2/03/2008

Benno Jacob

A recent review of a new edition of Benno Jacob's commentary on Bereishit has spawned a bit of discussion on the Lookjed educators' forum. The review, written by Zvi Grumet, describes the author's contribution and the new edition quite well. The respondent criticized the fact that the reviewer failed to mention that Jacob was a Reform rabbi. Grumet defended himself by writing "It is not my practice to highlight ideological/party affiliations unless it is apparent that they impacted on the content. I was not able to detect any such impact on his commentary, and therefore omitted mentioning it." He added that he used the title 'Rabbi' when referring to Jacob because "He earned that title in his own institution, and functioned in that role. And I, for one, will not add fuel to the fires of mutual deligitimation."

I think the figure as well as the discussion about his place in frum learning institutions are both fascinating. I tend to agree with both - I think that it's important, if only in the interests of 'full disclosure' to give Jacob's ideological orientation in an introductory discussion of him. Same is true of the Rambam. The idea that ideology does not impact the content of the writing strikes me as very naive. Furthermore, it might be beneficial for a frum kid to learn that Reform rabbi actually took Torah study seriously, especially given the general attitude toward heterodox rabbis in frum communities. No doubt, to deny the title 'Rabbi' is quite insulting. Rav Moshe's compromise (distinguishing in his writings between 'rabbis' and 'rabbonim') shows that it is possible to maintain differences while according respect.

This discussion is actually pertinent to something I witnessed about 4 years ago. At the time, I was a high-school and adult educator in an 'out-of-town' community in the U.S. There was another educator in town, in fact, in the same shul, who is still there, and has been there for a very long time. Apparently he got smicha from somewhere, but there's no denying the fact that the man is a true am ha-aretz. For example, he once tried to convince me that the Rambam wrote the Moreh Nevuchim in Ladino; what do you do with that? Where do you begin?

He's a very charismatic teacher (which is not, in my universe, a compliment; indeed, he's not much of a teacher. It's semi-coherent haskafic rants - and that's his Gemara shiur. Guess that's what you gotta do when you don't actually know how to learn Gemara) and has attracted a bunch of groupies around himself, stunting their growth and playing with their small little minds. It's scary.

Anyhow, one Shabbos afternoon, he spoke in shul during shaleshudis. He said over a d'var Torah on the parsha, in which he quoted 'the Ramban in the name of the B'no Yaakov'. I was baffled. I knew it had to be a mistake (I didn't think of Benno Jacob because I had never heard him called 'Benno Yaakov' before, though that's his name in Modern Hebrew). Turns out, the rabbi of the shul had the same thought. We both had seen the erstwhile darshan reading the Hebrew version of Nechama Leibowitz's studies on the parsha (his Hebrew is better than his English), so we both figured we'd find the answer to our confusion there. We thought that perhaps the Ramban had a son named Yaakov who he quotes from time to time, but wanted to see 'inside' who the Ramban actually quotes. Turns out, Nechama quotes Ramban and THEN quotes a slightly different idea from Benno Jacob. The rabbi and I had a good laugh at the thought that this fairly farfrumt teacher unwittingly quoted a Reform rabbi, and had him quoted by the Ramban, no less. The irony of a frum rabbi who is an am ha-aretz quoting a Reform rabbi and Torah scholar is a real stereotype-buster, and pretty funny, too.

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