5/21/2006

Book Review: RABBI HAIM DAVID HALEVY: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker

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.
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