Interview with Rabbi David Bigman
GB: Do you view your yeshivah as having a distinct mission or credo that sets it apart from the other yeshivot hesder? If so, what is it?
RDB: Let me first discuss what we have in common with the rest of the yeshivah world. First, in terms of the broad yeshivah world, we share an emphasis on adherence to the halakhic mode and a great love of Torah learning. This is common to all yeshivot and is true of Ma’ale Gilboa as well. What differentiates us from the broader yeshivah world relates to one point that unites all of the religious Zionist yeshivot, which is the specific commitment to Medinat Yisrael and Kelal Yisrael. In Ma’ale Gilboa, we try, in particular, to emphasize Kelal Yisrael; we try to give our Israeli population an understanding that there are other Jews in the world and that they have a responsibility to them, not just to Medinat Yisrael. So in that way we differ slightly from other yeshivot hesder, which emphasize a commitment to the Jewish people only within the context of the Jewish State of Israel and Zionism.
Beyond that, there are two other aspects of Ma’ale Gilboa that make it unique. The first is that we strongly emphasize sympathy, understanding, and respect for human beings, whomever and wherever they may be. Although we have a special affinity toward our own people, we also feel that we have a responsibility to all human beings. The second aspect is our attempt to continue the Hildesheimer[i] school of thought. We believe that Torah and other realms of knowledge, what is called in YU “Torah u-Madda,” are not two separate fields. We try to show that there is an interaction between the learning of Torah and other forms of learning, including academic approaches to Torah study. The richer the background of the student in literature, sciences, and the arts, the better the student will be; his or her Torah will be enriched through those other forms of knowledge. There should be a connection between general studies, including academic studies of Judaism, and Torah. We think that broad backgrounds have value both in and of themselves and in terms of learning Torah.
The continuation of Torah is dependent on the capability for serious critical thought. Everything is dependent on the kushya, the question. If a student is not curious about the material he or she is learning and does not question it in a positive way, then we have lost the process of Torah she-be-al Peh [the Oral Torah]. The questioning process cannot be dampened or limited. There must be freedom in questioning, for the development of the student as a ben or bat Torah and for the development of Torah itself.
GB: You portray your yeshivah as one with halakhic sensitivity. Can you define the difference between halakhic sensitivity and general sensitivity?
RDB: I once asked a student what it means to be a posek in the spirit of Ma’ale Gilboa. He answered that to be a posek from Ma’ale Gilboa means to be extremely attentive, in the process of rendering a halakhic decision, to the human predicament of the person asking the question. He takes this into account when rendering the best halakhic decision. This approach, which can be found in classical responsa literature, seems to differ from what Rav Soloveitchik spelled out in Ma Dodech Midod. He implies that while there is definitely a psychological dimension that a posek must grapple with when rendering a decision for, say, an aggunah, it does not really affect the end decision. His process can be likened to a satellite in orbit, governed by metaphysical laws. In contrast, in our conception of the halakhic process, although the posek is limited and must work within the confines of Halakhah, which may prevent him from helping the person, the posek’s will to help the person makes a big difference in terms of reaching a halakhic conclusion.
GB: So does Halakhah limit sensitivity?
RDB: I will answer this question as a student of the Mussar movement.[ii] If one’s religious education focuses solely on observing Halakhah, as the Hazon Ish suggested, there is a great chance that Halakhah will desensitize you. But if you were brought up in the Mussar movement, as I was, you are exposed to other types of Torah that sensitize you to other human beings’ needs. They used to say in the Mussar movement that a person should be concerned with his or her own Olam ha-Ba and with everyone else’s Olam ha-Zeh. In other words, you should be concerned, as an individual, with the other’s real life situation and what is troubling him or her. I sincerely think that although there were some disadvantages to the Mussar movement, it certainly brought about a real change in how to view the other with sensitivity.
One of my students pointed out that the Saba Mislobodka,[iii] in all of his speeches, mentions gadlut ha-adam and kevod ha-adam — the greatness of man and the respect of man. Together, these ideas reflect a two-tiered system. You should respect yourself, as a human being who was created in the image of God, and you should respect and care for the other, who was also created in the image of God. However, some of the Saba’s descendants emphasized prayer and avodat Hashem rather than sensitivity towards others. In certain circles, there seems to have been a change in priorities and emphasis. At Ma’ale Gilboa, we believe that emphasizing peoples’ needs has a lot to do with our educational modes beyond Halakhah. Learning Aggadah, and even learning literature, will help emphasize people’s sensitivity in human situations.
GB: Who is “the other” in general Israeli society?
RDB: Unfortunately, I think that Israeli society tends to be insensitive toward the other, and the other in Israeli secular society is most often anyone who is not like the particular group in question. That sometimes plays itself out in fear and disdain of the Haredi, the Dati Le’umi, the Druzi, the Circassion,[iv] and the Israeli Arab or Palestinian.
Of course, this is a generalization, but once, a man who grew up in Nir David, a neighboring secular kibbutz, wrote in a newspaper that when he was growing up, he was taught to love everyone, but underlying that value was a clear disdain for datiyim [religious people] and Aravim [Arabs]. However, this article was written twenty-five years ago, and the situation has definitely improved. Since I have been here, I have noticed a real shift in how people understand the other. There are more minority groups in the media, including religious Jews and Arabs. It is a slow process, and I still don’t know how deeply it has infiltrated into the Israeli psyche.
GB: What is the most unfairly oppressed group in Dati Le’umi society, and how is this reflected in practice?
RDB: The other in Dati Le’umi society is complicated as well. The other most unfairly oppressed by Dati Le’umi society is definitely the Arab, both Israeli and Palestinian. The Dati Le’umi’s relationship with the hilonim is ambivalent as well. While, on the one hand, hilonim are seen as the other, there are few families without at least one member who identifies as secular. And, of course, we have great affinity toward our family members, which complicates the issue. The reality, whether good or bad, seems to be that people weave in and out of the secular and religious society — not with ease, because it is a very difficult process — but with frequency.
GB: Can you relate any personal experiences that have significantly impacted the way you relate to other groups in society?
RDB: I remember a particular experience that was formative for me, which happened while I was growing up in Northwest Detroit. At some point, the community became racially integrated and I recall my black neighbors inviting me to play basketball with them, even though I was the worst basketball player on the block. Their genuine camaraderie really affected me deeply. Although I did have some anti-Semitic experiences, I nevertheless remember that interaction as a formative experience.
Later, when I attended school in Skokie, Illinois, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, the rosh yeshivah, was a very big supporter of the civil rights movement, as were his parents. He was an example of a Torah scholar who valued sympathy and inclusivity towards others. He was also very opposed to the Vietnam War, and thought that unnecessary blood was being shed. I think that his sensitivity fit into what I learned at home, and it certainly strengthened my approach.
GB: Can talmud Torah be-iyyun be harnessed as a means of reconciliation between different perspectives in Jewish worldview and the different perspectives beyond the Jewish worldview?
RDB: I think talmud Torah, the way it has been practiced for many years, and especially its culmination in the havruta method of study that is learned today in yeshivot, has two aspects that are very useful.
The first is that it cultivates critical thought. You can think about a specific issue at hand through cold, hard thought and come to a greater understanding, and ultimately a superior solution to the issue at hand. The critical thought that goes into learning with a havruta, as I have found over the years, can be very useful. It allows me to remove myself from the to’en and the nit’an, the litigants of the sugya, and look at it from an objective point of view.
In addition, the havruta mode has cultivated argumentation, which can be a very good mode if the arguer is attentive. In other words, if you are listening to a havruta very intently and are trying to understand his words, then when you attack his ideas you try to understand where he is coming from, and ultimately, you are trying to understand the other.
I am part of a group of rabbis which meets with Imams on a regular basis. I have to admit that the havruta way of thinking helps us try to accommodate their way of thinking and their specific needs. However, I don’t feel that there is much reciprocity. There is something that is very different in our cultures. For example, in one meeting, we brought source material and suggested that they interpret our sources. When they brought their source material, a portion of the Qur’an, to our attention, they did not even show us the text. One of the Imams just explained the source without the text. When we asked for the text, we took a look at it and offered our interpretation. We were told that we had no right to interpret the text because we did not know fluent Arabic and we did not know the twelve hermeneutic principles. Only one of the Imams participating in this discussion had been formally given the authority to interpret.
That gave me a lot of insight into their culture but also a lot of insight into our culture. For example, a young child has the right to make an attempt to interpret the material at hand before learning what Rashi or any of the other great commentators said about a pasuk. We always allow interpretation; nobody is denied access to talmud Torah. And never have my suggestions to a posek, even before I had semikhah, ever been dismissed because I didn’t have the “right” or the “authority” to offer my own answer or suggest my own solution.
GB: R. Kook said, “It is forbidden for the fear of Heaven [yir’at shamayim] to push aside the human being’s natural morality, for then it would no longer be pure fear of Heaven.”[v] Do you subscribe to the idea that natural morality should impact what we consider fear of Heaven? How does this notion reflect itself in the way you relate to various elements of society?
RDB: Although I agree with Rav Kook’s sentiments very much, I’m not sure I agree with the way in which he articulated them, because, in the aftermath of the Sho’ah, I have some doubts about whether we have natural morality. However, I would say that there is a basic ethos in the Torah that comes before Halakhah that has to do with the idea that man was created in the image of God, but also the idea that man has the ability to converse with God, so to speak, about the well-being of society. I think that Abraham’s argument with God, and many other similar examples in Tanakh, illustrate the concept of well-being and ethics to be considered a substrate of Halakhah. If Halakhah is the text, ethics is the context of the text. If you start your journey in Halakhah without the concept of human well-being and the importance of human life, then you will not really get it right.
GB: There have recently been “price tag” attacks initiated by settlers that have targeted Arabs, left-wing activists, and soldiers. Is your reaction to these attacks rooted in Halakhah, natural morality, or both?
RDB: Let me answer this question by repeating one of the most important derashot that Aryeh Leib Bakst used to give in Detroit once or twice a year. He spoke about the Talmudic passage that says, “whoever says that David sinned [with Batsheba] is simply mistaken.”[vi] Rav Bakst used to claim that this Gemara refers to halakhic sanction. The point of the Gemara was that David did something absolutely wrong, but it was sanctioned halakhically. When we were learning it, I thought that this was just a schmooze. But when I was learning this Gemara a few years later, I learned that the plain text of the Gemara understands that David sinned, since he was admonished by Natan ha-Navi and even had feelings of guilt. Thus, Rav Bakst used to say, “even the worst things in the world can be done sanctioned by Halakhah.” So I would say that, in the simple point of view, many things can be sanctioned by Halakhah if you use very aggressive interpretive methods. However, this aggressive interpretive method in many cases ignores basic Jewish normative ethics.
I recall that the first time I saw guys in kippot and tsitsit breaking windows of cars in Hebron, my gut reaction was, “How could benei Torah possibly do this?” It contradicted my picture of bahurei yeshivah. I was brought up to see bahurei yeshivah, although they had differences – and in Detriot there were a lot of tensions between various communities – as kind and gentle people. Seeing these students smashing windows simply baffled my mind.
GB: Is there a leader (whether one you have personally interacted with or not) whom you admire as an exemplar of sensitivity to “the other?” What have you learned from his or her example?
RDB: Rabbi [Yosef] Blau is to me an exemplary example with respect to his sensitivity to the other. Rabbi Blau was my principal in tenth grade when I came to high school in Skokie. There were two things that were unbelievable about him. He has a great affinity to human beings that allows him to quickly create meaningful and lasting friendships. It is unbelievable that he was able to maintain his friendship with me after high school even though we only met once every couple of years. He shows a great deal of caring. The second unique thing about Rabbi Blau is that he had a few criticisms of me during my high school years and always communicated that criticism in the most gentile and loving way, which I think is a real, real talent.
Rabbi David Bigman is the rosh ha-yeshivah of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa.
Gavi Brown is a sophomore at YC majoring in English, and is the design editor for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Esriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) was a German rabbi who pioneered the modernization of Orthodox Jewry by encouraging religious and secular studies, academic scholarship, and developing partnerships with non-Orthodox Jews to address broad issues facing the Jewish community, such as anti-Semitism and ritual slaughter. He also maintained contact with all denominations of Jews in Palestine.
[ii] The Mussar Movement is a Jewish ethical and cultural movement that began in Lithuania in the nineteenth century by Orthodox Jews.
[iii] Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (1849-1927) known as “der Alter,” the elder, and the “Saba Mislobodka,” or the “Alter of Slabodka,” was the founder of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Ukraine. Many of his pupils became leaders of Orthodox Judaism in the United States and Israel.
[iv] The Circassions are a Sunni Muslim group from the Caucasus. Many Circassions arrived in the Middle East when they were expelled from their homeland after the Russian-Circassion War in the late nineteenth century. 4,000 Circassions live in the Galilee as full Israeli citizens.
[v] Orot ha-Kodesh, Vol. III, 27.
[vi] Shabbat 56a.