Rabbi Dr. Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich, who passed away on May 6, passionately believed that every Jew ought to move to Israel, because the Divine drama playing out here was an incredible opportunity to rebuild the Jewish People.
One month ago, exactly, an intellectual giant passed away. His innate humility and mild manner earned him the respect of his students and peers, but also meant that he was not well-known outside the bounds of his Religious Zionist yeshiva community. Even within that community, the breadth and depth of his scholarship was insufficiently appreciated.
Most obituaries for the Canadian-born Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich (or Rav Nachum, as he preferred to be called) told of his many years of service as a community rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Toronto, Canada, or his term as dean of Jews College in London, England. They also spoke of the thousands of students he mentored over 40 years at his Birkat Moshe hesder yeshiva in Maaleh Adumim. Every student or colleague interviewed spoke of Rav Nachum’s insistence on rigorous discipline in study, and his quiet dignity and compassion.
In this tribute, I wish to concentrate on his scholarly contribution, halachic leadership in the field of conversion, and political views.
Rabbi Dr. Rabinovich was a true renaissance man, with broad horizons and a deep knowledge base that ranged from mathematics to physics and philosophy, alongside the entire corpus of Talmud and halacha (Jewish law), comparative jurisprudence and history.
He wrote important halachic rulings on a range of topics including organ donation, surrogate parenthood, birth control, family purity, army service, social work, electricity on Shabbat (– his scientific prowess led to maverick conclusions), kashrut, modern media, and more. In all cases, his search was for halachic truth, which he then sometimes tempered with considerations of moral integrity and religious humanism.
Rav Nachum’s enormous erudition most comes to the fore through his magnum opus, a 14-volume commentary (called Yad Peshuta) on Maimonides’ Yad HaChazaka. (The latter is a 12th century encyclopedic code of Jewish law, also known as Mishneh Torah LaRambam, which is considered authoritative even today).
Rav Nachum begins by establishing the most accurate possible version of the text of the Mishneh Torah, based on decades of assiduous research on manuscripts from Cambridge and Oxford to Jerusalem and Cairo. He then explains the rationale behind Maimonides’s ordering of the law; compares each ruling to analogous discussions in Maimonides’s earlier halakhic works; and explicates the text itself, while cross-referencing and harmonizing it with other sections of the code.
Finally, and most uniquely, he also harmonizes Maimonides’s many other writings, including his responsa, epistles, philosophical and even medical works. He gallantly championed Maimonides’s consistency across all these works. This led Allan Nadler, the Wallerstein professor emeritus of comparative religion at Drew University, to call Rav Nachum himself “Maimonides in Maaleh Adumim.” (See: The Jewish Review of Books, summer 2018).
Rabbi Rabinovich’s close disciple for over 50 years, Rabbi Yerachmiel (Ralph) Frankel, says that it is hard to attribute a style of scholarship to Yad Peshuta because it creatively combines so many approaches. Sometimes Rav Nachum would explain Maimonides through traditional Lithuanian disputation, in the style of Rav Chaim, the Brisker Rav, or the Ohr Sameach. Sometimes he would source Maimonides’ rulings in an obscure Jerusalem Talmud passage or a halachic midrash that others could not find.
Other times he resorted to “modern” forms of scholarship to explain difficult rulings, like variant texts found in manuscript, or letters from Maimonides’ son. This overwhelming expansiveness makes Yad Peshuta a monumental and singular achievement.
WELL BEFORE IT became a public issue, Rabbi Rabinovich anticipated a conversion crisis in Israel stemming from the Russian aliya, and he advocated “giyur ketanim” (the converting of minors, with their parents’ approval) as a creative solution. In recent years, he gave his imprimatur to the independent Giyur Ka-Halacha rabbinical court initiative which bases its work on this approach.
In his halachic responsum about converting minors, Rabbi Rabinovich boldly asks: What is the bigger danger to Jewish Peoplehood? Absorbing half-a-million non-Jews as permanent Israeli citizens who will end-up marrying Jewish Israelis without converting (and in the process will probably force introduction of civil marriage in Israel); or reliance on secondary halachic solutions to facilitate more conversions?
What is stringency and leniency in this situation? Isn’t going the extra mile to convert Russian-Israelis indeed halachic stringency (and not halachic leniency), since it would stringently protect the Jewish majority in this country from sinning through intermarriage? And does the responsibility for running a sovereign Jewish nation for the first time in 2,000 years make a difference in the way that Jewish law functions?
Might the miraculous restoration of Jewish sovereignty, the ingathering of the exiles, and the imperative of creating a Jewish civic culture, militate for a difference in the fraction of halachic observance considered enough for conversion to Judaism, especially by minors?
IN RECENT DECADES, Rabbi Rabinovich also expressed very harsh criticism of the Oslo process which led to withdrawals in Samaria and Gaza. He felt that these moves were diplomatically dangerous (involving imminent threat to life, pikuach nefesh) and a violation of individual rights (of Israeli settlers who were entitled to home and safe homestead; and of religious soldiers who were pressed into service for the Gaza disengagement against their religious principles).
His opposition to Oslo was not based on Kookian messianism, but upon a close reading of classical halachic principle and Western political philosophy. To some, this seemed to clash with his social and religious liberalism and his passion for Jewish unity, but in Rav Nachum’s mind, there was no contradiction.
Above all, Rabbi Rabinovich passionately believed that every Jew ought to be moving to Israel, because the Divine drama playing out here was an incredible opportunity to rebuild the Jewish People.
In a 1974 address to rabbis in North America he said that: “The sad truth is that we are afraid to open our ears to hear the urgent summons to leave the Diaspora and to settle the waste places and fill the land with Jews. (But) to shrink from facing up to the perplexities and the demands of the historical situation is as much a renunciation of faith as the denial of history’s G-d.
“We must mobilize all of our intellectual, spiritual, and physical resources for the security and the upbuilding of the State and the people of Israel. The crown of G-d has been entrusted to us for safekeeping and we dare not foist the job on anybody else, even the Almighty Himself!
“The shape of Israeli society for generations to come is being determined now. It must and it can be permeated with Torah; not starry-eyed otherworldly faith but the kind of unswerving trust in the G-d of Israel which opens our eyes to see and to bear witness to His awesome deeds.”