Friday, May 1, 2009

Who owns the shul? (Derashah Kedoshim/Yom haAtzmaut 5769)

A tale of five Jews.

One says Hallel on Yom haAtzmaut (Israel's Independence Day) because he believes that in 1948 Gd miraculously created a country that has saved thousands of lives and enabled a massive growth in Torah learning and observance over the past sixty years.

Another does not say Hallel on Yom haAtzmaut because he doesn't believe Gd orchestrated anything.

A third does not say Hallel on Yom haAtzmaut because Israel has a secular government.

A fourth does not say Hallel on Yom haAtzmaut because he believes that Jews are not supposed to return to Israel without Mashiach.

And a fifth does not say Hallel on Yom haAtzmaut because the Israeli government evicts Jews from their homes and is willing to trade land for questionable peace agreements.

Certainly, Hallel is appropriate when Gd engineers a visible miracle. The gemara says, “The prophets enacted Hallel for the Jewish people, to be recited for every occasion and every danger that should never befall them. When they are saved, they say it regarding their redemption.” This gemara teaches that as we recite Hallel at the Seder, so we should recite Hallel whenever HaShem saves us with a miracle.

But there is debate about how to identify a miracle – so how does a shul decide what to do? How does a shul establish appropriate practice, when there are so many different perspectives?

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook was a leading rabbi in Israel in the beginning of the 20th century; he was a uniting force for religious and secular Jews, a major halachic authority, a major hashkafic authority, a man with the brain of a talmid chacham, the long beard and black coat of an Eastern European rebbe, and the heart of a Jew who could embrace everyone with sincere love. Rav Kook was a giant of religious Zionism, and in 1924 he formed a yeshiva around that philosophy; it's called Mercaz haRav, Rav Kook's Center, to this day.

Rav Kook believed and taught that the modern return to Israel would herald the arrival of Mashiach. Rav Kook saw signs in Herzl’s movement, in World War I, and in the Balfour Declaration, that the State would come soon, but he died too soon to see it, in 1935.

Rav Kook’s son was Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, and Rav Zvi Yehuda took over where his father left off and headed the yeshiva his father had founded.

In 1967 Rav Zvi Yehudah was asked why his father's yeshiva, the epicenter of Religious Zionism, recited Hallel on Yom haAtzmaut but did not say a berachah on it. Doesn't the lack of a berachah betray a weakness in their Zionism?

And Rav Kook replied with a beautiful answer, the meaning of which transcends the question of what a shul does onYom haAtzmaut and educates us regarding the fundamental responsiblities of a Jewish institution, on any day of the year.

Rav Zvi Yehuda explained that someone who does not feel full joy at the creation of Israel should say Hallel without a berachah. He pointed out that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel actually instituted Hallel without a berachah, because their bailiwick includes people who do not feel that full joy.

And then Rav Zvi Yehuda added regarding his own yeshiva, the yeshiva established upon the bedrock of his father’s Religious Zionism, “We are not a kloiz of a specific sect. We are associated with the general Jewish population centered in Yerushalayim, and since that population currently includes - to our pain and our embarrassment - people for whom there are obstacles to complete faith and joy and therefore to the obligation to recite a berachah, it is appropriate that we also act as the Rabbinate ruled for the general population.

Rav Kook argued that a yeshiva is not the personal property of its founders, or its teachers, or its students, or its supporters; a yeshiva is the global property of any Jew who might daven there, of any Jew who might learn there, and its practices must make it open to all.

I believe the roots of Rav Zvi Yehudah’s view may be found in a gemara regarding selling a shul.

The gemara says, “A community council may only sell the shul of a small village, but not the shul of a city. Since people come there from all over, they may not sell it; it is the property of the public.” Even the residents, the duespayers, the board, cannot do it.

A shul is not the personal playground of its rabbi or its members. A shul is property of all who use it, and all who might use it, and so the people entrusted with its care are responsible to maintain the institution in a way that will make every one of those potential participants comfortable.

This liberality has its limits, of course. One limit is halachah; another is practicality. A shul, like an individual, needs to make certain decisions about nusach, for example. But there is still plenty of room for an institution to attune itself to the needs of a larger entity – and the Torah expects us to rise to the occasion, with an openness of mind and a breadth of spirit.

With our population here in Allentown, even before we include our highway-travelling drop-ins, we face real challenges in making ourselves open to all.

[Allentown-specific comments omitted for web version.]

There is no single correct answer for how to balance the needs of all – but Rav Zvi Yehuda defines an uplifting vision when he says, “We are not a kloiz of a specific sect.

This morning we read the Torah’s prohibition against Kilayim, against mixing plant species. The Torah also prohibits interbreeding animal species. Rav Dovid Kviat explained these prohibitions by arguing that each species is created with its own unique characteristics; to mix species would be to obliterate that which is unique about each one.

In our modern society as well, on a human level, we are anti-kilayim; we believe in honoring that which is unique about each individual. So this be the vision of our institutions. Let us recite Hallel in a way that invites in the greatest possible population. Let us live up to the ideal of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, building a shul in which everyone can feel truly welcome.

1. Obviously, there is much more to say about how a shul makes its decisions regarding openness, and regarding which areas allow for, and require, openness. But this is a derashah, not a shiur.

2. The gemara on Hallel is Pesachim 117a. The gemara on selling a shul is Megilah 26a. Earlier this week I posted a more complete text of Rav Kook's quote here; it's from a sefer named "Goel Yisrael," produced by Yeshiva Hesder Ramat Gan several years ago.


  1. Excellent. Hazak u'varuch!

    I have quoted that same halacha about selling a beit knesset for the similar purpose of making clear the responsibility to be a broad institution ideologically (and halachically to the extent legitimately possible).

    Baruch she'kivanti.

    Maybe it was the influence of my too-few blessed years in Yerushalayim that taught me that.

    I think I will link to this post for our hevra to see.

    Shabbat Shalom!

  2. I would point out, in the same vein, that Rav Tzvi Yehudah's approach was applied to learning Torah. Any talmid hacham/true scholar was worth learning from, even if only to dispute his position. But no legitimate talmid hacham was ignored or demeaned just because he had a different philosophy of Judaism. Similarly, although Rav Tzvi Yehudah sharply and openly disagreed with other rabbanim concerning their manner of relating to Zionism, the state, etc., I never heard of a talmid hacham being disparaged in the beit midrash.

    Rav Rakover once related how Rav Tzvi Yehudah was emphasizing that the ideology of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav was the correct one. A young student had the temerity to ask, 'but what about all the other yeshivot?' Without faltering, Rav Tzvi Yehudah responded 'there are many different types of people, and they need different approaches in learning, so there is a place for other yeshivot, too.' He saw no contradiction. No need for one.

    Torah is big enough to include quite a bit of legitimate variety of opinions and outlooks. A place of Torah must be the same.

  3. i don't understand his answer. his solution exlcludes those who don't wish to say הלל at all, as well as those who want a ברכה

    שבוע טוב

  4. Ari, here's my take on the answer.

    Rav Tzvi Yehudah had very strong, defined opinions and positions. But he followed the instruction of the Rabbanut Harashit because they are the ones to paskin for the general population of the country. The proper name of Mercaz Harav is Hayeshivah Hamercazit Haolamit. The yeshiva promoted the idea of a generally unified population through a recognized central rabbanut that functioned with an acute awareness of their national responsibility, including being sensitive and responsive to the needs of the generation and history both. Rav Tzvi Yehudah put aside his own opinion and took on the position of the rabbanut to promote that ideal.

  5. R' Mordechai-
    Thanks for your compliments and additional comments, and feel free to post the link.

    As I see it:
    To abandon Hallel altogether would prevent people from doing what he feels they must do even without joy.
    To do it with a berachah would impose the berachah even on those who do not feel joy, which would be inappropriate.

  6. Hi,
    I think R Tzvi Yehuda is also quoting his father Ztz"l in a letter to a Group of Jews in poland who founded a shul called Beis Avraham based on his teachings... (Angel among men)
    Also, When the Nazir saw Likutei Torah (of the Tanya) sitting on Rav Kook's table, he paged through it and told HaRav that he saw similarities to HaRav's thought, Rav Kook Responded, but the Tanya is speaking about the soul of the individual, but we are building the Nation! (Moadei Reiyah Shabbos)
    hope all is well