Monday, April 02, 2018

Mori ve-Rabbi, Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik זצ"ל: A Personal Reflections on his Twenty-Fifth Yahrzeit



It was a call that I was theoretically expecting and for which I was still totally unprepared. It was Thursday evening, April 8, 1993, the eighteenth of Nisan 5753 and I was sitting at my desk still trying to fathom the passing of one of my mentors, Ludwig Jesselson, the previous Shabbat. The phone rang. At the other end was Prof. Henry Lisman ז"ל, a dear friend and the Rav's brother-in law. His voice was soft and solemn. 'That which we most feared has finally happened,' he said. I knew immediately what he meant. The funeral would be Sunday, the eve of the last days of Pesach, in order to allow the members of the Lichtenstein family to arrive in the United States. We agreed that I would drive him and Mrs. Lisman (who was Rebbetzin Dr. Tonya Lewitt Soloveitchik ז"ל's sister) to Boston, along with one of the Rav's earliest star students, Rabbi Prof. Chaim Danishevsky זצ"ל and one other person. I hung up the receiver, and sat in stunned silence. 

Hazal, in describing the initial stage of mourning, speak of שעת חימום, a moment of intense, heated angst and pain (Moed Qatan 24a). It is that moment, according to Halakhah that generates the obligation/impulse to tear one's clothes. Strangely, I did not experience that moment of stabbing shock. I felt a deep, chilling and paralyzing ache that left me stunned and numb. I felt as if the Rav's departure from the world had torn a gaping hole in the fabric of my universe (even though he had been ill and withdrawn for over seven years, and the last time we had really talked was in February, 1985). Oddly enough, that yawning chasm remains with me to this day, twenty-five years later. 


This state of mind is very hard to explain to anyone who has not had the privilege of being the disciple of a great religious personality (the Rav's reminiscences of Rav Kook come to mind). Encountering such a personality is a transformative experience, especially when that personality instills in you a combination of Reverance and Deference to God and Torah, while pushing you to grow into an independent and courageous Servus Dei. Being the disciple of the Rav ushered us into a realm of existence wherein, as Rav Prof. Haym Soloveitchik put it in his unforgettable eulogy of his father, everything outside the Rav's Shiur (especially in Talmud, but also in Humash or Jewish Thought) was not only unimportant, it was insignificant. In those moments, we experienced a timeless passing on of Torah and Tradition, which was marked by Love and intense spiritual yearning and intellectual aspiration; and by the awareness, again formulated exquisitely by Prof. Soloveitchik, that the Rav and his disciples were bound to one another by the common shared awareness that without him, as our Rebbe, we were incapable of being what we were (or aspired to be), and that (as incredible as it still sounds to me) without us as talmidim, he could not have been who he was.


That sense of bonding remains very real for me, a quarter of a century later (and unites Talmidim who span the generations, when they meet and share ideas, interpretations and memories.) On the one hand, personally, I know that I have striven to develop into an independent person, and forge my way in the world of Avodat HaShem, of Talmud Torah and Shemirat Mitzvot.  My goal, sadly only partially realized, was to seek to realize the mandate/blessing he gave me the day before my wedding; viz. to become 'a lamdan in the widest sense of the term.' Certainly, there are positions and decisions I took with which he would have disagreed (though, I hope he would have respected them). Still, even when I reached such decisions, it was the Rav's teachings and method, and personal example that really grounded and oriented me throughout. In that, very deep and profound sense, I feel a contradictory reaction to his passing. On the one hand, I miss his availability. There is not a day that goes by that I do not wish I could write or speak with him to help me make sense of an increasingly neurotic. On the other hand, by studying and engaging his teachings I feel like my discipleship has never ended. [Indeed, it was my beloved, lamented friend, R. Dr. David Applebaum הי"ד who described the experience, after the passing of his Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik זצ"ל in 2001.]   


So, perhaps, that is why I felt no שעת חימום a quarter of a century ago. As Prof Soloveitchik said as he concluded his eulogy: 


 'And so, they bonded and have remained so even now that נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים.'

Ludwig Jesselson זצ"ל on his Twenty Fifth Yahrzeit

       Ludwig Jesselson (c. 1955) 
 About three and a half years ago, I was eating lunch at the Faculty Table at Yeshivat Har Etzion, and we were joined by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל. Rav Lichtenstein was in failing health, but he still made superhuman efforts to learn in the Bet Midrash, and to eat with the Ramim, as he had for over four decades. Usually, he listened to the discussion around the table, but did not participate. On this occasion, the conversation involved a significant amount of Jewish Geography, in which I participated intensely. At one point, Rav Aharon looked at me and asked: 'How is it you know so many people?'

I was surprised by the question (a result, I suppose, of a mix of reverence and inexperience --- since, of all of the members of the Rav זצ"ל's family, I had the least amount of interactions with him). After a few minutes, I walked over to him and simply said that God had blessed me with knowing many remarkable people. And it's true, I have been blessed not only to meet, but to be close to some of the most remarkable people, in many different walks of life. All of these have, to different degrees, left an impact on my life and taught me important life lessons. However, I only refer to a few of these as 'my teachers.'
One of these was Mr. Ludwig Jesselson זצ"ל, whose twenty-fifth yahrzeit was observed last Wednesday, 12 Nisan.
Mr. Jesselson (or 'Mr. J'---I would never have the audacity to presume to call him 'Luddy') was a legend in commodity trading (especially metals and their derivatives), who parlayed his firm, Phillipp Brothers aka Phibro, into a world giant during the 1970's and early 1980's (the details are here). Yet, it is not of that part of his life that I wish (or have the expertise) to write. 
I came to know Mr. Jesselson (and his wife and partner, Erica nee Pappenheim) when we moved to Riverdale in the Fall of 1984, as I assumed the position of Assistant Rabbi (and then, Scholar in Residence) of the Riverdale Jewish Center, where the Jesselsons attended (and which they had helped found). Almost from the start, we developed a long, warm and affectionate relationship. Our family became part of the Jesselsons' extended family. Mr. Jesselson attended every one of my Shabbat afternoon lectures, andd many others. He was passionately interested in History, and he was a voracious reader. I became a sort of resource person for him. We shared the same weltanschauung (Mrs. J preferred to use the term Hasqafa), and I was privileged to be involved in many project that the Jesselsons undertook to advance Modern Orthodoxy (a number of which, I have to confess, also involved positions where I might best develop my talents, and put them to use) In addition, he was a major source of encouragement regarding my plans for Aliyah. In a very understated manner (appropriate for German-Jews), I tried to express my feelings toward them in the introduction to my doctorate (1991).

Mr. Jesselson was an inspiration to untold numbers of people. After Mrs. J returned from Israel, following his passing a few days before Pesach, we sat together as she read through the hundreds of faxes that she'd received expressing shock and grief. As she read them, she kept reacting to one consistent theme: "How can so many people feel as if he was their best friend?'  And yet, that was Mr. Jesselson. He treated everyone with grace, respect, and concern...from the shoe shine man whom he took off of the street (and to whom he gave a job) to Rabbis, captains of industry, and Heads of State. 
Yet the Jesselsons did not confine their concern to words, or small gestures. They were, as many said at the time 'Princes of Philanthropy.' Mr. Jesselson was emphatic that if God blessed him with great wealth, it was for the sole purpose of helping others. And he helped others on a scale that beggars the imagination and, overwhelmingly, did so anonymously. In his philanthropy, which included both Jewish and non-Jewish causes and individuals, he was guided by the Torah's imperative to see every person as having been created in the image of God. That devotion to Torah guided many of the Jesselsons' philanthropic priorities. They were wholly committed to Modern Orthodoxy, to Torah uMadda, It is not a coincidence that the only buildings that bear their names belong to institutions that represent their highest values: SAR Academy, the Jesselson Wing of Shaare Zedek Hospital, and the Jesselson Institute for Higher Torah Studies at Bar Ilan University (which is not to understate his devotion to Yeshiva University, whose Chairman of the Board he was). 
Zionism, and support of the State of Israel, was a central part of Torah in the Jesselsons' world view. They supported countless Israeli cultural and religious institutions (Midresher Amaliah--named for his mother, the Israel Museum, the National Library, the IPO, Bar Ilan University and much more) and had lasting friendships with Israeli leaders and diplomats. (And in in the process, educated many of them about Shabbat and Hagim, Torah and Tradition--- all by dint of personal example.)
 
One person with whom Mr. J had a very close relationship was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ז"ל. And it is one episode of that friendship that I'd like to relate, as it says alot about Mr. Jesselson's lighter side (and as I was directly involved):
Sometime in the late 80's, I walked into the Riverdale Jewish Center on Shabbat Morning, and Mr. Jesselson came rushing over to me. With a mix of emphasis and exasperation, he said: 'I want you to help me. Yitzhak Rabin was at our house for dinner last night, and we had an argument.' I was somewhat taken aback. How,exactly, was I supposed to resolve this argument? And Mr. J explained: 'I said that there Feisal was the King of Syria after World War I and Rabin denied it; that Faisal was only King of Iraq. I want you to prove that I'm right' 
I tried to object that the Middle East in the early Twentieth Century was not exactly my area of expertise, but Mr. J was adamant: 'You're an historian. I know I'm right. Find me the proof.' So I was off. Now, this was during the years before the Internet, before Wikipedia. I started making inquiries, and always came up with same answer: After WWI, Abdullah was the Emir of Transjordan and Faisal was the King of Iraq. After a week, I saw Mr. Jesselson in Shul and reported my findings. He replied: 'Keep Looking.'
So, I kept looking. As it happens, my brother had trained as a Diplomat at SAIS under Majid Khaddouri and Fouad Ajami, so I phoned him. He was, at the time, working at the Port Authority of NY and NJ, which had a good library (I didn't have access to Butler LIbrary at Columbia). He checked and found that for four months, from March to July 1920, the British installed Faisal bin Hussein as King of Greater Syria, until he was evicted by the French who had received the mandate for Syria at the San Remo Conference that year. So, Mr. Jesselson was correct.  I asked my brother to xerox the relevant pages and mail them to me.
When the pages arrived, I called Mr. J's office and told the secretary, Mrs. Sarfati, that I had material for him. She informed me that Mr. Jesselson was in Alaska on a yacht, fishing. HOWEVER, there was a fax on board. So, if I could fax her the pages she would send them on. This was before faxes were common. I had access to one of the few machines in Riverdale, at the Riverdale YM-YWHA. I drove over, and faxed the sheets from the book to Mrs. Sarfaty. She, then, faxed them to the yacht, off the coast of Alaska. Mr. Jesselson had the fax number in Rabin's office at the Israeli Defense Ministry, and off went the proof. When I next saw Mr. Jesselson in shul, he was, needless to say, very pleased (as was I).
There is so much more that I could say. However, if the Jesselson's guarded anything, it was their privacy (and it is no coincidence that there is only one picture of him on the Internet). Despite being, by all accounts, the wealthiest man in the area, his home was incredibly modest. Modesty of character was one of his shining qualities, which won the hearts of so many, and my eternal affection, reverence and gratitude.

I started this post with the assertion that I consider Mr. Jesselson to have been one of my chief teachers. The lessons I learned from him, both in word and deed, were many. Among them: 1) Believe in yourself. 2) Know who you are, and who you are not. 3)The only bad news involves matters of Life and Death. everything else can be overcome.  4) Kiddush Levana is a very important mitzvah. It teaches us to have hope and overcome the darkness, based on the belief that the light will come. 5) God put us on earth, and gave us gifts in order to give back to Him, to the Jewish People and the world. That's why when we repay Him, we should not seek honor or glory in doing so.   

תהי נשמת משה אריה בן החבר שמואל זצ"ל
צרורה בצרור החיים ותהי מנוחתו כבוד
   

Friday, March 30, 2018

Seeing the Signs of the Times: A Thought for the Seder from Don Isaac Abravanel

Exactly 526 years ago tomorrow, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, their most Catholic majesties of Aragon and Castille, stood in the Al-Hambra Palace (once built for the Jewish Vizier of Granada, Samuel Ibn Negrela Ha-Nagid) and issued a decree expelling all professing Jews from their combined KIngdoms no later than July 31 (four months hence).

The Decree of Expulsion from Spain 

One of those who chose the staff of exile was the Royal Treasurer, Don Isaac Abravanel (whom our family is proud to call our ancestor). Over the years of wandering, he pondered the disaster that had befallen the Jews of Spain, whose glorious history ended in a combination of the Fires of the Inquisition, the Waters of the Baptismal font and the Bitter Waters of Exile. In his Hagaddah, which he finished some thirteen years after he left Spain, he expresses the despair that he and his generation felt.


              'What have we gained,' he asked, 'by leaving Egypt?' Perhaps we would 
              have been better off staying there than being exiled among the Christians 
              and the Muslims, free from the expulsions, the persecutions, the sword,
              captivity, and worst of all apostasy as a response to travail.

And yet, he adduced two lessons that he took away. 1) That there is no way to explain the Exodus except by Divine intervention.


2) In his commentary to Isaiah 49, Abravanel says that God inspired the Kings of Europe to expel their Jews (using the verb the Prophet uses to describe Cyrus), in order to being them ever closer to Eretz Yisrael. The message is, and Abravanel's generation actually failed here by either going West or stopping short, to read the signs of God's intervention in History and follow His lead.  


According to Hazal, 80% of the Israelites died during the three days of Darkness. I surmise that they didn't die physically. They died spiritually, and so remained in Egypt. They failed on both of Abravanels counts. They refused to believe that any power could defeat Pharaoh. They likely assumed that miracles weren't miracles, that everything is natural and that reasonable, sophisticated people wouldn't accept such things. In their uber-sophistication, they were blind to God's Hand in History. 

We've seen God's Hand in History, even when we don't understand it. Rav Yehudah Amital זצ"ל, himself a survivor who lost his entire family in the Shoah,  used to say that he saw God's Hand in the Shoah, when the Germans and their Henchmen ימ"ש harmed their own war effort to murder Jews. He just couldn't fathom what God was doing. Far be it from me to presume to say anything about the Holocaust. However, in our times we've seen God's Hand in History, when three years after Auschwitz, the State of Israel was born, against all political and military logic. We saw it when the great Soviet Empire came crashing down, and hundreds of thousands of Jews were freed from three generations of repression and persecution. In fact, for those who look closely, our continued existence, both of our country and our people, is due to one long series of miracles (whether hidden or revealed).

On Pesach, we thank הקב"ה for these never ending miracles, from the Exodus from Egypt until today and Please God, till the coming of משיח צדקנו בב"א

חג כשר ושמח!!!
 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Peter Berger and the Prospects for Judaism in Israel


Peter Berger, who passed away less than a year ago, was a world famous sociologist of religion. As with many others, his writings and insights had a profound impact on me, in both my professional and non-professional life. His book, The Sacred Canopy, played a critical role in my thinking about the way that value systems and mentalites envelop, sustain and guide religious societies (which is the central focus of The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz). 
 
 In the 1960's, Berger was deeply concerned by what he sensed was the decline (perhaps, the demise) of religion, in the face of the unrelenting onslaught of Secularism. He pushed back against the 'Death of God' Movement, and asserted the importance of belief in the Divine (in an acknowledged, Liberal Lutheran mode). Thirty years later, though, Berger was surprised (and pleased) to discover that despite his fears, Religion and Faith in a Supernatural God were thriving throughout the world (outside, perhaps, of Europe and the circles of the cognoscenti of Manhattan, Los Angeles and their acolytes. See here). In considering this development, Berger observed that there is an historical irony in the manner wherein religion can thrive in the contemporary world. Until relatively recently, religion was supported by the power of the State. In the Christian West, that is no longer the case, and religious affiliation is now a matter of personal conviction and purely voluntary. This changed circumstance, Berger averred, actually bode well for religion. Freed of  institutional constraints (and their dark side), Religion now must compete in the open market of ideas. Berger felt that this surprising resurgence of Religion was largely due precisely to the success of Religious Faith to effectively market itself to a spiritually hungry world (assisted, no doubt, by the intellectual and spiritual superficiality and flaccidity of secularism). 

There is, I am convinced, much in what Berger wrote that can be constructively and effectively (if judiciously and critically) applied to Jewish Life in the resurgent State of Israel.

First, it's important to note, that Berger (though, ironically, born a Jew) was writing in a Christian context. Since Christian religiosity begins (and often, ends) with one's own personal, internal faith commitment, its propagation can be left to intellectual 'market forces.' Such is not the case for Judaism. Judaism represents a unique blending of ethnicity (or, national identity) and religious, covenantal commitment. Jews are, as R. Saadiah Gaon noted, a nation by reason of our Torah, but Jews remain a part of that nation even when they fail to personally observe the overwhelming number of the latter's dictates (Cf. Sefer Ha-Emunot ve-ha-De'ot III s.v. וכיוון שהקדמתי and Resp. Rashi no. 171). Nevertheless, since the Torah regulates the life of the nation, and finds its fulfillment in the nation, a Jew's religious choices are not entirely his own. They impact directly upon the entire body politic of the Jewish people, to which he is obligated by Tradition. [Indeed, this point that lies at the center of the great divide between Orthodox and Traditionally committed Jews, and their Liberal brethren.] Hence, Traditional Judaism cannot function, cannot survive without some degree of institutionalization (Rabbinical Courts, Kashrut etc.). [This does not, however, mean monopolization. On the contrary, I think that regulated competition may be the best way of ensuring the maintenance of Jewish Law, but that is not for the present discussion.] 

However, despite the very real and very profound differences between Judaism and Christianity, Berger's basic insight is eminently appropriate. Legislation and coercion, force majeure and raised voices not only do not draw people to Torah,, they drive them away.

To begin with, Judaism never believed that belief or sincere affiliation could be commanded (see my discussion here). These can, and must, be cultivated. When Jews lived in traditional societies, this could be done implicitly, non-reflectively (part of what Prof. Haym Soloveitchik described as 'mimetically.') Today, the overwhelming majority of Jews (outside of Haredi enclaves, and even these are increasingly porous) live in the broader secular mainstream, just as Berger described. Factors that previously helped to preserve Jews' connection to Torah, are largely absent in Israeli society. Broad swaths of the Ashkenazi population lack the profound ethno-religio-cultural sentiment and traditional sensitivities that fueled the Zionist enterprise from the beginning; not to mention the fact that they also lack any scintilla of Jewish literacy (as borne out by the present frenzy among the cultural elites against 'religionization' [הדתה], which usually comes down to an agenda for abject Jewish ignorance.) Into the Jewish vacuum that has formed, flowed (without critical examination) the full flow of contemporary secularism, with its atheist-materialist dogmatic. Even Mizrahi Jews, who do retain a profound sense of religious belief and affinity for Tradition, have their dedication attenuated by an unchecked inundation of contemporary secularism.

This situation requires Judaism (and, for me, this means Orthodox Judaism, or at least a Traditional modality) to compete in the open market of ideas for the hearts and minds of the Nation that dwells in Zion. There is every reason to believe that Torah can, and will prevail in such a competition. This is not only because of my own personal conviction, and three millennia of Jewish survival. The renaissance of Judaism, the spiritual resurgence of the past twenty years, is proof enough of the thirst of the Jews of the Land of Israel for God and for Torah; of the fact that there is a population to which the Torah can be made accessible. 

However, There are two sides to this undertaking; and they must be done simultaneously. On the one hand, we need to teach Torah in a way that will demand people's assent, respect and (hopefully) consent. This requires judiciously adopting and adapting contemporary ideas, values and cultural modes to render Jewish ideals accessible. And, there are broad swaths of overlap between the Torah and ideals held dear by the contemporary West (the advancement of women, for one). Of course, this does not mean that the Torah should be coerced to conform to ideas and values alien to it. Judaism has always encountered other cultures in a mode of interaction. The encounter stimulates thinkers and scholars to see where and to what degree ideas it confronts resonate within the corpus of Jewish Tradition. The results enrich Judaism from within, by bringing to light dimensions of itself that were hitherto unseen, but on its own terms. The encounter also provides teachers of Torah with a language than can be appreciated by those outside its orbit. [Cf. Moreh Nevuhim III, 31, Rambam's discussion of the attitudes toward Agaddah in the Introduction to Pereq Heleq and my discussion here.]   

At the same time, competition in the market place of ideas means going on the offensive against those elements, especially the unstated assumptions, of secularism that are incompatible with Religious Faith and a Life of Torah and Mitzvot. The fallacies of the former, and the advantages of the latter need to be put forth in the language of secular society. [Chaim Navon has picked up this gauntlet, but there is much more to do.] To return to Berger, success in the market place requires proper packaging, demonstrating why the product is needed, why the alternative is harmful and all without sacrificing the integrity of the product.

The tragedy is that just when there is an upsurge in desire, a deepening in Jewish awareness, there are almost no men or women ready and willing, trained and dedicated who are available to enter into the lists. Training those men and women and developing the tools to fill this double mission are the most promising way of deepening the Jewish character of the State of Israel, ensuring not only its soul, but its body as well.

[To Be Continued]
 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

If One More Person Says “Prozbul”…



       
   I have a vague recollection that the first time I heard the word ‘Prozbul’ was in December 1969 at the International USY Convention in Buffalo. The subject was ‘The Sabbath’ and the thrust of many of the sessions was how to bring Sabbath observance into sync with Modern Life.  Not surprisingly, high on the agenda was the Conservative legal opinion that one is allowed to drive back and forth to the synagogue on Shabbat, a copy of which was included in the source book. I was very much taken with the supreme confidence expressed by our discussion leader, a rabbinical student at JTS, not only that the Torah could be efficiently ‘brought up to date,’ but that ‘we’ are fully qualified to do so. When asked, whence stemmed their confidence, the answer was: Prozbul.
Neither I, nor anyone else in the room, had a clue as to what a Prozbul was so, so our leader kindly explained that the Torah annuls loans after seven years. However, this led to wealthy people not extending loans to the poor for fear of never being repaid, so Hillel created a legal fiction that annulled the annulment, overrode the Bible and that the vehicle by which this effected is entitled called ‘Prozbul’ (Cf. M. Shevi’it 10,3). We must, the leader continued, follow the example of Hillel and use it as a precedent to legislate in order to bring Judaism into the Twentieth Century. Allowing driving on Shabbat was one, sterling example of this type of activity.[1]
Over the subsequent decades, it seems that whenever I have encountered discussion of halakhic change, Prozbul is invoked.[2] Prima facie, it makes sense. After all, according to the Mishnah, Hillel the Elder did find a mechanism to address a social ill by effectively avoiding the abrogation of debts in the sabbatical year. However, the way the prozbul is cited goes far beyond this. It seems to me that it is appealed to as some sort of magic wand, an ‘Halakhah ex machina that can justify any and all situations wherein the Torah is perceived to be out of sync with the human condition.[3] Invoking Prozbul, then, is a way of expressing the (at best) extremely problematic assertion: ‘Where there’s a rabbinic will there’s an Halakhic Way.’[4]
I find this latter usage deeply distressing. Waving any kind of flag in a discussion of ideas is extremely shallow, and its use often verges on demagogy. Perhaps that explains why prozbul is a ubiquitous trope in social media. As if the Internet had not done enough damage in dumbing down contemporary intellectual intercourse, social media engenders superficiality of brain numbing proportions. Nevertheless, in the over-heated atmosphere of Facebook and Twitter polemics, whenever someone challenges the need, appropriateness or authority to change Jewish Law…out comes Prozbul. Quod erat demonstrandum. ‘Nuff Said.
This type of use of prozbul is not only distressing in its shallowness, its shallowness is itself deeply offensive. After all, discussions such as these within an Orthodox context, do not concern quotidian matters. They treat of the interpretation, and application, of what Orthodox Jews are supposed to believe is ultimately the Word of God. Discussions in that context demand the polar opposite of Internet arrogance and anger, or of social media anti-norms. They require, instead, precision of thought, meticulousness of formulation, and (above all) a deep and abiding reverence for the subject and of the broad implications of the analysis. And, while I obviously cannot do anything about the comportment of others (only of my own), I would like to revisit the prozbul as a literary and intellectual topos in order to flesh out my larger point.[5]
The origins, even the very meaning, of prozbul were long debated by scholars.[6] Today, it is accepted that the word is of Greek origin, and refers to a legal instrument presented to a court.[7] As noted above, loans are annulled at the end of the sabbatical year (Shemittat Kesafim; Deut. 15, 1-2). Inter alia, this was intended to introduce a degree of debt relief for the agricultural poor. At the turn of the first millennium, though, this situation had boomeranged. In fulfillment of a situation which the Torah had envisioned, and against which it had warned, people had begun to withhold loans on the fear that they would lose their investment upon the arrival of the sabbatical year. According to the Mishnah (Shevi’it 10, 1), this situation spurred Hillel the Elder into action: [A loan secured by] a prosbul is not cancelled [in the sabbatical year]. This was one of the things instituted by Hillel the Elder. For, he saw that people refrained from lending to one another, and there transgressing that which is written in the Torah…’[8] According to the Mishnah, Hillel ruled that debts that were presented to a court for collection were unaffected by the sabbatical year amnesty.[9]
The question is, of course, whence derived Hillel’s authority and ostensible audacity at effectively circumventing the Torah’s mandated debt amnesty? Indeed, both the Yerushalmi and the Bavli express (mild?) shock at the implication that Hillel permitted something that the Torah had explicitly forbidden.[10] The best of intentions, both imply, do not justify a gross abrogation of an explicit Biblical injunction.[11] The upshot of both Talmudic discussions (part of which are anticipated in the halakhic midrashim) is that Hillel’s actions and authority lay well within the parameters of accepted Rabbinic jurisprudence, and his authority was rooted in his standing as the head of the Sanhedrin. According to one opinion, Biblical Law allowed for the exemption of debt from the sabbatical year amnesty via its assignment to a court. Or, since the amnesty itself was only rabbinic in origin already in Second Temple times, it was fully within the purview of the rabbis to legislate an exemption (Hem amru ve-hem amru).[12]
Either way--- and while saying this should be obvious, it is unfortunately not --- while Hillel is reported to have responded to a societal need, his area of action was fully determined by and confined to the accepted rules of rabbinic jurisprudence. It is inconceivable (and the Talmudic expressions of shock express as much) that Hillel would have coerced the Torah to ‘adjust’ itself to a new reality, beyond where the Torah itself allowed him to go. Such an action for a person of faith would have been nothing less than a blasphemous sacrilege.[13]
This post is, as should be obvious, not a discussion of theories of the historical development of Prosbul, but of the manner in which Rabbinic Tradition understands itself, and the ignorance thereof. As a system of Law and Lore that is rooted in an a priori faith commitment, the legal reality that Prozbul actually represents in Rabbinic Law must be both acknowledged and respected.[14] In contemporary terms, that means that deference to accepted principles of Post-Talmudic jurisprudence: the supremacy of the Babylonian Talmud, jurisprudential divide between Rishonim and Aharonim, the authority of consensus (sugya de-alma) and, above all a healthy dose of reverence for the judicial moment (Yirat Hora’ah), cloaked in deference to the Giver of the Torah (Yir’at Shamayim), even to the inconvenience of the individual.[15] Those who misrepresent prozbul, and Halakhic Jurisprudence by extension, are guilty of ignorance at best, and willful, disrespectful distortion, at worst.  
This is not to imply that Halakhah ‘on the ground’ (as it were) is (or was ever) meant to be static. However, the interaction of Law and Life is both delicate and nuanced.[16] Orthodox belief maintains, and historical study confirms, that Halakhah possesses its own integrity and was never viewed as a plasticine toy in the hands of the halakhist. On the other hand, the type of contemporary legal paralysis that has engendered a society based on fear, on adoration of stricture and the compulsive need to satisfy ever transient opinion ever uttered is equally egregious and must be countered by those qualified (present and/or future) to liberate Halakhic decision making from its chains.
           There is, however, a difference. The latter, an admittedly egregious situation, is an internal development that can be rectified from within. Waving the flag of prozbul, with historicist fervor and revolutionary ardor, will leave nothing more than scorched earth.



[1] I am not going to here revisit the Conservative allowance to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat. As issued, it amounts to little more than rough historicism. Ironically, a very cogent rebuttal thereto was issued by the Masorti Movement in Israel. 

[2] Also popular, though less invoked, is M. Keritot 1, 7.

[3] Cf. Sefer Hassidim, ed. Witstinetzki-Freimann, no. 1068 and H. Soloveitchik, ‘Three Themes in the ‘Sefer Hassidim,’’ AJS Review, I(1976), Part One.

[4] I much prefer the bon mot of Professor David Shatz, אם תרצו, אין זו הלכה. Cf. H. Sabato, Seeking His Presence: Conversations with R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Jerusalem 2016,         .

[5] On this use of topos as a literary trope, see E. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, New York 1953, 80. The term was most significantly used in Jewish Intellectual History by the late Prof. Isadore Twersky.

[6] A recent discussion of the origins and development of Prozbul, with prior bibliography, is found in E. Ancselovits, The Prosbul – A Legal Fiction? Jewish Law Annual, 19, 1-16. However, while his discussion is quite thought provoking, it does not address the point at bar here.


[7] I am following the discussion of the topic by my colleague, R. Prof. David Henshke, ‘Ketzad Mo’il Prozbul? Le-Toldot Be’uro shel Taqqanat Hillel,’ Shnaton HaMishpat HaIvri, 22(2001-2003), 71-106. Both, per se and for purposes of the central focus of this essay, his presentation is the most persuasive and the most apt.

[8] The Mishnah in Gittin (4, 3) describes prozbul as an enactment for the correction of a societal ill (Tiqqun Olam).

[9] There is a difference of opinion as to the exact mechanism at work here. See Henshke, (85-92) and the sources cited there. Ancselovits (passim) describes the subsequent stages of development of the institution.

[10] PT Shevi’it 10, 2 (39c) and BT Gittin 36a.

[11] BT Hullin 49b:  Rav ve-issura de-orayta ve-at amrat Ha-Torah hassa al mammonam shel Yisrael?

[12] Henshke notes that the Mishnah’s characterization of Prozbul as an ‘enactment’ (taqqanah) can be squared with either approach. The word can mean either ‘regularization’ or ‘legislation.’ The former connotation is appropriate with viewing Prosbul as an expression of a Biblical hermeneutic.

[13] Cf. H. Soloveitchik, ‘Religious Law and Change: The Medieval Ashkenazic Example,’ Collected Essays, I, Oxford 2013, 239-240. It is my conviction that even by the atheist-materialist standards of academic thought, the historian must presume the religious probity of the medieval individual (unless decisively proven otherwise). Cf. J. Woolf, The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz (1000-1300), Leiden 2015, 12-21; A. Gurevich, Categories of Medieval Culture, London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1985. Startling confirmation of this contention is provided by the diaries of King James I of Aragon. Cf. R. Burns, ‘The Spiritual Life of James the Conqueror King of Arago-Catalonia,’ The Catholic Review, 62 (1976), 1-35.

[14] A review of the way that prosbul was adjudicated in Post-Talmudic Halakhah bears out this contention. See Henshke, passim and Y. Dinari, Hakhme Ashkenaz be-shelhe Yeme Ha-Beynayim, Jerusalem 1984, 200-203. Regarding the last point, see my essay ‘Masorah in the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l,’ published here.

[15] This is not to deny that historical change does represent one variable, one tool, in the halakhist’s tool box. The parameters of the use to which such can be put to use is an very important topic on its own. It goes far beyond t he confines of the present discussion.


[16] I address this point in a forthcoming review essay in the Hebrew journal, Zion.