Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed

On Receiving the Rabbi Kook Prize

The city of Tel Aviv, which awards the prize, expresses in its name and history the Jewish renewal in the ancient Land * Many types of work and arts gathered in the city, thus fulfilling Rabbi Kook’s vision that accelerated national development would be a gateway to revealing faith and blessing *The Supreme Court’s decision on conversion lacked authority, and is liable to bring with it, a wave of conversions for work and naturalization purposes, in contradiction to halakha

Recently, a ceremony on Zoom was held to award the Rabbi Kook Prize on behalf of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality for original Torah literature and Torah research. The organizer of the ceremony, Mr. Itai Chachma, asked me to offer blessings on behalf of the recipients of the award. This is what I said:

Blessings

In these days of Corona, from the Beit Midrash on Har Bracha, on behalf of the recipients of the award, I am honored to thank the members of the Tel Aviv Municipality, its head, and the esteemed judges for their decision to award us the Rabbi Kook Prize.

The city of Tel Aviv merited having as its first Chief Rabbi, Maran HaRav Kook ztz”l, for indeed, during his tenure as Chief Rabbi of Jaffa and the yishuv ha-chadash (new settlement), Tel Aviv was established. Rabbi Kook was privileged to have become the first Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city established by virtue of the Zionist movement, which spearheaded the building of the country and the state, and today has largely become a universal city.

In his great Torah enterprise, Rabbi Kook sought to bring blessing to the nation and the world by connecting the old and the new. Likewise, the city of Tel Aviv, whose name expresses the hope of bringing redemption to the nation and the Land by connecting the old and the new – “Tel,” representing the old, and “Aviv” (spring), representing renewal – according to Nahum Sokolov’s translation of Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl’s book “Altneuland” (“The Old New Land”). The Tel Aviv Municipality’s decision to award a prize for Torah literature seemingly expresses the vision of connecting the old and the new.

I have a special fondness for Tel Aviv, the city where my father and mentor was born and raised. This wonderful city was the gateway to all the immigrants in the first Aliyah’s, many of whom even made their homes in its neighborhoods, including the extended family of my grandfather, who was sixteen years old when he immigrated to Israel with his parents after the First World War. The hut in where they lived in their early years was in what is now Dizengoff Center.

In Tel Aviv, industry and factories were built, and it was where all the components of Jewish society from all denominations and circles lived together. Numerous synagogues were established there, it was the center of all political parties and Zionist and social movements, and where scientific, cultural, and artistic associations of all types were established.

This ancient land, deserted in almost every respect, became prosperous and flourishing, with Tel Aviv as the beating heart of the renewed settlement, the place that lovingly and mercifully received the refugees of the pogroms and Holocaust survivors.

All the heated debates of the yishuv ha-chadash found expression in Tel Aviv. The harsh debates sometimes escalated into violence, but there was something deep in common that prevailed over everything – the desire to rebuild the nation of Israel in their Land, and after countless years of exile – to establish a place where Jews could live a comfortable and good life, and express their full talents.

As children, every summer we would travel from Jerusalem to stay for about a week or two with our grandparents in Tel Aviv. The debates were no longer as heated, the sycamore gardens and the open fields had already turned into a huge city, but in the evening, the bustling city would calm down, and the crowds of people returning from their day’s work would go out and sit on their terraces to eat a little cold watermelon, engage in light conversation, take in the sea breeze, and enjoy life. These people, in their daily labor and bourgeois life, were central partners in the building of the state and its prosperity.

The city continued developing non-stop, buildings grew taller, and the centers of science, technology, business and culture reached international heights in development, human resources and diversity of talents, as one of the leading cities in the world.

Maran Rabbi Kook taught us that the return of Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) to their holy land, to a healthy life of labor and creativity emanating from independence, would allow the Jewish people to reveal their full talents in all areas of life. This, he said, was the gateway to the revelation of emunah (faith) and bracha (blessing) as he wrote in his book “Orot”:

“The gate is the Divine dimension disclosed in the world, in all its phenomena of beauty and grandeur, as manifested in every living thing, in every insect, in every blooming plant and flower, in every nation and state, in the sea with its turbulent waves, in the panorama of the skies, in the talents of all creatures, in the thoughts of writers, the imagination of poets and the ideas of thinkers, in the feelings of every sensitive spirit and in the heroic deeds of every person of valor.”

Torah scholars, consequently, must see the good in all the new revelations, as Rabbi Kook writes in his essay “Ma’amar Ha-Dor” (“The Generation”):

“We do not desire to suppress them under our feet; we do not wish to place the young and fresh forces which rush forward and uplift, in shackles. Rather, we will illuminate the path before them; we will walk before them in a pillar of fire of Torah and Holy knowledge, and enormous power of the heart. We will understand their wisdom and discourse; we will cherish their inner quality. And they shall also know how to respect us.”

In other words, they will know how to listen to the profound purpose of the Torah, which seeks to reveal the Divine spark in everything, and help it evolve and receive its full meaning. This is also the purpose of halakha – stemming from love of humanity, one perfects his actions and elevates them, and by way of them, adds blessing to the world.

I will end with a prayer, that by means of connecting the old and the new, the past and the future, the national and the universal, we will merit to fulfill our destiny – the Torah’s vision of bringing blessing to all of humanity, to all nations, and to all lands.

As said to our forefather, Abraham:

God said to Abram, ‘Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing… All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12: 1-3).

In addition, to our forefather Isaac:

All the nations on earth shall be blessed through your descendants” (Genesis 26:4).

 And to our forefather Jacob:

Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants” (Genesis 28: 14).

Recipients of the Rabbi Kook Prize 5780

This is the opportunity to pay tribute to my fellow award recipients. For original Torah literature, the prize was awarded to my friend Rabbi Re’em HaKohen, Rosh Yeshivat Otniel, and Rabbi of the community, “for his series of books dealing with the interpretation of the Talmud. Rabbi HaKohen manages to connect the world of traditional Torah scholarship throughout the generations, with a new and original worldview of searching for meanings in Talmudic topics”.

For Torah research and reference literature, the prize was awarded to Rabbi David Deblitzky (son of Rabbi Sharia Deblitzky ztz”l) “for the exemplary collation of ‘Sefer Hayashar’ by Rabbeinu Tam the eminent Tosafist, one of the most complex and complicated books of halakha and Talmudic commentary from the Middle Ages. This book continues the blessed and indispensable work of Rabbi Deblitzky in the field of collation of the books of the Rishonim“.

Prof. Yerachmiel Brody was also awarded a prize for research literature and Torah reference, “for his book ‘Otzar Ha-Geonim Ha-Chadash Masechet Bava Batra’. This book continues the monumental work of Dr. Benjamin Menashe Levin, one of Rabbi Kook’s closest students. It is another link in Prof. Brody’s life’s work in the study of the period of the Geomim and its literature” (the quotations are from the reasoning of the judges’ committee for awarding the prize).

Response to the Supreme Court Decision

Following the decision of the Supreme Court judges, in a special panel of nine judges, to recognize the matter of the Law of Return of conversions performed in Israel by the Reform and Conservative Movements, three important remarks need to be made.

First that once again, the Supreme Court has intervened in areas that are not under its authority. If the Knesset has not determined a position, the Supreme Court can urge it to do so, but not replace it. In this decision, as in many others, the judiciary, including all its various branches, places itself above the other authorities.

Second, this decision is liable to seriously damage the Jewish identity of the State. For tens of thousands of people who are legally in Israel for purposes of work can apply to these movements and convert relatively easily without the requirements of halakha, thus changing the character of the State of Israel, thereby strengthening the status of these movements by means of foreign interests of those desiring Israeli citizenship.

Third, in such a situation the representatives of the religious and traditional public should have understood they needed to take preventative steps and enact a law regulating conversion according to halakha, and there was an excellent opportunity for that. Former Minister Moshe Nissim, the son of the late Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim ztz”l, offered an important proposal, which, if it had been discussed seriously, could have enacted a law regulating conversion according to halakha. However, his proposal was rejected, and not discussed seriously. Thus, the void was filled with this awful decision, which now that it has been determined, will be more difficult to correct.

Incidentally, in the framework of the Conversion Law, an important clause should be included, that rights under the Law of Return are granted only to the convert, and not to any relative who has not converted.

Acceptance of the Mitzvot in Conversion

The basis of conversion is accepting Torah and mitzvot. According to many poskim (Jewish law arbiters), the intention is committing to keep the mitzvot similar to an observant person, including keeping Shabbat according to halakha, family purity, kashrut, prayers and blessings. However, if the ger (convert) was accepted upon this understanding, but eventually stopped keeping Torah and mitzvot, he is still considered a Jew.

On the other hand, there are lenient poskim who are of the opinion that even if a ger initially intends to live only as a traditional person, as long as his fundamental attitude to Torah and mitzvot is positive – he should be accepted. First, since he is interested in keeping the mitzvot, there is a chance that over time, he will keep all of them. Second, even the mitzvot he intends to observe are also very numerous, and indicate a genuine desire to join the destiny of Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), including the mitzvot bein adam le-chaveiro (between man and his fellow man), circumcision, marriage, funeral, mourning, eating kosher, remembering Shabbat by lighting candles and making kiddush, and celebrating holidays. Moreover, if he enlists in the IDF, he then fulfills all the mitzvot related to yishuv ha-aretz (settlement of the Land) and the defense of Israel, which our Sages said are equivalent to all the mitzvot.

In practice, even according to the machmirim (strict opinion), if a Beit ha-Din (Jewish court of law) decided to act in accordance with the lenient opinion and accepted a ger – his conversion is binding. Moreover, in pressing circumstances, many of the machmirim also act according to the lenient method. Therefore, nowadays, when dealing with a person of zera Yisrael (blood descendants of Jews) who identifies with Israel, rabbis who follow the lenient method must be allowed to convert them.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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