“Teaching in Order to Put into Practice” (“מלמד על מנת לעשות”)
Interview with Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
From the newspaper “Olam Katan”
By Arnon Segal
Three thousand copies of the new volume (“The Laws of Shabbat” II) from the series “Pininei Halacha” authored by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed were sold-out within a week. The current printing also broke an even more impressive record – the 200,000th book from the series was published. In an era where the book-market is filled with books summarizing almost every subject, including ‘halacha’, what is it about these books that make them so desirable? And what has turned this series of books on ‘halacha’ into the life-project of a Rabbi who has been praised, and chronicled, in numerous other fields?
Rabbi Melamed (49), father to 13 children and 11 volumes of “Pininei Halacha” (‘ken yirbu’), is the Rosh Yeshiva and Rabbi of the community ‘Har Bracha’, columnist in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and one of the main leaders of the so-called ‘Torani’ movement of the National-Religious sector. He was also one of the leaders of the call to refuse orders at the time of the Disengagement, and was forced to pay a heavy price for it – the cancellation of the ‘hesder’ (arrangement) between the Defense Ministry and his Yeshiva. Because of his books, amongst other things, Rabbi Melamed is considered an outstanding authority on ‘halacha’, however, few people know that parallel to this, he frequently engages in books dealing with Jewish thought from the philosophical and kabalistic perspective. These ideas also incorporated in his ‘halachic’ enterprise.
“I Still Think I was Right”
A year has passed since the ‘hesder’ (arrangement) between the army and ‘Yeshiva Har Bracha’ was cancelled. Rabbi Melamed, how is your relationship with the Rabbis who felt differently?
“My position remained precisely the same – it is a ‘mitzvah’ to serve in the army, and on the other hand, it is forbidden to fulfill orders expelling Jews from the Land of Israel. Personally, I would like to point out, I feel a relationship of respect and camaraderie even from those Rabbis who disagreed with me,”
Do you have a common language with those rabbis?
“Yes. In the majority of issues, we do.”
Rabbi, did your Yeshiva gain from the cancellation with the army?
“The Yeshiva has become a ‘yeshiva gevoha’, and as a result of this, the majority of students who arrive now, plan to immerse themselves in the Torah and become Torah scholars. Additionally, there are a number of students who wish to study for two years and afterwards, to serve an extended period in the army. The number of students in the Yeshiva has not decreased — it has even gone up a little. I still think that the ‘hesder’ format is beneficial for most youth, and I believe that in the end, the heads of the Defense establishment will come to their senses and realize that rabbis have the right to express their opinions, for if not, in the long run, only ‘court rabbis’ will cooperate with them. The public at large will get the impression that the true rabbis are those who are not reliant on the establishment.”
At the moment, it doesn’t seem that those ‘on top’ are coming to their senses.
“I presume that it will happen sooner or later. It could be that in the end, the ‘hesder’ will not be based on a yeshiva framework; rather, it will be carried out on a voluntary basis. Anyone who wants to be inducted into the army through the ‘hesder’ path will be able to do so, regardless of the type of yeshiva he learns in. This would be a blessing, for it will free the educational institutions from having to be spiritually dependent on the army.
“There is tremendous value in independent thinking, and this is how I believe ‘halacha’ should be written, too. I was once advised not to write about ‘Yom Ha’Atzmaut’ (Israel Independence Day) in “Pininei Halacha” because, as a result, a certain segment of the public wouldn’t buy the books. Obviously, I wrote about it. Another time, I was advised to request letters of approbation from Haredi rabbis. I refused: I requested letters only from my rabbis, and rabbis who I was fortunate to meet and respect. Anyone who doesn’t except this – he doesn’t have to learn from my books. There’s no reason to always have to pay lip service.”
As a rabbi of a community in the heart of Samaria, what are your thoughts concerning the future of Judea and Samaria? What danger is there of an additional destruction of settlements? And what can be done to prevent it?
“It’s difficult to estimate. There are times when there is more room for optimism, and other times, less. In general, we are aware of the danger, and the most practical thing we can do to prevent another expulsion of Jews, God forbid, is to expand the settlements. True, this isn’t the deciding factor; however, if we continue to develop and expand, in the end, things will work out for our best. Some people say that if we act nice and have better propaganda, we’ll win; others say the exact opposite – if we are tougher and threaten to riot, we will be respected. I don’t know who is right. There’s truth in both opinions, but one thing is always good – continuing to settle the Land. This action carries greater weight.”
There are those who claim that the National-Religious camp, and especially the rabbis of Samaria, deal obsessively with matters concerning the Land of Israel.
“There was a period when I truly felt that I had exhausted all my energies in this matter. Of course, it was clear to me that the Land of Israel was an important issue. I even made an unambiguous ‘halachic’ statement concerning it. But beyond this, I didn’t feel like I had anything to add. But suddenly, at a certain point, I became imbued with the understanding of just how deep the importance of dealing with the Land of Israel really is, and how its influence encompasses all levels of the Torah. Even now, when I sit and contemplate this, I constantly find deeper levels in the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel. Perhaps this is what is called the ‘Torah of the Land of Israel’, in which the deeper meaning of things converge with their practical outcome. It’s hard to express this in words, therefore I call it a ‘sod’ (secret), but, nevertheless, the holiness of the Land of Israel also has its concrete influences.
“In our yeshiva, we don’t actually study the secrets of the Torah, that is to say, we learn the kabalistic meanings which appear constantly in the writings of the Ramchal, Rabbi Kook, and the books of Hassidut, but it’s not our custom to use kabalistic terminology. The yeshiva has re-published the writings of Rabbi Tzadok from Lublin. He explains that a ‘sod’ (secret) is something that cannot be uttered — for if it can be said, that’s a sign that it’s not a ‘sod’. A ‘sod’ is a deep understanding of something which can barely be put into words, that is to say, its importance can be perceived, but the idea itself is difficult to express. Thank God, I feel that, to some extent, I understood this concept in regards to the secret of the Land of Israel.
“In any event, I will attempt to reveal a little bit of the secret: I realized that the Land of Israel has the power to sanctify work, industry, science, the managing social affairs, song, and literature. Indeed, all the words of the Prophets, which were spoken only in the Holy Land, were written by means of vegetation, nature, and animals, which, in themselves, received new meaning. If this concept is understood properly, it’s a wonderful thing, for through it, the entire world begins to sing a song. This world, which is filled with song, calls out to us to act and create, for, here, in the Land of Israel, we are in our natural habitat and within the framework of our nation, and at this point in time, the responsibility has been placed upon us. This is the secret, in short.”
This sounds similar to what Rebbe Nachman from Breslov said about the Land of Israel.
“Correct. Apparently, this is what Rebbe Nachman meant. He attempted to say something which is not easily said. This is also why all the great rabbis upon arriving in Israel from the exile cried. The exile is a schism between the soul and the body, like death — and the return to the Land of Israel, is the return to life. In Israel, all of our struggles suddenly have value; here we can work to improve the world. It’s not by chance that the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvoth. In my opinion, my books, “Pininei Halacha” are also an expression of the ‘Land of Israel’ way of thinking.
It’s not part of the ‘four cubits of halacha’ from the exile?
“No. I made an effort in my books to show how the spiritual idea reaches the practical ‘halacha’. The perception outside of Israel is much more divisive. There, everything is separate. Here in Israel, we need to gather the dispersed, in other words, to connect the spiritual idea with the ‘halacha’, amongst other things. In every matter, I make a point to start with the general rules, and only by means of them, to arrive at the details. In most cases, within the general rules themselves, there aren’t so many disagreements.”
Just Like a Recipe Book
“For some reason, there is a habit to learn ‘halacha’ directly from the details, to create charts highlighting the differences between the various ethnic groups and the different methods. However, in this way, the ‘halacha’ becomes very difficult. When starting from the general rules, on the other hand, it becomes clear that the details are not the central issue. The details receive their appropriate place — as details.
“Imagine if someone was given a recipe in the following words: ‘Take a cup of flour, or a cup and a half, or two cups, or two and a half cups. Take also a cup of oil, or perhaps two. Don’t forget to add sugar – two teaspoons, or half a cup, and if you’ve already added half a cup of sugar – then add some salt, and if you don’t have any salt, use some pepper, but then take only half a tablespoon, and add some honey.’ Afterwards, when asked if the cake turned out okay, the answer will be: ‘It was a cake’ – and nothing more. Who would want to make a cake like that? If the student learns ‘halacha’ in this way, it’s no wonder he finds it difficult. When one strives to understand the foundations of the ‘halacha’, everything becomes much clearer.
“I try to follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Kook and the Maharal who preceded him. They viewed the differing opinions in outlook as being complementary to one another. Accordingly, the differing opinions in ‘halacha’ can also be seen as being complementary to one another. Fundamentally, this approach is more accurate, but simply from the technical side, it’s much easier to remember and understand.”
In other words, “Pininei Halacha” couldn’t have come from the Haredi “Ponivich Yeshiva.” Such a yeshiva would have produced a different ‘halachic’ genre?
“I don’t know. I think it’s only naturally that the book received inspiration from the learning hall in which it developed. By the way, the connection of the ‘sod’ to ‘halachic’ thought is also part of that same ‘Torah of the Land of Israel’. One can speak in the language of ‘sod’, but it’s also possible to intimate and say it in a simpler language. When I write the ‘ta’amim’ (reasons) for the ‘halachot’, I try to write the conceptual thought in a way that matches the hidden idea, and try to always say it in the language of the Sages, or a verse from the Torah, in order to show that everything is connected to their roots.”
In other words, sometimes, without saying it explicitly, you refer to the kabalistic ‘sephirot’ (spheres)?
What definitely is appropriate to point out in the ‘halachic’ books of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, amongst other things, is the frankness of the way they are written. One who studies them is assured to receive a complete picture from a ‘halachic’ perspective, without agenda’s or ideologies which have overpowered ‘halachic’ analysis. In reference to women singing in front of men, for example, Rabbi Melamed, who no one at all would label as being Modern-Orthodox, also mentions the lenient opinion that it is permissible for a man to hear a woman sing if he is not familiar with her. At times, Rabbi Melamed even chooses not to decide between the various opinions, and leaves it to the judgment of the reader.
The openness and clarity of “Pininei Halacha”, which allows the reader to understand the all-encompassing considerations of the Rabbi and arbiter, is also greatly recognizable in other parts of the book. This, for example, is what Rabbi Melamed has to say concerning saving the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat. (Anyone who think that all the rabbis of Samaria are of the same opinion in regards to non-Jews, pay attention): “From the strict letter of the law, it is forbidden for a Jew to profane the Shabbat for the sake of a non-Jew, for it is permitted to profane the Shabbat only for the sake of someone who himself is commanded to guard the Shabbat. However, in practical terms, this ‘halacha’ is valid only when there is another non-Jew who can save him. But when there is no non-Jew who can save him, the Jew must take care of the non-Jew, even if it means profaning the Shabbat. In as much as we want the non-Jews to save Jewish lives, so too, we must also save them.”
Why isn’t the “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch,” or just simple and practical ‘halachic’ instructions, enough?
“Because the goal is not to reach the bottom line of the ‘halacha’, rather, to explain the ‘halachic’ idea from its beginnings till its end. To turn it into story-form, so it will be remembered. When it’s turned into story-form, even the laws of cooking on Shabbat are understandable.”
Rabbi, you spoke of how the Land of Israel also “sanctifies song and literature.” How, then, can it be that from yeshiva’s which clearly strive to follow in the light of Rabbi Kook – the source of this saying – almost no poets or authors have emerged? In these yeshiva’s the students mainly learn classical Talmud.
“Would you like me to say ten incomprehensible things in one interview? One secret is enough. In any case, in ‘Yeshiva Har Bracha’ we try to combine all aspects of life.”
Including song and literature?
“With God’s help, this too will emerge. In any event, in ‘Har Bracha’ we have a program called ‘Shiluvim’ (combining), where a student studying for an academic degree, combines this with four or five hours of Torah study daily in the Yeshiva.”
There are rabbis who also object to this.
“I haven’t heard about them. Do you mean the Haredim?”
No. There are National-Religious rabbis who openly declare their objection to sending students to academia.
“Of course, we also make the distinction between the ‘kodesh’ (holy) and the ‘Kodesh HaKodashim’ (Holy of Holies). The Torah comes before everything, but afterwards, there is great importance in secular knowledge and work, and when their intrinsic value is revealed, the importance of the Torah, on the other hand, is increased one hundred times more.”
Torah and Profession
In ‘Yeshiva Har Bracha’ the learning is carried out ‘aliba d’hilchata’ (straight forward and practical explanations), the method of learning which is usually attributed to the Sephardic ethnic spectrum, although Rabbi Melamed explains that it was also possible to find this custom in Ashkenaz. Practically, this means that in the yeshiva located on the top of Mt. Gerizim, students learn in-depth the more ‘halachicly’ practical tractates of Talmud, such as ‘Shabbat’, ‘Chulin’, ‘Ketubot’, ‘Brachot’, and ‘Pesachim’, gliding from the ‘gemara’ to the ‘Rishonim’ until the ‘halacha’. Additionally, they invest more time in the study of ‘halacha’ – ‘Tur’, ‘Beit Yosef’, and the ‘Shulchan Aruch’. The Rosh Yeshiva writes his books, “Pininei Halacha,” according to the tractate being studied in the Yeshiva, and he hopes one day also to reach the tractates of ‘Nashim’ and ‘Nezekin’, tractates which he feels have not adequately been resolved, ‘alibi d’hichata’.
If a student wants to study different subjects, for example, the ‘Jerusalem Talmud’ or the ‘Zohar’, how open is the Yeshiva towards this?
“The Yeshiva does not dictate a student’s daily routine, it only enables it. Anyone who learns diligently and wishes to study something else can do so.”
The vast majority of residents of ‘Har Bracha’, close to 90%, are graduates of the Yeshiva or connected to the Torah institute in one way or another. Even the ‘bal ha’batim’ (working men) in the community study Torah for a least six hours every Shabbat. Consequently, the community of ‘Har Bracha’ is likely to be seen by many as a kind of closed, ascetic commune – which, not by chance, chose, precisely, to live on the top of a mountain in the depths of Samaria. It seems, however, that the residents of ‘Har Bracha’ don’t really mind these claims. In rebuttal, they point out that the vast majority of residents work outside of the community, in an extremely wide-range of professions. And in any case, they emphasize, students in the Yeshiva who don’t intend to become rabbis or teachers are not allowed to continue their Torah studies beyond their regular course, and therefore, a student’s close connection to the Yeshiva is limited from the start.
‘The Golden Path’ of Compromise is the ‘Path of Dispute’
There are a lot of rifts amongst the public, and also between the rabbis.
“I don’t feel there are rifts between the rabbis. I am friendly and speak with rabbis from one extreme to the other. I respect their ‘halachic’ opinions. The problem is, there are deep disagreements, and no framework to clarify them.”
Perhaps the reason the Sanhedrin hasn’t been established, or even a joint forum of Torah scholars to decide on mutually agreed issues, is because the rabbis are not willing to even sit together?
“That’s not the reason. Who’s not willing to sit together? Maybe that’s the case with the Haredim, but in our circles, I don’t know anyone who is not willing to sit together. The reason the Sanhedrin hasn’t been established is because many issues haven’t even been clarified yet. Also, the Sanhedrin is meant to be established with the inspiration of the monarchy or the state; however, when dealing with the subject theoretically, why limit oneself in advance? A court of justice has validity only when the state supports it. Upon receiving this support, in any case, the state then develops judicial arrangements and customs, and deals with problems that arise. The moment the state doesn’t back the court – it will always be incomplete.
“In the meantime, however, in the last few years, it is precisely the government and the Supreme Court which have greatly weakened the official Rabbinate and the National-Religious rabbis. Actually, we have distanced ourselves from striving for the Sanhedrin. Maybe from the point of view of having a deeper and clearer understanding of the topic we have progressed, but as far as the rabbinical establishment is concerned, we are far away. The status of the municipal rabbis was weakened when the Supreme Court interfered in considerations of ‘kashrut’, the authorization of the Rabbinate was undermined, and the status of the National-Religious rabbis was damaged, because they are viewed as being subordinate to the Supreme Court. The affair of ‘Har Bracha’ also weakened the system.
“Within our own camp, in my opinion, the problem is the desire to place the entire public into one stockpile. This desire is the prototype of the dispute. I am in favor of freedom of thought. I support the idea that everyone should be able to send his children to whatever type of educational system he wishes, and serve in the army in the framework which best suits their religious outlook – ‘Nachal Haredi’, ‘Hesder’, etc. The same applies from a ‘halachic’ perspective. Any rabbi who holds a different opinion from mine, in any issue whatsoever – I respect his viewpoint. The National-Religious camp has a clear and common denominator, and it should be strengthened. But in other areas, we must be more flexible. It’s not only flexibility, but rather a need for respect and appreciation of differing opinions. Without this – it’s impossible to discuss matters. When the prevailing belief is that if we don’t depart from a mutual discussion with a conclusion agreed upon by all sides, the entire discussion was for naught – and usually, someone who thinks this way assumes that everyone else will agree precisely with his opinion – a discussion cannot be held. We need to find a way to give room to all opinions, and this is what the discussion must focus on.
“By the way, in regards to the cancellation of the ‘hesder’ (agreement) – had this also been the starting point, the problem of ‘Har Bracha’ would have been solved. Ehud Barak should have been told from the beginning: ‘We have a sacred principle: A rabbi is obligated to say what he thinks. If not – he’s not a rabbi! Everyone insists that universities must have academic freedom, and this, despite the fact that the State pays the salaries, finances higher education in a mind-boggling way, and even sends soldiers to learn there. In addition, anyone lacking an academic degree, in keeping with civil servant regulations, cannot be accepted for most government positions. Why, then, don’t they honor the independence of rabbinical rulings? In regards to the ‘Har Bracha’ incident, already at a very early stage of the dispute, there were religious politicians who, in regards to me, proclaimed: ‘He’s wrong, and Barak is wrong’, as if there’s one truth. Maybe both of us were right? Like other’s, they assumed that there’s some correct, middle-ground, some ‘golden path’. However, this ‘golden path’ is really a ‘path of dispute’. My biggest disagreement is with people who want everyone to walk the ‘golden path’ of compromise. I get along easier with my extreme opponents.”