Beyond the Page: The Jewish Sages Brought to Life

Only in his mid-50s, Rabbi Binyamin Lau is one of the leading lights in contemporary Jewish scholarship and leadership. As the spiritual leader of 929: Tanakh B’yachad, Rabbi Lau engages over thirty thousand people in Israel daily, helping them learn a chapter of the Hebrew Bible together. His previous work is no small feat either, as he was in charge of the Human Rights and Judaism in Action Project at the Israel Democracy Institute as well as teaching social justice Torah at Beit Morasha in Jerusalem.
A thought leader in the field of critical Talmud study (bikoret haTalmud), Rav Lau is the author of a number of authoritative works on the subject. Although he has written about the biblical prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, his magnum opus is centered around the multi-volume work The Sages (Maggid Books), a glimpse into the intellectual space in which our tradition's most revered minds lived and thrived. Volume IV, subtitled Character, Context, & Creativity, was published this year. It is a treat to read.
Through The Sages, Rav Benny offers readers a singular combination: the best of the secular academic world partnered with the best of the yeshiva world. When I asked him about this description, he told me that while his book is not academic in the sense that it is stuffed to the brim with footnotes, academics in the field would say that it is “not a fantasy.” He believes that today “We can’t talk about gadolim” — the solo authorities. Instead, we have to learn to embrace machloket—difference and argument. “Beit Shammai fought physically against Beit Hillel,” Rabbi Lau told me with great passion, “They believed they had the certain truth, the absolute truth of G-d. But Beit Hillel always learned the view of Beit Shammai as well.” He continued fervently: “The big machloket today in the Jewish world is machloket. So many today think they have daat Torah (the perfect truth) and so the conversation ends.”
What I believe readers will find most appealing of this book is its accessible erudition. The thoroughness in Rabbi Lau’s research is impeccable, providing great historical context while describing the religious worlds of his subject. Shifting the perception of Chazal from faceless figures of text, to fully-fleshed human beings is one of the marvels of Rabbi Lau's work. I am in awe.
And, through his writing, we can see Rabbi Lau’s commitment to righteous causes. Lau is an advocate for social justice and believes “We must move the halakhah to a just place.” He has a track record of doing this, such as giving pesak halachah (a ruling) to grant dignity to those with disabilities. For me, it was the ruling, in opposition to other leading authorities, that the blind could bring their seeing eye dogs to the Western Wall which serves as a paragon of melding ancient texts with modern truths:

Life in a sovereign Jewish democracy should open the eyes of decisors to the enormous potential for mutual enrichment between the human rights doctrine and the Jewish tradition. Decisors who hold human rights dear will find a way to allow people with disabilities to have access to every place. As this dispute revolves around the edifice comprised of “stones with a human heart,” it is my hope that those supervising the Western Wall plaza will soon find their hearts and minds open to the needs of our sightless brothers.
There is more to be done, of course. In the preface to the new book, Rabbi Lau lays outs his thesis about "creative discourse" to bridge gaps within the community. When I interviewed him, Rav Lau explained that only about 10 percent of the dati leumi—religious Zionist--world today is chardal (from charedi leumi, reject modernity), but commented that the other 90 percent of Religious Zionist Jews in Israel are like the Modern Orthodox community in America and are embracing of “modernity, liberal values, humanism, and enlightenment” in conjunction to halakhah. There is hope for bridging these two different, but equally vital, communities.

The Sages, past volumes and those that are on the way, are crucial reads. Every Jew’s obligation is to wrestle with the wisdom that has become such a vital part of our tradition. Whether one is a new seeker of Jewish knowledge or a learned scholar, Rabbi Lau’s work is the perfect distillation of the richness of history and spiritual growth. Not only is he an outstanding scholar, he also models the much needed commitment to engaging the diversity of ideas, human dignity, and societal progress.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics.