Qeri'at ha-Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis
Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel By Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Northvale and Jerusalem (Jason Aronson), 1999, 283 pages, including bibliography and index
Reviewed Zvi Zohar
Most Ashkenazim consider Sephardic Jews to be exotic yet somewhat naive, given to colorful garb and spiced food and characterized by sincere yet simple religious devotion, with perhaps more than a dab of Kabbalistic superstition thrown in for good measure. Their rabbis, too, are mild-natured individuals, innocent of worldly knowledge and perspicacity, who may be good at rote memorization but are third-rate in intellectual depth.
Not long ago, even some talmidei-hakhamim held such views. The dramatic intrusion of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef into the halakhic scene has slightly moderated this perception, but his seeming uniqueness stressed by his followers--and his periodic controversial political pronouncements make it relatively easy for many to see him as an idiosyncratic exception that proves the rule.
However, this conventional view of Sephardic Judaism in general and of Sephardic rabbinic learning in particular is disturbingly misguided, the product of a deadly combination of ignorance and internal Orientalism. Indeed, in these respects Sephardic aharonim had (and have) a clear advantage over their Ashkenazic peers: All major and most minor Sephardic aharonim were well acquainted with the works of European Jewish poseqim and held Ashkenazic Torah learning to be no less valuable than their own. Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Rabbi Hayyim Palache of Izmir, Rabbi David HaCohen-Scali of Oran, Rabbi Khalfon Moshe HaCohen of Jerba and Rabbi Ovadiah Hedaya of Jerusalem are several who readily come to mind. Each of them routinely and casually cites numerous Ashkenazic aharonim in the course of his teshuvot and/or other Torah writings - but of which Ashkenazic poseqim can the converse be said? In addition, Ashkenazic poseqim and rabbinic leaders in modern times were (and are) operating under two remarkable constrictions, unaccepted by their Sephardic peers. First is the notion of “hadash asur min ha-Torah” - Torah prohibits the new. The adage, which is a play on the law related to the use of new grain (hadash) was coined by Rabbi Moses Sofer (Hatam Sofer) to discredit Reform innovations. The ideology it represents crippled much Ashkenazic pesaq by denying recourse to the potential for organic growth and change indigenous to traditional halakhic thinking. Add to this the notion of “kol ha-mahmir tavo alav berakhah” -better always to adopt the more stringent position; what Menahem Friedman has dubbed “The World of Humrot” - and the predicament of Ashkenazic halakhah is more easily understood. Compare this to the Sephardic motto, so beloved of R. Ovadiah Yosef, “koha de-hetera adif” - the power of leniency is greater (and, thus, to be preferred)!
Let us turn, briefly, from halakhah to Jewish thought. Orthodox Jews who are convinced that Judaism and general human thought and culture are not inherently antithetical, and that Judaism incorporates not only a particularistic but also a universal vision of human brotherhood, seem to be hard put to find sources for such notions within Orthodox Jewish culture of modern times. In the pages of Centrist/Modern Orthodox publications such as Tradition and The Torah u-Madda Journal, such sources seem confined to the thought of “The Rav” (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik), and (somewhat less frequently) to the thought of Rav Kook. More daring individuals refer to Yeshayahu Leibovitz. Of course, if we move back to the period of the rishonim, we have virtually the entire gamut of medieval Jewish philosophers advocating such views. Interestingly, all of these medieval Jewish thinkers were Sephardic/Oriental. Is it reasonable to assume that none of this found any continuation in Sephardic thought in modern times?
For those who intuitively feel that the haredi path of insularity and humrot cannot be the way of Judaism in our times, Sephardic tradition offers an invaluable wealth of resources. However, a dearth of scholarship has made it difficult for all Jews, and especially for the English-reading public, to become acquainted with the fascinating world of Sephardic rabbinic creativity in modern times. Rabbi Marc Angel’s book on Rabbi Uziel is a major contribution to rectifying this situation.
R. BenZion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953), born and bred in Jerusalem, scion of an illustrious family hailing back to pre-expulsion Spain, was one of the greatest rabbinic figures of twentieth-century Judaism. In the grand tradition of Sephardic rabbis, he was both a poseq and a religious thinker, who authentically combined commitment to halakhah and Judaism with openness to the context and socio-cultural realities of contemporary life. In Loving Truth and Peace, R. Angel presents and analyzes R. Uziel’s religious worldview, integrating his halakhic and philosophic oeuvres.
Chapter five of the book is entitled “Approach to Halakhah,” and chapter nine is called “Halakhic Framework for a Modern Jewish State,” but most of the other chapters as well include discussions of halakhic issues - together with their philosophic and ideational concomitants. This is especially so with regard to chapter seven (“Conversion”) and chapter eight (“Issues Relating to the Status of Women”). In both these chapters, R. Angel presents R. Uziel’s view and compares them with those of other poseqim. Thus, when discussing conversion, R. Angel first presents the more hesitant views of R. Uziel’s contemporaries, Rabbis Herzog and Kook. Only then does he present the closely argued teshuvot of Rabbi Uziel supporting conversion of the gentile partner in virtually all cases of intermarriage, without any requirement that the beit din be convinced that the convert intends to observe a halakhic lifestyle. This conclusion is derived from analyses of relevant halakhic sources, which indicate that “the condition to keep the mitsvot is not a sine qua non for conversion, even ab initio (afilu le-khatehilah). Similarly, before presenting R. Uziel’s traditionalist position on hair-covering for women, R. Angel discusses the views of other rabbis in modern times, including the position of another great twentieth-century Sephardic poseq, R. Yosef Mesas (Meknes, 1892 - Haifa, 1974), who ruled that in our times there is absolutely no halakhic requirement that married women cover their hair.
In each chapter, there clearly emerges R. Uziel’s vision of Judaism as a religious-ethical framework with a strong universal component. In presenting the case for integrating Jewish and general topics within the curriculum of Jewish schools and the culture of rabbinic life, R. Uziel stressed that “the sages of each generation did not limit themselves to their four cubits and the walls of their study halls. Rather, they learned and knew all that was transpiring in the world of knowledge and law [be-olam ha-madda ve-ha-mishpat] and they studied it carefully.” In choosing the phrase “four cubits”, R. Uziel is, of course, alluding to the classic talmudic dictum by Ulla, that “ever since the Temple was destroyed, God has in this world nothing but the four cubits of halakhah” (Berakhot 8a); and he is stating that whatever else this dictum may mean, it categorically does not mean that Jews in general, and talmidei-hakhamim in particular, should refrain from studying the general world of knowledge and law. R. Uziel noted that, in maintaining this view he was continuing the classic Sephardic tradition of medieval Spain. As R. Angel points out after analyzing R. Uziel’s approach, “the double bind in the conflict between religious and general studies vanishes, when these two areas are seen as being part of one enterprise: the attempt to understand truth.”
In the world of Ashkenazic Jewry, Reform Judaism stressed the universal aspects of Israel’s “Mission to the World.” In reaction, Orthodox leaders seem to have come to regard such universalistic parlance as almost heretical, and it is hard to imagine a religious ethos more particularistic and more rejectionist of universal human brotherhood and morality than that of today’s haredi/yeshiva world. In contrast, R. Uziel’s views regarding the connection of the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds are not confined to intellectual awareness of general culture. R. Angel writes that according to R. Uziel “the Torah was given to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai so that they should become a role model for humanity. They were to become ‘a light unto the nations,’ inspiring all people to live righteous and spiritual lives. To accomplish this grand mission, the Jewish people had to participate in the life of the world, to interact with other peoples, to set a proper example of religious life.” In that vein, it is fitting to move towards the conclusion of this review with a rather extended quotation from R. Uziel (as translated by R. Angel):
Each country and each nation which respects itself does not and cannot be satisfied with its narrow boundaries and limited domains; rather, they desire to bring in all that is good and beautiful, that is helpful and glorious, to their national [cultural] treasure. And they wish to give the maximum flow of their own blessings to the [cultural] treasury of humanity as a whole, and to establish a link of love and friendship among all nations, for the enrichment of the human storehouse of intellectual and ethical ideas and for the uncovering of the secrets of nature. Happy is the country and happy is the nation that can give itself an accounting of what it has taken in from others; and more importantly, of what it has given of its own to the repository of all humanity. Woe unto that country and that nation that encloses itself in its own four cubits and limits itself to its own narrow boundaries, lacking anything of its own to contribute [to humanity] and lacking the tools to receive [cultural contributions] from others.
Marc Angel’s work on R. Uziel simultaneously opens the world of modern Sephardic rabbinic culture to an English-reading audience and demonstrates the crucial significance of that culture for all Jews who seek to sustain and expand a Judaism that integrates tradition and change, halakhah and general culture, particularism and universal vision.
Finally, a word of advice to potential readers of this book: While conversing with R. Angel several years ago, he mentioned that he regarded R. Uziel’s disciple R. Hayyim David HaLevi as the leading halakhic authority of the second half of the 20th century. Coming from a Sephardic rabbi well acquainted with the writings of R. Ovadiah Yosef, that is a weighty statement indeed. R. Angel may well be correct in his assessment. Yet when I had occasion to discuss R. HaLevi’s work with another person, I was nevertheless told that, “anyone can see that R. HaLevi is not a first-rate authority. His teshuvot are written in an almost insultingly simple style!” In truth, R. HaLevi was unusually erudite - but he strove to make his work accessible to the widest possible range of readers, not merely to impress others with his erudition. He thus bent over backwards to write in a simple and transparent modern Hebrew. In this matter R. Angel is a true disciple of R. HaLevi: In this book, as in his other works, Angel writes in a lucid, deceptively simple English, making R. Uziel’s “grand religious worldview” accessible to all.
Enjoy the book - and be forewarned that its apparent simplicity of style reflects not lack of sophistication, but wisdom.
Menachem Friedman, The Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Society - Sources, Trends and Processes, Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies] 1991 (Hebrew), p. 80 ff.
Thus, even such a seemingly "particularistic" philosopher such as Yehudah HaLevi actually grounds himself in a world of dialogue with general thought and culture - not to speak of his adoption of non-Jewish modes of meter and other literary devices in his poetic work.
Responsa Mishpetei Uziel, Jerusalem , Mossad HaRav Kook, 5724, no. 20. The teshuvah dates from 1951. When I first read this teshuvah of Rav Uziel, it seemed to me totally preposterous. But I subsequently had the opportunity to devote several years to studying the halakhic literature on conversion, from talmudic to contemporary times, and I now realize how strongly grounded R. Uziel's position is in the halakhic tradition. Cf. Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar, Giyyur ve-Zehut Yehudit (Conversion to Judaism and the Meaning of Jewish Identity), (Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute and Shalom Hartman Institute, 5755.
R. Angel presents R. Mesas's view at p. 183, based on R. Mesas's responsa Mayyim Hayyim, Jerusalem 5745 vol. 2, no. 110. In fact, a fuller presentation of R. Mesas's views on this matter (with the identical "bottom line"), may be found in his work Otsar ha-Mikhtavim, Jerusalem 5729 (reprinted 5758) vol. 3, no. 1884 [= pp. 211-213]; the responsum is dated 5714, Meknes.
Sha'arei Uziel, Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 5704, vol. 1, p. 37; quoted according to Angel, p. 29.
Angel, p. 28. Earlier in the same chapter, at pp. 21-25, R. Angel identified and explained the apparent "double bind."
Angel, p. 47.
Hegyonei Uziel, Jerusalem 5714 vol. 2, p. 127; cited in Angel, op.cit., p. 50.
Jerusalem, 1924 - Tel Aviv, 1998. R. HaLevi was chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1973. He wrote over twenty-five volumes of rabbinic works, including twelve volumes of responsa (nine volumes of Asei Lekha Rav and three volumes of Mayim Hayyim) and five volumes of Shulhan Arukh Meqor Hayyim ha-Shalem.