and this leads him to criticize reformist approaches to halakha because ‘halakha should be revised only in its own language, with empathy toward its internal logic and symptoms, and not from an external vantage’ (p. 51). At the same time, Rabbi Shagar also explains that ‘a posek who updates halakha is not subverting the truth, for the truth is manifest in the posek’s very use of halakhic language’ (p. 55).
Then, while addressing the question of whether we are still capable of faith, RabbiShagar explains that many of the questions that are asked about faith ‘are really about the consciousness of faith, which is an entirely different matter’ (p. 57) while ‘the problem of faith in the modern world was born of a situation in which the synagogue is filled with faith, but the entire world is not’ (p. 61).
In his essay titled ‘Justice and Ethics in a Postmodern World’ Rabbi Shagar explores the themes of relativism and pluralism. He refers to the Hindu practice of ‘sati’ (widow burning) and female genital mutilation as contemporary case studies that challenge moral relativism, and he speaks about the importance of moral boundary-setting in the postmodern age. However, rather than criticizing pluralism of any kind, Rabbi Shagar explains that ‘there is a Jewish spiritual outlook that can accommodate the pluralistic mindset while setting its own boundaries for it’ (p. 110) which is achieved by augmenting a pluralistic outlook with a ‘universalistic dimension’ (p. 118) underpinned by the notion that ‘beyond our various cultural differences, there is a universal truth shared by all humans’ (p. 118).
One further essay that I would like to mention is titled ‘Love, Roman and Covenant’, and here Rabbi Shagar seeks to build a philosophical bridge between the religious rules and regulations of the Jewish marital home and contemporary philosophical perspectives on love and romance. As with previous essays Rabbi Shagar adopts a unique perspective, and rather than criticizing contemporary approaches to romance he explains how ‘the postmodern criticism of romantic love…posits an exciting point of view that could be quite compatible with Jewish conceptions of couplehood’ (p. 135).
Faith Shattered and Restored is a thought provoking book, but certainly not a book of answers. Instead, as Dr. Zohar Maor explains in his introduction, reading Faith Shattered and Restored is to ‘embark on a spiritual journey with Rabbi Shagar’ (p. xxiii) and to engage with him in deep conversation on topics that are ‘unique in the landscape of Jewish philosophy and of great importance for Judaism in the twenty-first century’ (p. xxii).
In 2012 a wonderful documentary was shown in Israel on the life of Rabbi Shagar (seehere), during which Dr. Yitzchak Mandelbaum observed that once he discovered the writings of Rabbi Shagar, ‘I knew I had found what I didn’t know I had been searching for’ (p. viii). Having greatly enjoyed reading Faith Shattered and Restored I feel the same way and I believe so will many others who are now able to appreciate the creative thought of Rabbi Shagar in English.
To purchase a copy of Faith Shattered and Restored, click here.
RABBI SHEAR YASHUV COHEN: BETWEEN WAR & PEACE by Yechiel Frish & Yedidya HaCohen. Translated by Dr. Irene Lancaster
Urim Publications, 2017
Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016) was one of the most remarkable religious leaders of the past century. He was a man of action, principle, wisdom and grace, and as a Torah leader he combined depth, clarity, humanity and spirituality.
In his youth Rabbi Cohen was surrounded by great leaders. His father was Rabbi David Cohen ‘HaNazir’ (the Nazirite), and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook was not only sandek at his brit milah but he was like an uncle to him.
As he grew older Rabbi Cohen balanced his intensive Torah studies with activism in support of the establishment of the State of Israel, and it is in recounting these years that some truly remarkable historical gems are described. For example, despite the joy felt by many in response to the UN’s partition plan, Rabbi Cohen recounts how he observed Rabbis Zvi Yehuda Kook & Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap weeping ‘Where is our Hebron? Where is our Shechem? Where is our Jerusalem?’. Then, having been told about this, his father responded by quoting Tehillim 2:11 which states ‘one eye laughing, the other eye weeping. But we still wait expectantly for salvation.’
We read from Rabbi Cohen’s personal diary as he described the siege of Jerusalem, and how he was taken as a prisoner of war to Jordan where he displayed the leadership skills that led to his appointment as an IDF chaplain, and then later, as Chief Rabbi of Haifa.
As brother-in-law of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Cohen was one of the first civilians to enter the Old City of Jerusalem after its liberation in 1967, and as another fascinating tidbit of history, we read that the shofar that Rabbi Goren famously blew at the Kotel was, in fact, that of his father-in-law the Nazir, as his had been destroyed that day. A further gem is a record of the conversation between Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Aryeh Levin as they participated in a Shavuot pilgrimage in 1967, where Rabbi Levin explained that this was a realisation of the words of ‘when the Lord accompanied the captivity of Zion on their return – we were like dreamers’ (Tehillim 126:1).
As Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Cohen made a huge impact on the city which itself was largely secular, and this was in part due to the lessons he learnt from his parents and teachers. As he explained, he was particularly inspired by a parable that he learnt from his father who himself had heard this idea from Rav Kook, ‘a rabbi is similar to a tree: his essence must be planted deep, his own roots planted in the house of the Lord. But he will only succeed in all his activities if he manages to ‘follow the spread of the branches’ (Mishna Ma’asrot 3:10) [by providing] shade for those poor souls who have spent a great deal of time wandering around in the barren wilderness and [who] are no longer in touch with their Jewish selves.’
Rabbi Cohen was a bold thinker. He brought halakhic clarity to technological innovations, energy while seeking to prevent and solve cases of igun, and tolerance when considering our relationship with Israeli Arabs, and later, when dealing with the Roman Catholic Church. Rabbi Cohen was deeply principled, but his gentle manner was disarming. He was a friend to many, and a leader to even more, and having had the privilege of meeting him on three occasions, I was deeply inspired by this gentle giant.
Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War & Peace made me realise how truly exceptional this leader was, and how blessed we were to have such a great man in our midst.
To purchase a copy of this book, click here.
WHAT WILL THEY SAY ABOUT YOU WHEN YOU ARE GONE? by Rabbi Daniel Cohen
(Health Communications Inc., 2016)
Just over two years ago I watched an incredibly inspiring TED-like talk by Rabbi Daniel Cohen which I have since watched and shown on numerous occasions.
Rabbi Cohen’s talk, titled ‘Living a Life of Legacy – Discovering Your Elijah Moment’, reflected on the legacy that we leave when we die, as well as our ability to ‘reverse engineer’ our lives to reflect the values that we want to be remembered by.
According to Rabbi Cohen, one way of doing so is to discover the ‘Elijah moments’ in our lives. As he explained, every encounter in our life contains opportunities for us to be agents of kindness. By harnessing these moments we create what Rabbi Cohen calls ‘Elijah moments’ that can be utterly transformative. For example, Rabbi Cohen described how a woman experienced an Elijah moment in a parking lot when she helped a random stranger tie his shoes, and how a random act of kindness of buying a stranger a cup of coffee in Starbucks helped him discover his Elijah moment. As he explained, while one person cannot change the world, we can change the world of one person every day.
But, as Rabbi Cohen then pointed out, ‘Discovering Your Elijah Moment’ is not the only way to live a life of legacy and in his book titled What will they say about you when you are gone? – which at the time he was mid-way through writing – he hoped to share further advice, insights and strategies on this topic.
As a growth-oriented Jew, a teacher, and someone with a particular interest in ethical wills and the spiritual legacies that we leave I was keen to hear more wisdom from RabbiCohen, and in late 2016 I was excited to hear that What will they say about you when you are gone? had been published. Having ordered it via amazon I waited with anticipation, and last week my copy arrived. With great eagerness I sat down in my most comfortable chair, with a coffee at my side, to begin reading.
What will they say about you when you are gone? is an exquisite book whose emotional, intellectual and spiritual waves carry the reader on a journey of future-self-discovery – from where they are, to a clear idea of where – and who – they want to be.
In What will they say about you when you are gone?, Rabbi Cohen interweaves Torah wisdom, general wisdom, stories, tips and personal challenges in a majestic fashion, such that the reader can find – often on the same page – Torah insights of RavSoloveitchik, wise observations of the Greek philosopher Marcus Aurelius, and personal perspective of film director Ron Howard.
But this book is not just a collection of the wisdom of others. In fact, this book is very personal and on each page Rabbi Cohen reveals aspects of his life, through which his warmth, wisdom and spirituality is palpable.
In What will they say about you when you are gone?, Rabbi Cohen speaks about the importance of making courageous choices, seizing meditative moments, creating memories, finding faith, living inspired and discovering your renewable energy, as well as discovering your Elijah moment. For each of these Rabbi Cohen offers concrete examples, and he offers suggestions about how to reverse engineer our lives to reflect these core values.
What will they say about you when you are gone? is a modern-day mussar work that can be appreciated & enjoyed by young and old, Jew and non-Jew alike, and it is a book that I believe is a must-read for anyone and everyone.
But more significantly, it is a book whose impact can, should, and will go way beyond its enjoyment in reading.
To purchase a copy of this book, click here.