MUSSAR AVICHA by Harav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook
(Published by Yediot Sefarim & Divrei Shir, 2015)
Rabbi A. Y. Kook, who died eighty years ago, was a towering figure whose unique approach to Jewish thought continues to stimulate the Jewish conversation. However, especially given his difficult literary style, many Jews both in Israel and particularly in the diaspora, have not studied many – if any – of his writings. In fact, even the great Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik once commented that he had not studied Rav Kook’s books for this reason (see Nefesh ha-Rav, p. 66, note 12)!
However, this is about to change since this year saw the publication of the first of an eight volume project, in which Rabbi Kook’s writings have been beautifully republished along with a word-for-word explanation in easy hebrew by Rabbi Chagai Londin.
The first volume of this project is Rabbi Kook’s ‘Mussar Avicha’, which is an exquisite book that discusses topics such as Yirat Shamayim (awe of Heaven) and Avodat Hashem (divine service). As Rabbi Londin explains in his helpful introduction, Mussar Avicha can be likened to Rambam’s Shemonah Perakim which explains fundamental principles of Jewish belief, while another of Rabbi Kook’s books called ‘Midot HaRe’iyah’ can be likened to the Ramchal’s Mesillat Yesharim in that it provides practical guidance regarding how to incorporate these values in our life.
Having previously attempted to study ‘Mussar Avicha’, I can attest that Rabbi Londin’s notes transform the learning experience of this important work and highlight the nuanced approach to divine worship presented by Rabbi Kook.
For all those who have ever considered studying the writings of Rabbi Kook but were unable to decode Rabbi Kook’s stunning, yet complex, literary style, make room on your bookshelves for this, and the forthcoming, volumes.
‘Hayom Harat Olam: Conceptions and Perceptions of the High Holidays’ is a beautiful collection of the sermons of the late Rabbi Mordechai Fachler zt’l which have been compiled and edited by his son. Rabbi Fachler, whom I knew personally, held several high-profile rabbinical and educational positions in South Africa and then in the UK, and his vast Torah knowledge, coupled with his deep understanding of the human psyche, is reflected in this beautifully published work.
In ‘Hayom Harat Olam’ you will find eight collections of sermons which span from Rosh Hashanah to Shemini Atzeret. Each collection is inspired by a theme, while each sermon has its own clear identity and message. Given the proximity to Rosh Hashanah, let me just quote on excerpt:
“The word שופר – shofar has the root letters שפר from which the words שפרו מעשיכם – “improve your deeds” are taken. The shofar tells us not to rely on the davening and the sermons to change us; we must personally make the effort and the strategy to change. The shofar is the rally call to every individual to translate all the beautiful newly-absorbed ideas into concrete deeds” (pp. 49-50).
I highly recommend this book and may its publication remind us of the unique contributions of R’ Mordechai Fachler zt’l.
THE JEWISH POSITION ON OTHER RELIGIONS
If someone wishes to learn about Jewish attitudes to other faiths, they are likely to seek answers from Google (which is never a good idea!), classic Jewish books (which rarely make explicit reference to other faiths) or teachers/Rabbis (who rarely spend time learning about other faiths, and are therefore unable to provide an informed response). In fact, it is precisely due to the fact that such information is so hard to find which leads Jews to either adopt an unnecessarily derisive attitude towards other faiths, or to become involved in those faiths. Sina Cohen’s “The Jewish Position On Other Religions” fills this gap. In this short book, Cohen reflects on Jewish attitudes to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism & Buddhism, as well as broader issues such as Jewish attitudes to Non-Jews. The Jewish Position On Other Religions is well researched and well organized, and is written with a refreshingly respectful tone. While this book was originally published in 2013, the second edition has just been published and can be purchased on Amazon.com or http://www.thejewishposition.com.
In his introduction to ‘Aggadah: Sages, Stories & Secrets’, Rabbi Bernstein speaks about the nature and purpose of Aggadah and also offers a very useful classification of the different types of Aggadot found throughout Jewish literature. In the subsequent eighteen chapters, Rabbi Bernstein addresses fundamental topics such as ‘Emunah’, ‘Bitachon’, ‘The Individual and the Environment’ & ‘The Art of Gratitude’ by unravelling Aggadic passages and through presenting nuanced readings of numerous well-known Biblical stories. The vast array of sources cited by Rabbi Bernstein serve as an introduction to numerous works which many readers may not (yet) be familiar with, and in addition to this, each chapter contains a number of side notes in which Rabbi Bernstein offers his own reflections on challenges in the modern world. ‘Aggadah: Sages, Stories & Secrets’ is a serious yet elegant book which I look forward to re-reading.
Earlier this year, Dr. Yael Ziegler published Ruth – From Alienation to Monarchy, which joins a number of other volumes that form the Maggid Series in Tanakh.
In her introduction, Dr. Zeigler writes that ‘this book represents an attempt to fuse together traditional interpretations with scholarly ones’, and there is no doubt that ‘the fusion of these two seemingly distinct approaches to the biblical text is more seamless than one might suppose’. By bringing these two worlds together, Dr. Zeigler offers the enthusiastic reader, who may only be familiar with either the traditional or scholarly approach, the opportunity to recognise the creativity and insightfulness of alternative approaches to the text. At the same time, Dr. Zeigler makes it clear that her reading does not adopt a pretense of academic detachment. Instead, she approaches Megillat Ruth ‘as a sacred book that contains profound insights into the religious experience’, which makes Ruth – From Alienation to Monarchy not only an incredible source of information and interpretation, but also, a profound source of inspiration.
To give just one example, in explaining the manner in which Ruth cleaved to Naomi, Dr. Zeigler writes, “the act of cleaving to another is the very opposite of selfishness. Individualistic behaviour entails looking out for oneself, regarding one’s own interests as paramount even when it undermines the need of the Other. This attitude prevails during the period of the judges, in which tribalism and individualism eclipse any possibility of national unity. Ruth’s unprecedented act of attaching herself to another is an important step in beginning the renovation of society so sorely needed at this juncture.”
This is a valuable, beautiful, insightful and inspirational work that sheds light on one of the most majestic books of Tanakh, and I am certain that I will be referring back to it on regular occasions.INDEX TO THE HIRSCH CHUMASH In the introduction to his Commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identifies the three exegetical methods which he employs. The first involves a precise method of etymological analysis to derive the explanation of the text; the second seeks to explain words and phrases by interpreting them in light of other passages in Tanach, and the third extracts and presents Jewish values that emerge from the text along with the accompanying rabbinic tradition. This triple-layered approach, as well as Rabbi Hirsch’s lengthy style of writing, makes the Hirsch Chumash an absolute masterpiece, while at the same time, it also creates somewhat of a challenge when a student or scholar is looking for a particular, word, phrase or concept within the commentary. Given this, David H. Kerschen should certainly be praised for his ‘The Index to The Hirsch Chumash’. In this beautiful volume you will find 1) a comprehensive subject index of the Hirsch Chumash, 2) a list of references to the Collected Writings of Rabbi Hirsch wherein reference is made to his commentary, 3) a list of words, roots and expressions and where these are explained by Rabbi Hirsch in his commentary, 4) and an index of all the references of Nach, Shas and other rabbinic literature cited by Rabbi Hirsch in his commentary. This is a very welcome addition to the Jewish bookshelf and I am confident that I will be consulting this work on a regular basis. Moreover, I dearly hope that ‘The Index to The Hirsch Chumash’ opens, or widens, the door to those who wish to learn the sweet Torah of Rav Hirsch. CONVERSION, INTERMARRIAGE AND JEWISH IDENTITY In March 2012, seventy-seven leading scholars gathered to discuss the topic of “Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity”, and earlier this year, fifteen of the papers delivered at that conference were published in what is now the twenty-third volume of The Orthodox Forum Series. The papers contained in ‘Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity’ (ed. A. Mintz & M. D. Stern) are divided into six categories: Intermarriage, Conversion in the State of Israel, History of Geirut, Current Contemporary Halakhic Approaches to Geirut, The Theological Foundations of Jewish Identity & Orthodox Responses to New Paradigms of Jewishness, and each paper offers a refreshing perspective on these complex issues.
As should be obvious, all of these topics are of crucial importance, and as Adam Mintz and Marc D. Stern observe in their introduction, the way in which the Jewish community address these topics “will determine the character and essence of the Jewish communities of the future.”
However, beyond the fundamental disagreements about how to approach the issues of conversion and intermarriage wherein “advocates on both sides speak with greater certainty about the wisdom of their approach than seems warranted”, what is also clear is that too many leading voices in the Jewish community are not sufficiently aware of the scale of these problems and the urgency to find solutions.
In an addendum to his paper addressing ‘Intermarriage and Jewish Communal Policy’, Dr. Steven Bayme writes that “many Orthodox leaders live in a bubble far removed from the day to day realities of American Jewish communal life…The total number of converts to Judaism in the United States likely exceeds 200,000, and the overwhelming majority of these conversions have occurred under non-Orthodox auspices”, but he notes that no viable policy has been seriously discussed regarding how the Orthodox community “relate to this critical mass of individuals, let alone their progeny?”. However, perhaps the reason for this is found in Marc D. Stern’s paper titled ‘The Jewish People – A Yawning Definitional Gap’ in which he observes that “[t]he requirements of conversion and the response to intermarriage are, for the Orthodox, essential benchmarks or border-markers of what it is to be Jewish…[but] Orthodox Jews who were born Jewish don’t often think of these boundary questions. They may not even be essential questions for those not inclined to self-reflections. But from a contemporary communal perspective, they are essential.”
“Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity” is not a collection of solutions, but it is an important collection of papers that highlights the challenges which the Orthodox community currently faces but remains unprepared to directly confront. I would encourage anyone interested in halakha, policy or the future of the Jewish people to study this volume with care. CHANGING THE IMMUTABLE: HOW ORTHODOX JUDAISM REWRITES ITS HISTORY In this long-awaiting book, Marc Shapiro offers hundreds of examples where students, family members or printers have chosen to rewrite the past ‘by covering up and literally cutting out that which does not fit their own world-view’. In ‘Changing the Immutable’ we read of a recent edition of the Mikraot gedolot (Rabbinic Bible) in which a novel interpretation by the Rashbam was simply censored out of the text, and we learn of an early example of political correctness with the removal of some laws pertaining to sinners from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Other examples feature additions to images such as photographs of bareheaded scholars that have been doctored to ensure that a kipah appears, whether or not it was worn at the time when the photograph was taken. Even Rashi is not safe from the editorial decisions of printers and translators, and Shapiro offers examples where well-known translations of Rashi’s commentary are left untranslated especially when they discuss sexual matters. Though Shapiro offers countless examples of scholars whose writings have been subject to censorship after their death, it is clear that two of the most significant scholars in this category are Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and a chapter is assigned to each of these scholars in which he shows how their writings have been subjected to considerable reworking to the extent that, on occasion, the ‘corrected’ version conveys a message in direct opposition to the intention of the author. However, while each of the 285 pages of ‘Changing the Immutable’ offers fascinating examples from every area of Jewish scholarship, Shapiro does not simply showcase these examples for their own sake. Instead, he frames this book with fascinating and deeply reflective introduction regarding the concept of history as presented within segments of Orthodox society, and he concludes with a hard-hitting discussion regarding the concept of truth in the Jewish tradition. There is much to process from ‘Changing the Immutable’ and some may find many of the examples deeply unsettling. But just like all his previous books, once you read ‘Changing the Immutable’, your approach to Jewish texts is likely to never be the same again. TO STAND AND SERVE: ON BEING A KOHEN This week was the fifth yahrzeit of Marc (Shimon Elimelech HaKohen) Weinberg z’l. Marc was an extraordinary leader, teacher and community builder whose vision, drive and energy literally transformed Anglo-Jewry. Tragically, Marc passed away at the age of 35 after a long battle with leukemia. However, his vision lives on in the many people he touched and the many institutions he helped establish. While numerous essays and books have been dedicated to Marc’s memory since his untimely death, ‘To Stand and Serve/לעמוד לשרת’, jointly published by Yeshivat Har Etzion & Maggid Books, is a fitting tribute to Marc. This work contains 20 essays (10 in English and 10 in Hebrew) by leading scholars on topics relating to being a Kohen, and more broadly, on being a communal organizer, teacher & leader. Those who knew Marc will certainly be inspired by the touching forward by David Whitefield, as well as by the eulogy that R’ Mosheh Lichtenstein delivered exactly five years ago. Those who did not have the fortune to meet Marc but who are Kohanim will find this book to be a veritable Kehuna-fest with essays addressing a range of topics such as the words of Birkat Kohanim, the honour due to Kohanim and the Halakhic status of a Bat Kohen, while those involved in communal leadership will be stimulated by the many insights contained in this very special book. Marc was proud of being a Kohen, and he was also deeply inspired by his parents who were actively involved in communal Jewish life. Notwithstanding this, Marc would certainly agree with Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, that ‘what we do with our lives determines our worth far more than which family we happen to come from’ (To Stand and Serve p. 62). Marc Weinberg did so much with his life and in his life, and his example continues to teach and inspire so many. ‘To Stand and Serve/לעמוד לשרת’ is not just a book about a leader. It is a guidebook for leaders. May those who read this book reflect on the life led by Marc z’l, and follow his lead to stand and serve Klal Yisrael.
Mesilot Bilvavam (ed. Rabbi Eli Reiff) contains 20 essays written by Rabbi Rabinovitch over the past 40 years in which he explores contemporary issues relating to the individual and the society.
Given the fact that Rabbi Rabinovitch is an authority on the writings of the Rambam, it was to be expected to find numerous references to Rambam’s writings throughout the work. In fact, even the division of Mesilot Bilvavam between the duties of Jews as individuals and as members of society emerges from a comment from Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim.
Yet notwithstanding the many references to Rambam, the true star of Mesilot Bilvavam is Rabbi Rabinovitch whose unique blend of authentic spirituality and intellectual honesty enables him to address some of the most challenging questions facing Jews today. Mesilot Bilvavam contains essays on topics such as the purpose of the mitzvot, psak and rabbinic leadership, the religious significance of the Modern State of Israel, the status of women in contemporary Orthodoxy and the relationship between Judaism and other religions. Moreover, and in contrast to many other rabbinical leaders who ignore the complexities of these questions, Rabbi Rabinovitch addresses each one head-on, offering insights and practical suggestions through nuanced and considered scholarship.
It is rare to find a scholar with such a broad range of knowledge. Rarer still is someone who is wise enough to apply that knowledge to the contemporary situation, and rarer still is someone who is unafraid to speak his mind when proposing solutions to the complex problems that Judaism faces today. It is precisely due to these qualities which makes Mesilot Bilvavam such as welcome addition to the Jewish bookshelf, and which makes its contents such a welcome contribution to contemporary Jewish discourse.
Mesilot Bilvavam concludes with one final gem which is a transcript of an interview between Rabbi Rabinovitch and his protégé, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Aside from the probing questions from Rabbi Sacks, as well as the sagacious answers offered by Rabbi Rabinovitch, this interview offers a glimpse at a student-teacher relationship which spans as far back as some of the essays contained in the book, and it demonstrates the simple lesson that great teachers who inspire great students can create great teachers.
Please note that this is a shortened version of a longer review which appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of the JOFA journal.