Monday, October 1, 2007
Still More Good News from Israel -- A Tribute To Chaim Brovender
In honor of Sukkot I am featuring the stories of some Israelis who bring credit to Israel and to the Jewish people. The holiday will be over soon, and then I will go back to "Israel-bashing," according to some, "telling it like it is" according to others. (To the four people in the People's Republic of China who are reading this blog, my apologies for saying things in this post that may not be comprehensible to you, unless you happen to be Jewish. ) After forty years of teaching Torah to thousands of Jewish men and women, Rabbi Chaim Brovender left this summer the yeshiva (seminary) that he had founded in 1976, “Yeshivat ha-Mivtar,” or as it will be called forever to those who attended it -- “Brovenders”. Rabbi Brovender effected a revolution in Jewish modern orthodoxy by founding two yeshivot– one for men, and one for women -- where the emphasis was on teaching beginners, or near-beginners, how to learn on their own the traditional texts of Judaism, especially Talmud. Until he came on the scene there were few orthodox institutions for beginners, and those that existed were “factories” for turning students into observant Jews, and marrying them off to newly-observant women. The idea that one could actually teach a twenty-year old college student how to learn Talmud at a high level was unthinkable. But, together with a series of great teachers, including the incomparable Rabbi Jay Miller, that is exactly what Rabbi Brovender did. He created generations of Torah learners, most of them orthodox, some of them ultra-orthodox, some not-observant at all. But what brought them all together was their ability and desire to grapple with the traditional texts of Judaism, especially the Talmud – learning it, discussing it, talking about it, and, more than occasionally, living it. There are teachers of Torah and there are teachers of Torah. What is rare about Rabbi Brovender, aside from his famed sense of humor, is his religious moderation in all things -- except in learning Torah, where he “inclines to the extreme”. This moderation includes his views on zionism and the State of Israel. Rabbi Brovenders has always considered himself a religious zionist, but he has never, to my knowledge, been a follower of the religious ideology – Leibowitz would say, “idolatry” -- associated with Gush Emunim and the West Bank settler movement. I recall how much he disliked facile and superficial religious explanations of historical events. In this, he inherited some of the moderation, and caution of his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, whose religious Zionism, though real, was moderate and nuanced. Some of the zealots occasionally questioned Rabbi Brovender about this; those who did not know him well were surprised to see him defending, albeit obliquely and diplomatically, the Oslo peace process. At the outset of the Second Intifida, when Palestinan tempers were running high, he mistakenly entered the village of Beit Jallah and was lynched and severely beaten by a mob of angry Palestinians.The incident was referred to in some of the press coverage of his “retirement” dinner, as well as the tribute video. But Rabbi Brovender never liked to make much of the incident. He did not draw nationalist (or racist) lessons from it, and I don’t think it changed his basic thinking on Palestine, which included the necessity of territorial compromise. Did he feel that he was a Jew being beaten by a mob for being a Jew? Yes. Did that turn him into a detractor of accomodation with Palestinians. No. If Rabbi Brovender’s politics aren’t as far to the left as mine, then they aren’t as far to the right as hardliner Dore Gold’s, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, and one of my classmates at the yeshiva. In fact, for a religious zionist, Reb Chaim was extraordinarily apolitical. Maybe I am naïve to think this; but this is the Chaim Brovender I remember, a rabbi who was skeptical about everything -- except the power of Torah to transform people. Rabbi Brovender’s singleminded devotion to teaching Torah showed me how diverse, non-fundamentalist communities can be created inside and outside of Israel with the love of Torah as its heart. Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the ninth century polymath and leader of rabbinic Jewry, famously said that “Our community exists only through Torah.” Rabbi Brovender has spent his life getting all different kinds of Jews from all different kinds of backgrounds to learn Torah. Where the Jewish fundamentalists of Gush Emunim have settled in the land as “worshippers of trees and rocks,” he has settled in people’s hearts. While others have preached a philosophy of kula sheli – “all of it belongs to me” – he has taught that what really is important is kula shelanu “all of it belongs to all of us”. For Reb Chaim, a le-chaim. The "spiritual settlements" of Torah that he has built will last forever as the batim neemanim be-Yisrael – the trusty dwelling-places of the Jewish people. That "territory" is as deep and as broad as the ocean.