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Rabbi Zvi Tau and the Future of Religious Zionism

It is common for people to speak about Religious Zionism as if it is a monolithic ideological group that shares common assumptions about the State of Israel, secular studies, the army, etc. Religious Zionism is actually made up of numerous smaller groups, some more dominant than others, which all together make up what insiders call the migzar/מגזר, or the sector. One of the most important figures within this constellation is Rabbi Zvi Tau. Rabbi Tau was a student of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and an important figure at Mercaz Harav, but in 1997 Rabbi Tau broke away from Mercaz Harav.

In one of the only English treatments of Rabbi Tau, Yehudah Mirsky wrote that educational institutions associated with Rabbi Tau or his students “are characterized by nationalism, a holistic reading of the ostensibly true will of the people, thoroughgoing rejection of any form of academic Jewish studies as well as of literary and humanist approaches to the Bible, and a sacralization of the state and its institutions as such.”

In a recent edition of Makor Rishon, Yoav Sorek wrote an in-depth analysis of recent developments in Rabbi Tau’s philosophy that is bringing him closer to an ultra-Orthodox approach to the state, its institutions, and the rest of the Jewish people. Rabbi Tau is now teaching that Rav Kook’s understanding of the role of the entirety of the Jewish people is reserved for the messianic era. In his article Yoav quotes one of Rabbi Tau’s students who described the ultra-Orthodoxization of Rabbi Tau’s present day teachings in the following manner:

In the past he [Rabbi Tau] had great trust in the Israeli reality…He followed Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook who would insisted that “the people are with us,” because the people knows what is right. Today, in Rabbi Tau’s eyes, there is simply no people with whom to speak. He doesn’t reject the teaching of Rav Kook, but rather turns it into “Messianic halakhah,” something that is essentially irrelavent to reality. The ideal of the unification of the holy and the profane is in his eyes something that is reserved just for supremely righteous people, for a level that doesn’t exist now. The role that Rabbi Tau’s beit midrash fills today on the ideological map is identical to that which Agudath Israel played against Zionism in the past.

If Rabbi Tau was a rabbinic figure who had few disciples, the change in his thought would be of little more than academic interest, but in addition to those who are directly influenced by him, Rabbi Tau has a very large number of disciples and educational institutions that were founded by his disciples in which thousands of people study. Therefore his influence is much larger than those who study in his yeshiva, and Yoav’s article addresses the tensions that some of his students are beginning to feel between the “old” and the “new” Rabbi Tau.

The change in Rabbi Tau’s theology might also have an impact on the upcoming Israeli elections. Rabbi Tau is associated with the Hardal group within Religious Zionism and has become a very outspoken opponent of the Bayit Yehudi party. He has instead thrown his support behind Eli Yishai’s ultra-Orthodox Yahad party which was joined by Yoni Chetboun after he left the Bayit Yehudi.

The article is a must read for anyone interested in the future of Religious Zionism, and Yoav was kind enough to make his article (Hebrew) available in PDF and it can be read here.

Did Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg Refuse Release from Prison

One of the most important figures in Jewish history during the Middle Ages is Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (Maharam), author of hundreds of responsa and communal leader. A tragic episode of his life is his imprisonment (1286) after a failed attempt to flee Germany, his eventual death in prison (1293), and that it was forbidden for his body to be buried for a number of years. One aspect of his imprisonment that has been discussed by many is whether or not Meir of Rothenberg refused to be ransomed from captivity.

In a new article (Hebrew), Simcha Emanuel examines Meir of Rothenberg’s captivity, and specifically whether he refused to be ransomed. The tradition that Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg refused to be ransomed because of the high price is found in Rabbi Shlomo Luria’s commentary on the Talmud Yam shel Shlomo (Gittin, Berlin ed. 4, 66 from Emanuel’s article).

שמעתי על מהר”ם מרוטנבר”ק ז”ל שהיה תפוס במגדול אייגזהם[!] כמה שנים, והשר תבע מן הקהלות סך גדול, והקהלות היו רוצים לפדותו, ולא הניח, כי אמר
אין פודין השבויים יותר מכדי דמיהם.

I heard that Maharam of Rothenberg z”l was held captive in the Tower of Ensisheim for a few years. The Emperor demanded from the community a large sum, and the community wanted to redeem him, but he would not agree, since he said that you don’t redeeem captives for more than their worth.

Emanuel points out that Luria’s testimony is contradicted by other sources, most notably that of Rabbi Judah son of the Rosh, who wrote that a deal for Meir of Rothenberg’s release was in the works when Rabbi Meir suddenly died.

After examining numerous earlier attempts at explaining the contradictory accounts of Meir of Rothenberg’s imprisonment and death, Emanuel proposes that we understand Luria’s tradition about Meir of Rothenberg’s refusal as a variation of an earlier story from the 12th century that is found in the Tosafot of Rabbi Yehuda Sir Loen on Berakhot 18a and in the Ramban’s Torah ha-Adam about a certain rabbinic sage whose captive body was not redeemed because of the high ransom that was demanded of the Jewish community. (Torah ha-AdamSha’ar ha-Sof, Inyan Mi she-Meito Mutal Lefanav)

ונשאל הרב ז”ל [=ר״י הזקן מבעלי התוספות]
על אדם גדול שבדורו שתפסו שלטון ומת בתפיסה ולא נתנו לקבורה, והיה מעכבו בתפיסה כדי לגבות עליו ממון הרבה יותר ממה שהיד משגת,
ואפילו היה ספק בידם לעשות אסור לפדותו באותו ממון (גיטין מ”הא’) מפני תיקון העולם,
והשיב הרב ז”ל יש לומר דלא קרינא בהו מי שמתו מוטל לפניו לאסרם בבשר ויין, הואיל ואינו מוטל על הקרובים לקברו עד יערה עליהם רוח אלהים ממרום.

Emanuel admits that he doesn’t have conclusive evidence for this theory, but that it is as convincing as the previous attempts to understand the contradiction between the different traditions about Meir of Rothenberg’s imprisonment.

Hoshana Like You’ve Never Seen it Before

A very nice modern interpretation of a traditional Jewish liturgical prayer.

New and Important Article on Alenu

Jeff Hoffman has written an important article on the Alenu prayer, The Image of the Other in Jewish Interpretations of Alenu. Hoffman not only addresses interpretations of the Other, but also gives an informative overview of the liturgical history of the Alenu prayer.

The text of Alenu can first be documented in the 10th century as part of the introduction to the Malkhuyot (“Kingship verses”) section of the Amidah of Musaf (the additional service) on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is found in that location in Siddur Rav Saadya Gaon as well as in several documents from the genizah. It ultimately appeared as part of the introduction to Malkhuyot in the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah in all rites. While there is one Genizah fragment that contains Alenu in the liturgy for Yom Kippur in its Musaf service, it was incorporated into the liturgy for Yom Kippur at a slightly slower pace than it was into that of Rosh Hashanah. Alenu gradually became one of the concluding prayers of daily services beginning in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries in the Franco-German region. It entered the morning Shaḥarit service first, and within a couple of centuries, it concluded all services, three times a day, throughout the entire liturgical year.

The Jews Own Manhattan

An eruv is one of the markers of a vibrant observant Jewish community, thus it is no surprise that there is an eruv around most of Manhattan. The Manhattan Eruv has an interesting history, and Adam Mintz has written a good overview of that history. The Manhattan Eruv has already been written up in the New York Times (twice), so it is no rookie when it comes to media coverage. One of the requirements of an eruv is that the area enclosed by the eruv must be private property, so you may be wondering how an eruv is constructed around Manhattan? Well, a recent news story from the New York Daily News tells us:

Jewish leaders came to City Hall Friday to renew the lease on the Manhattan eruv — a thin wire boundary that allows observant Jews to perform simple tasks on the Sabbath. As part of the lease renewal – which happens every 20 years — the city accepts a symbolic gift, which this year was a crisp five-dollar bill. Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier of Fifth Avenue Synagogue presented the gift to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alicia Glen.

There is some disagreement over the original purchase price of Manhattan, but it seems that Rabbi Kermaier got a pretty good deal.

A Censored Volume of the Beit Yosef

Musings of a Jewish Bookseller has a nice post with images about a censored volume of the Beit Yosef, Even Ha-Ezer, that was printed in Venice in 1565. Apparently this censor was quite prudish about sexual matters.

Because They Didn’t Change Their Language: Hebrew and Egyptian

There are a number of midrashim that list the ways through which the Israelites were able to preserve their uniqueness and prevent assimilation during their sojourn in Egyptian, eventually bringing about their redemption from there. Among those things listed were that they didn’t change their dress, their language, their names, reveal their secrets, repeat gossip, or let their wives be sexually violated. (See e.g. Mekhilta Bo, parashah 5; Shemot Rabbah ed. Shinan, chap. 1; Vayikrah Rabbah 32:5. Read here and here for discussions of these sources.) Here is the version found in Shemot Rabbah:

אמר רב הונא בשם בר קפרא: בשביל ד’ דברים נגאלו ישראל ממצרים, שלא שינו את שמם ושלא שינו את לשונם ושלא גלו סודם ושלא הפקירו נשותיהן

I just wanted to bring some recent scholarly discussion about one of these claims, “שלא שינו את לשונם”, because they didn’t change their language. Since the 19th century scholars have been writing about the relationship between the Hebrew and Egyptian languages, along with other Ancient Semitic languages, and we are lucky to have a very recent summary of the findings. The following selections are from the articles “Egyptian and Hebrew” and “Egyptian Loanwords” by Aaron Rubin in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics.





Israeli vs. Diaspora Judaism: Micha Goodman vs Shai Held

Take time out of your day to listen or watch this discussion between two of the most important Jewish thinkers today. (HT to Life in Israel)

The Saga of the Bible Project 929


Recently a Bible study project was launched in Israel that was suppose to provide a platform for Israelis from all different backgrounds to study the Bible together. 929, named after the number of chapters in the Tanakh, seemed to be doing exactly what it was doing until a number of things happened. The first cracks occurred when Rabbi Shlomo Aviner came out and strongly criticized (Hebrew) the endeavor. Soon afterwards an article by Ari Elon, one of the participants in 929, was removed from the site after he and one of the coordinators of the project, Rabbi Benny Lau, had a disagreement about one of Elon’s posts and Rabbi Lau’s reaction to a conversation that they had in which he felt that Elon was disrespectful. In the pre-social media age I imagine that very little of this would have been made public, but now it’s all for everyone to read. Here is Elon’s post (Hebrew) and Lau’s response (Hebrew). As of now there is now going to be a “parallel” site for individuals who do not want to be exposed to “heretical” interpretations. Tomer Persico’s comments are a helpful guide to the whole episode.

All I can say that it is disturbing when rabbis and educators don’t trust people to make their own decisions about what they should and shouldn’t read. It’s nice to see that some (Hebrew) rabbis agree with this attitude.

If any of you are wondering, the five-year project is expected to cost (Hebrew) 47 million NIS (approximately $12 million), of which 23 million NIS (approximately $5.8 million) is coming from the Ministry of Education.

Update:  Two updates from this morning. First, I remembered that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has been promoting a Perek Yomi, Chapter a Day, of Tanakh for a number of years. The project’s web site includes resources for study. The second update is that the guest on this past Friday’s episode of Sara Beck’s wonderful program Oneg Shabbat was Zvika (Biko) Arran, the director of Project 929. The two spoke about the project and some of the controversy around it. You can listen to the episode below. (Hebrew)


New Book-In God’s Image


Yair Lorberbaum’s important work on the role of the concept of Tzelem Elohim, image of God or Imago Dei, in Jewish law and rabbinic theology has now been translated into English and will soon be published. I have not seen the English version, In God’s Image: Myth, Theology, and Law in Classical Judaism, but the Hebrew edition was an excellent book that integrated a number of different disciplines.

The idea of creation in the divine image has a long and complex history. While its roots apparently lie in the royal myths of Mesopotamia and Egypt, this book argues that it was the biblical account of creation presented in the first chapters of Genesis and its interpretation in early rabbinic literature that created the basis for the perennial inquiry of the concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yair Lorberbaum reconstructs the idea of the creation of man in the image of God (tselem Elohim) attributed in the Midrash and the Talmud. He analyzes meanings attributed to tselem Elohim in early rabbinic thought, as expressed in Aggadah, and explores its application in the normative, legal, and ritual realms.




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