Celebrating Torah culture

Published in The Jerusalem Post, May 17, 2019, and in Israel Hayom, May 19, 2019.

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The legacies of Rabbis Yeshayahu Hadari and Aharon Lichtenstein serve as a cultural counterpoint to the doltish Eurovision festivities.

It was hard to get a word in this week that didn’t reference Eurovision. The international song contest in Tel Aviv was a super big deal for many Israelis, marked by ecstatic excitement that resembles religious rapture.

I acknowledge the bliss of these Israelis and grant their joy, but don’t share it. The kitschy, glitzy contest broadcasts cultural values and lifestyles that run counter to my Weltanschauung.

I admit that it feels good when Israel wins global awards like Olympic medals, especially in the BDS era. And I suppose this is true even when the win involves superficial pop, witless strutting and doltish squawking.

However, chicken-pocking jingles, raunchy love songs and BDSM marches don’t warm the cockles of my heart or stimulate the higher echelons of my brain. Call me a Christmas scrooge (“Bah, humbug!”), but I defiantly didn’t watch the Eurovision extravaganza on television nor listen to any of the breathless broadcasts about it.

Instead, I have been celebrating the intellectual legacies of two Torah giants, whose yahrtzeits (anniversary of the date of death) were marked last week by thousands of Religious-Zionist Israelis.

RAV (RABBI) CHAIM YESHAYAHU HADARI, long-time dean of Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem’s Old City, passed away exactly one year ago. Last Wednesday, the yeshiva’s alumni gathered in tribute to his unique personality and spiritual worldview.

Rav Hadari was the supreme connoisseur of yesteryear’s European Torah aristocracy, while validating generations of young IDF soldier-scholars in his hesder yeshiva. He taught mystical Hassidic thought refracted through the dramatic Zionist-transformational bent of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook.

He lived and breathed the grand sweep of Jewish history and exuded delight in Israel’s return to Zion. He taught that Jewish sovereignty, especially in Jerusalem, was a manifestation of Divine grace, and an opportunity to achieve holiness.

For 50 years, Rav Hadari led the Friday night ritual of dancing en-masse to the Western Wall for Sabbath prayers – for which Yeshivat Hakotel became famous following its founding by Rabbi Aryeh Bina. It was sight to see and savor: Hundreds of white-shirted boys in rows, with arms on each other’s shoulders, streaming down the long staircase from the Jewish Quarter; like an endless flock of pure sheep skipping down the Psalmist’s slopes towards the base of the ultimate spiritual alp.

I was fortunate to be a student of Rav Hadari. It was on his rooftop in early dawn midrash classes that I forged my own commitment to Aliyah. And today my youngest son studies at Yeshivat Hakotel too, now led by the master’s disciples. It is all a great blessing, and I’m sure that Rav Hadari is smiling from his perch in Heaven.

RABBI DR. AHARON LICHTENSTEIN also straddled diverse worlds of philosophy and ideological commitment.

From the time he moved from America to Israel in 1971 and until his passing four years ago this week, Rav Lichtenstein gave the highest-level Talmud, halacha and philosophy classes to students at his academy, Yeshivat Har Etzion, south of Jerusalem.

In fact, Rav Lichtenstein was one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of our times. I’m sure that his incisive, almost-mathematical analysis of Talmudic concepts will still be studied 100 years from now and beyond.

A former Harvard professor of English literature, he also taught that intellectual honesty and openness, ethical probity, and a passion for social justice are key religious obligations.

Indeed, he held path-breaking views on a range of issues: the value of secular literature from a Jewish religious perspective, religious humanism, religious-secular relations, the status of women in Torah leadership, attitudes to the non-Jew, modern methodology for Bible and Talmud study, and more.

When he passed away, tens of thousands of students attended his funeral (– again, including me, and another son of mine who studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion too). Hundreds attended a conference on Thursday (about female leadership in the Torah world) to mark his yahrtzeit.

Speakers pointed to “Rav Aharon’s” insistence on high moral, ritual and intellectual standards, plus his unassuming nature and abiding tolerance. And notwithstanding Rav Aharon’s appreciation of general culture, his disciples emphasized his deep love for G-d and dedication to Torah learning as a supreme religious value.

It is interesting that Rav Lichtenstein’s students are simultaneously like and unlike him: Admiring of his great mind and religious integrity, yet independent thinkers who often dissent from the political and public policy views he expressed; scholars who follow his approach in study, yet seek to expand its horizons; community activists who embrace his inclusive approach, yet find deeper stirrings in religious nationalist romanticism than he did.

From his perch in heaven, I suspect that Rav Lichtenstein is enormously proud of those who absorbed his nuanced teachings; students who seek to emulate and yet go beyond him. That is certainly true also for the yeshiva’s founder and co-dean Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who passed away in 2010.

Rabbis Bina and Hadari, Amital and Lichtenstein, dug foundations in places of Israeli consensus that fell during the 1948 War of Independence (– the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem, and Gush Etzion), and transformed them into beacons of scholarship and leadership. They were bridgeheads between the Lithuanian yeshiva world and the modern Israeli-Zionist world. They educated tens of thousands of young men and women who can be found in all walks of Israeli life, from the rabbinate to industry, academia, arts and the military.

Writing about these religious-educational leaders invigorates me, and I hope that it inspires others too. After all, with those Eurovision celebrities flying away, we will need some real role models.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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