Teaching Torah in Israel

What we desperately need today in Israel is a cadre of rabbis in all the various denominations who share Rabbi Hollander’s passion for making the Torah a source for encouragement.

‘HAGAR GIVING Ishmael Water From the Miraculous Well in the Desert,’ Charles Paul Landon. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘HAGAR GIVING Ishmael Water From the Miraculous Well in the Desert,’ Charles Paul Landon.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Books based on the parasha have become very common. After all, that is the way most people hear the Torah and the way in which it is most often taught. I think that this way became even more popular because of the work of the late beloved teacher Nechama Leibowitz. Even before the state was born, she developed a method of teaching the parasha through worksheets, basing them on passages from traditional commentaries, dissecting them and comparing them and requiring the student to comment on them in depth.
What was most remarkable was that she took it upon herself to then read all of those sent to her and comment on them. Where she found the time to do that I do not know, but it left an indelible impression on her hundreds of students, my daughter among them. Although strictly Orthodox, there was nothing superficial or apologetic about her approach. She brought new life to ancient texts and made them speak to modern times.
One of her foremost pupils was Rabbi Ben Hollander. He became a true disciple, taught along with her and carried on her methods, even though he came from a totally different background. He was a Conservative rabbi, brought up in America and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Bible was taught in a very different, academic fashion. Ben – who was a friend and colleague – passed away 10 years ago in 2008 at the age of 72. However, he was youthful and his death was a tragic loss for the many pupils he influenced and the many institutions, representing so many different facets of Israeli Judaism, at which he taught. He left behind a fantastic living legacy, but very little in writing. Perhaps he was too busy living Torah and teaching it to spare much time for anything else.
The thousands of young people who had the privilege of learning with him never forgot him. Much like his mentor Nechama Leibowitz, his personal involvement with each student brought Torah to life and made it part of the inner world of each one. Ben was one of the founders of Rabbis for Human Rights. His understanding of Judaism was that the essence of Torah was the struggle for justice, mercy and human dignity for all peoples.
When his friends at the Rabbis for Human Rights organization decided to honor his memory, they were fortunate to discover that in 1993-4 Rabbi Hollander had presented a weekly broadcast of Kol Yisrael English news each Friday devoted to the weekly Torah portion. Each broadcast was four minutes long – I remember because I, too, did that series one year and recall how difficult it was to compose something meaningful in such a brief time. Ben had thought to use those talks as a basis for a book, editing and expanding them. He actually began the work, but never lived to complete it.
His friend, Rabbi Michael J. Schwartz, together with others, undertook the task of editing the manuscript, filling in the gaps and adding a few other articles Ben had written, to create a book titled To Be Continued…, which has now been published. It is a fitting memorial to a remarkable human being and a very talented and devoted teacher of Torah. Reading his commentaries is inspiring, giving those who did not know him at least a taste of what it meant to learn with him.
In the introduction he wrote to the book he was preparing he discussed Rashi’s interpretation of the story of Genesis in which he connects it to God’s granting the Land of Israel to the Jewish people and therefore to the mitzvah of living in Israel. “It is the return to the Land of Israel in our time that restores the Jewish People to become players again on the chosen stage of sacred history.” But this is also the challenge – “defining and grappling with these three basic elements of Jewish existence: the people, the Land and the religious/moral mission mandated by Torah.”
His commitment to Zionism is clear, but so is his dedication to peace and to strengthening Jewish-Arab relations. He wrote a piece, for example, titled “Akedat Ishmael.” In it, he points out that on Rosh Hashanah we read both the story of Ishmael’s near death in the desert and of Isaac’s near death on Mount Moriah. The lesson here is that “Ishmael is dear to God, and that just as God heard the voice of Ishmael ‘where he is,’ so must we... by learning to walk together in the path of One God to do justice and righteousness in the Land.”
Rabbi Hollander wrote that in his weekly talks he “sought to articulate... the highest aspirations of Judaism, the Torah values which ought to guide us as we seek – in our disparate ways – to apply them practically to the complex problems and dilemmas confronting our society. My message was... the need for a Jewishness rooted in our source... but... also informed by a sensitivity to all people being created in the image of God’ and a commitment to our becoming a ‘blessing for all the families of the earth.’”
What we desperately need today in Israel is a cadre of rabbis in all the various denominations who share Rabbi Hollander’s passion for making the Torah a source for encouraging people to live according to the moral and ethical values of Judaism as developed over the centuries.
We need teachers who feel that the Torah must be examined in depth through the prism of the tradition but never as a frozen text without relevance to the dilemmas of life today, combining intellectual honesty with emotional fervor. Ben Hollander was such a rabbi.
The writer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Two of his books received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, available both in English (JPS) and Hebrew (Yediyot Books). His next publication, A Year With the Sages (JPS), will appear in the spring.