RABBI HAIM DAVID HALEVY: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker
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by Rabbi Marc D. Angel with Rabbi Hayyim Angel
Hardcover, 239 pages
34 b/w photographs
Series: Modern Jewish Lives - volume 2
Rabbi Haim David Halevy (1924–1998) was one of the great rabbinic luminaries of his era. A prolific author and teacher, he was a gifted halakhic scholar, a devotee of kabbala, and a creative
thinker who applied Torah wisdom to the dilemmas of modern times. From 1972 until his death, he served as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.
Influenced by the profound and compassionate teachings of his mentor Rabbi Benzion Uziel, Rabbi Halevy represented the best in the Sephardic tradition of the Judeo-Spanish Sephardim. His monumental
knowledge and keen insight were widely recognized. He won many prizes for his intellectual achievements, and in 1997 was awarded the Israel Prize by the State of Israel in appreciation of his significant contributions to Torah scholarship.
In this book, Rabbis Marc and Hayyim Angel provide an analysis of the teachings of Rabbi Halevy on a wide range of topics: confronting modernity,
rabbinic responsibility and authority, metaphysical issues, questions of faith, the role of customs, Jewish education, governing the Jewish State, and more. Rabbi Halevy was a gentle, thoughtful scholar. He was also a courageous
thinker who was not afraid to consider old questions in a new light, and to break new ground in the field of Torah studies.
Rabbi Halevy viewed his books as his “yeshiva.” By studying this book, readers will have the special privilege of being part of Rabbi Halevy’s “yeshiva” and learning Torah from one of the great sages of modern times.
About the Authors
Dr. Marc D. Angel is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Shearith
Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New
York City (founded 1654). Author and editor of 25 books, his most
recent book is Losing the Rat Race, Winning at Life (Urim, 2005). He
is past President of the Rabbinical Council of America, and has won
a National Jewish Book Award in the category of Jewish Thought.
Hayyim Angel is Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, where he
serves together with his father. He teaches Tanakh at Yeshiva University,
and has published scholarly articles in journals such as Tradition,
Nahalah, Jewish Thought, and the Jewish Bible Quarterly. His
articles have also appeared in several collections of essays.
About the series Modern Jewish Lives:
Many in our generation are unfamiliar with some of the great Jewish personalities of recent history. The intention of the Modern Jewish Lives series is to tell their stories. These works – penetrating biographies with a religious heart – provide readers with an understanding of and appreciation for the lives of real people whom we can admire and from whom we can draw inspiration.
Vol. 1: Rabbi Shlomo Goren: Torah Sage and General
Vol. 2: Rabbi Haim David Halevy: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker
Vol. 3: Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar
Praise for Rabbi Haim David Halevy: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker
"I began reading your book on Rabbi Haim David Halevy and I could not put it down. A few years ago, reading one of your other books, I became an admirer of Rabbi Halevy and now my admiration has increased. I consider myself a student of his "yeshiva". The publication of this book about Rabbi Halevy is a great accomplishment because you have educated a wide audience about a great scholar."
-Rabbi Barry Hartman
Rabbi of Ahavath Achim Synagogue in New Bedford, Mass.
"On more than one occasion I have used this forum to recommend the use of reading biographies as a means to inspire our students. The Urim people have recently launched a series called "Modern Jewish Lives" that aims to present biographical material on leadership figures in the contemporary era that are not hagiographies. It is not an easy task to introduce readers to inspirational figures - warts and all - and strike an appropriate balance between the sense of awe that these biographies are meant to inspire and the human reality - and occasional frailty - that even awe-inspiring leaders posess.
The first two volumes of this series have appeared, and both can be useful tools in educational settings....
Rabbi Haim David halevy is probably almost unknown in the Diaspora, particularly in the Ashkenazi world. In Israel he was well-known as a posek and his works are know accessible and grounded in modern reality. His reworking of the kitzur shulhan arukh, for example, is the standard text used in the mamlachti dati (national religious) school system.
In this volume, Rabbis Marc and Hayyim Angel present the man and his thought based mainly on an analysis of his published writings - which, apparently, he referred to as his Yeshiva. The selections make clear that Rabbi Halevy was a religious role model for the Israeli modern Orthodox community. His responsa deal with a wide range of contemporary issues, from the role of women in society to how the State of Israel should be viewed from a religious perspective. Of particular interest to readers of this list is the chapter on Jewish education, where quite a few generally applicable dilemmas as raised, including such topics as studying for tests on Shabbat or setting policies of privacy in dormitory settings. One basic belief that appears in a number of the teshuvot that are presented is that the fundamental obligation of Jewish education rests on the parents, even as they send their children to school. Based on this concept, Rabbi Halevy rules that teachers are allowed to strike for higher wages, since one could not blame teachers for the bittul Torah taking place if it is the parents who are primarily obligated to teach their children.
This book should be of interest to all, but, in particular to populations that find that there are not enough English language biographies of Sephardic Jewish leaders....
Both...include a number of photographs that add an important element to helping understand the people and their times."
Yesterday's long afternoon afforded me the opportunity to read this book by Rabbis Marc and Hayyim Angel, which I have been looking forward to since I first saw it several months ago. I first heard of Rabbi Halevy several years ago, in the context of his legendary radio show, and became more curious the more I learned about him.
The book is not a biography, nor is it a scholarly work. The single, introductory, biographical chapter is followed by chapters which aggregate material on different aspects of his Rabbinic vision. Dates are rarely listed, which leaves the reader with the impression that Rabbi Halevy's approach did not evolve during his nearly half-century in the Rabbinate. Even when Rabbi Halevy does appear inconsistent, the authors attribute it to a difference in the audience (which is generally indicated in the particular responsum), and not a change of R' Halevy's heart or mind. Perhaps this was indeed the case; I, for one, would have hoped for a more substantive demonstration of that.
Rabbi Halevy's uniqueness, which the authors succeed in capturing, was his sense of self-reliance and confident which allowed him to engage those around him while remaining completely unabashed about where he stood and what he believed. He fielded questions from everyone, and about everything. His skill at balancing the tension between sensitivity to the questioner and commitment to halakha is truly impressive.
At first, I thought it strange that the authors included chapters that document R' Halevy's belief regarding the occult and metaphysics. It didn't seem noteworthy that he believed in gilgulim, palm reading, and necromancy, as it seems rather commonplace within the Sephardic communities of the Ottoman Empire. Upon reflection, however, it serves to highlight elements of the tensions described in the preceding chapters, in that while the world he occupied that of his upbringing, he was able to successfully understand and meet the needs of constituents coming from very different places.
Rabbi Halevy was not a "Modern Orthodox" Rabbi, and the authors, to their credit, do not try to portray him as such. Nevertheless, many of his positions, especially regarding the value of general education, the religious significance of the state of Israel, women's education, and the relationship with non-observant Jews, resonate with adherents of a Modern Orthodox ideology. The authors seem to have selected those issues which pertain specifically to the modern situation in order to demonstrate Rabbi Halevy's thinking on them.
Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about R' Halevy is the relative absence of ideology and politics in his realm of activity. His decisions were not based on his evaluation of the questioner's motives, but on a genuine attempt to appreciate the questioner's dilemma and to bring halakhic literature to bear on each unique situation. Often, that yielded surprising or unexpected results, but not because he was driven by an ideological or political agenda. His realm of activity was with his fellow human being, 'ba-asher hu sham', and the attempt to find a way for the Torah to address his particular concerns.
To the extent that he had a methodology, it was rooted in common sense. His intuitive grasp of the telos of the halakhic system guided him in situations where it seemed that the halakha, though ostensibly clear-cut, was in fact formulated for a vastly different set of circumstances. This intuition also enabled him to host a rapid-fire radio call-in show, where he would never know what questions might come up. Moreover, it seems that he was self-conscious of his own halakhic teleology and would speak of it openly, allowing a rare glimpse into processes by which a poseik reaches a conclusion. It is in this realm that R' Halevy's contribution seems greatest, and where his absence is most keenly felt. The authors have done well to make this portrait available, though there's much work still to be done.
The authors rarely indicate when R' Halevy was with or against the Rabbinic consensus on particular issues, and in general could have better underscored those elements which made R' Halevy unique. They contend that R' Halevy, as the spiritual heir of R' Meir Ben-zion Hai Uziel, was the last great poseik of the Judeo-Spanish tradition. However, they barely try to characterize that tradition and to differentiate it from the Iraqi and Moroccan traditions, let alone Ashkenazi traditions.
Overall, the book is well organized (if somewhat redundant, a fact probably attributable to its dual authorship) and easily read. The authors have geared this book to an audience not well-versed in halakhic literature and it therefore remains unencumbered by technical terminology and argumentation. Its brevity and readability are attractive even for those looking to sink their teeth into something meatier, but, like a good appetizer, will leave them hungry for more.
I use the spelling Hayyim David Halevi, as in the LC name authority file, to enable readers to find his publications in libraries. In his earlier publications, Rabbi Angel used "Hayyim," which is the way his son and co-author spells the name. Angel learned that Halevi himself used the spelling in the title of the book, "Haim David Halevy."
Rabbi Halevi, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1972 until his death in March 1998, combined a love of Zion, respect for halakhah, and an understanding of Jewish sources and the world around him to answer questions of Jewish law and policy. Even though he had a popular radio show for more than 10 years, he is largely unknown to many segments of the American and Israeli Jewish communities. He avoided controversy and politics. When there was on opportunity to run for election to be chief rabbi of Israel he was told that he would easily win if he would join the Sephardic religious party, Shas. He curtly refused to switch parties and won only 25% of the vote.
This book gives popular summaries of many of the halakhic decisions and opinions of Rabbi Halevi. When scientific research changed, he was not afraid to go against the decisions of earlier rabbis. An example of this is his opinion on smoking. Halevi, knowing that many previous rabbis had not known the extreme danger of smoking, said smoking is strictly forbidden by Torah law.
Rabbi Angel organizes Halevi's writings by topic so that the reader is not burdened by long arguments. The weak point of this book is the number of errors in its bibliography. The errors include missing publishers, incorrect transcriptions of titles, incorrect dates, and incorrect pagination. The cover photo shows Rabbi Halevi in the ceremonial garb of a Sephardic rabbi; according to the caption this was the only occasion when he was attired in this way. Usually he wore a dark suit, a tie and an ordinary black kipah.
This book is recommended for its popular treatment of the halakhic views of Rabbi Halevi.
-Daniel D. Stuhlman
This biography examines the life of Rabbi Haim David Halevy, a prolific author and teacher, a gifted halakhic scholar, a devotee of kabbalah, and a creative thinker who applied Torah wisdom to the dilemmas of modern times.
-Jewish Book World
Rabbi Angel presents a biography of Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1972 until his death in 1998. Rabbi Halevy, surprisingly under-appreciated and inadequately recognized as a Torah luminary, was a prolific author of books and articles. This volume explores major themes in this thought and halakhic discourse.
Rabbi Marc and Hayyim Angel have contributed a wonderful summary of the life and priorities of former Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi, Haim David Halevy. The first four chapters are dedicated to introducing us to Rabbi Halevy and the personalities who influenced his life, but the bulk of the book takes the reader on a guided tour through many of his responsa, citing them as the basis for understanding Halevy – the outstanding scholar and down-to-earth posek.
Born in Jerusalem in 1924, Haim David Halevy was the beneficiary of the erudite teaching of a number of distinguished Sephardic scholars. His main studies were in
Yeshivat Porat Yosef, which was under the official presidency of Rabbi Benzion Uziel. The authors point out that Uziel and the school had very different philosophical positions when it came to the State of Israel; while the yeshiva was aligned with the Agudah and did not have warm feelings for the religious Zionist enterprise, Uziel was an outspoken Zionist. Halevy found his inspiration in Rabbi Uziel and became his protégé in terms of approaching halachic reasoning as well as embracing an eschatological perspective on the birth and continued existence of the Modern State of Israel. Just as it was evident in many cases that Rabbi Uziel’s love of Israel factored in strongly in many of his halachic decisions, so was the case with Rabbi Halevy. Many examples of this are offered in the book.
Rabbi Halevy also adopted Rabbi Uziel’s approach to halachic decision-making, believing that a posek was not permitted to simply consult a book in order to repeat a halachic answer that was already given to someone else; rather, his obligation was to study the original sources and bring to the decision his own personal expansive knowledge and powers of reasoning. This too is evident from the many innovative answers he offered to complex contemporary issues.
The authors note that while Rabbi Halevy and Former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef were colleagues and had received very similar educations, they approached significant issues quite differently. As an example, in 1950 Halevy had acknowledged de facto that the Sephardic community had accepted the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom, the Ashkenazi rabbinic leader of the 11th century, prohibiting polygamy; however, Ovadia Yosef held that this was not the case and that Sephardi Jews could still marry more than one wife. In 1972, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef appointed Rabbi Halevy to become Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. However, the authors tell us of an interesting, controversial incident that happened in the early 1990’s. Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu would soon be concluding his term as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel. Rabbi Halevy was being considered for the position. The Mizrahi party had offered him as their candidate for the position, but Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was interested in the candidate coming from his Shas party and that was made clear to Halevy. If Halevy wanted the position, he would have to change parties. Given his strong religious Zionistic principles, he would not consider the request and was thus passed over. Instead, Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, a follower of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was chosen for the position.
Halevy felt strongly that it was not the role of rabbinic leadership to flex its muscles in an effort to force Torah law upon the citizens of the State of Israel. He did not believe that political maneuvering by religious parties was the correct way of influencing Jewish life in Israel. The authors quote Halevy’s own writing: We will not achieve our goal by these means [political power]. All of our efforts to increase the presence of religious Jewry in the Knesset elected by the nation can only be- in the best of circumstances –a means to achieve the goal. Let us assume that some day we will succeed to increase our representatives in a notable measure, until it will be difficult to establish a government without our participation in it. Will the establishment of the State in the spirit of religion then be assured? Surely not. Even to coalition agreements there is a certain boundary. We will never be able to force our ideas and beliefs on the entire nation by means of legislation. (From Halevy’s first book, Bein Yisrael La’Amim)
He also wrote that if the religious community wants to succeed in influencing the public to follow the paths of Torah, it should think beyond its own parochial needs. Halevy’s reasonable and refreshing ability to be in touch with reality is a quality that many would agree is sorely missing from Israel’s religious/political circles today.
The authors emphasize that Halevy considered the halacha to be very flexible. In fact, he believed that too many people thought of halacha as without innovation and that this is what had led to the perception of Judaism as an antiquated and irrelevant religion. This situation gave rabbis the responsibility, he believed, to present halacha as the creative, dynamic system that it actually is. He attributed much of the misunderstandings of Jewish law to the separation between halacha and aggada that had emerged over the centuries.
When faced with conflicting traditional positions on an issue, Rabbi Halevy had a knack for taking both sides. The authors write, “Depending on the religious agenda of each questioner, he selectively cited sources and opinions that would best further these goals… he balanced faithfulness to traditional texts with an ability to handle rabbinic dissent… to bring people closer to God.”
Recently, the State of Israel experienced a long period of teacher strikes – both high school teachers and university professors refused to teach. Discussions often centered on the rights of teachers to strike – to deprive students of almost a full semester of education. In his time, Rabbi Halevy had addressed the same issue, it being perennial in Israel. He defended the teachers’ right to strike, emphasizing that the Torah would never prevent a person from fighting for just wages. In addition, parents have nothing to complain about as it is really their primary responsibility to educate their own children. On the one hand, Rabbi Halevy supported the right of women to study Talmud – a very modern concept. On the other hand, he supported sending one’s child to an all observant school to avoid bad influences from non-observant peers. When it came to minhagim, customary practices, Rabbi Halevy took pride in the fact that he did not easily dismiss the importance of minhag preservation; he believed that it was critical to preserve minhagim even when the reason behind the custom could no longer be ascertained for certain.
Of course, Rabbi Halevy advocated that children should receive a strong Torah education; however, he appreciated the importance of general studies as well. This theme is repeated in several places in the book. An important part of his philosophical perspective was related to the way he encouraged pursuit of the meaning of the mitzvot. He considered it imperative that we strive to understand the mitzvot, even if we will inevitably fall short of genuine understanding.
Halevy was blessed, write the authors, with a gift that is unfortunately not so common today: common sense.
Addressing the philosophical question as to how prayer can alter God’s plans, he responded that, actually, our prayers do not inform God of our needs; rather, prayers serve to remind us of our dependence upon Him. It would be wrong, according to Halevy, to think that our prayer changes God’s will. Instead, Halevy explains that prayer is not a forum to make demands and expect these demands to be met; prayer is a framework for people to use in order to come closer to God.
The authors describe Halevy as one who was sincerely concerned for the feelings of others. As an example, he wrote that a rabbi officiating at a wedding should not taste from the wine glass before passing it to the bride and groom. Doing so could make the couple uncomfortable, and so, must be avoided. At the same time, kevod habrioyot did not provide blanket permission to be lenient in halacha. Again, he knew the proper balance in this regard.
Halevy’s first book, Bein Yisrael La’amim, addressed the issues of Jewish/non-Jewish interaction. He envisioned the time when the world would have great esteem for Israel and Israel would have a very strong positive impact upon the world. For him, the State of Israel is a means to an end; it offers the Jewish people the best circumstances for fulfillment of the mitzvot, to live holy lives. He thought and wrote about the role of democracy in the State and how there could be a democratic state that operated according to halacha. He wrote:
There is no doubt that a democratic state, where the government is elected by the nation in general elections, is a government chosen by the nation. It has the same status of a monarchy. Also to it falls the obligation to obey its orders and instructions.
He admitted that, in certain realms, military or security experts knew more than rabbis; thus, rabbinic leaders must concede to the decisions of the government since it has the authority to make such decisions. (Of course, such a stance would no doubt be quite controversial in the Israel of the past few years.)
Halevy considered and offered novel ideas regarding the observance of shemita in a way that would allow for the economic needs of the country while still making every effort to observe shemita nationally. His suggestions were never adopted. He unquestionably perceived the State of Israel as the beginning of the redemption process and had a cogent explanation for all indications that it is not. He even gave rationalizations as to why all Jews had not just picked up and made aliyah after the founding of the State and the great victory of 1967. So convinced was he that this is the era of the redemption, he felt that there was no longer a need to tear a garment (a sign of mourning) when seeing the Western Wall and that the prayers of Tisha B’Av should be shortened and revised to reflect the new realities.
In terms of a biography, the book teaches about Rabbi Halevy mainly from his responsa. While these responsa do reveal much about Halevy, I feel that a better-rounded picture of this modern leader could have been developed not only through interviews with those who knew him well but also through deeper research into his successes and failures as a leader. Although everyone has failures and setbacks, this is not at all evident in the book. The inside jacket cover of the book identifies this book as part of a series called Modern Jewish Lives – meant to “…provide readers with an understanding and appreciation for the meaningful lives of these real people (not untouchable saints) whom we can admire and from whom we can draw inspiration.” As far as I can see, Rabbi Halevy is presented as pretty “saintly.” The book presents Halevy through an analysis of his writings – something that we are forced to rely upon when it comes to rabbis who lived in ancient times. However, much more information is available to us when investigating a contemporary leader who lived until 1998.
The reader should note that the book has been co-written. While most of the book is authored by Rabbi Dr. Marc Angel, four chapters are written by his son, Rabbi Hayyim Angel. Unfortunately, this was not taken into consideration in the process of editing the book; there are many cases of repetition during which the reader feels that he has already read about the topic - and in fact, he has!
On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it hard to put it down. As a former pulpit rabbi myself, I enjoyed the way the book presented case after case of real life issues and Rabbi Halevy’s practical approach to resolving them. As an Israeli citizen, I only wish that we could produce more rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Halevy – whose unmitigated love for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael is so scarce in modern society – as we address complex issues that will affect our destiny, such as conversion and land-for-peace negotiations.
Despite his impressive scholarship and the incomparable relevance of his approach to halacha in our contemporary world, the authors point out that Rabbi Halevy remains a seriously under-appreciated rabbinic figure. He remains to this day unknown to significant segments of the religious and general Jewish community, both in Israel and throughout the world. Hopefully this book will give him further recognition, at least within the English-speaking world.
The Journal for the Study of Sephardic & Mizrahi Jewry