by Gidon Rothstein
The first months I had my Bar-Ilan CD-Rom, almost fifteen years ago by now, I got lost many times, overwhelmed by the multitude of sources the disc contained. It was not until I learned to play favorites, particularly with Midrashim and Responsa, that I could make any forward progress. Even then, I was repeatedly introduced to scholars of our past, rabbis of great learning, whom I had never known well or sometimes had never even heard of before this resource came my way.
I had a similar experience with a sefer I bought a little while back, almost by accident. I came across the website for Yeshivat Bircat Moshe, the yeshivat hesder at Maaleh Adumim. Knowing several of their faculty by reputation, including the Rosh Yeshiva R. Nahum Rabinovitch, I purchased some volumes from their online store, including R. Rabinovitch’s book of responsa, שו”ת שיח נחום.
The work was a pleasant surprise, for reasons I think worth the English-reading public’s while to hear. R. Rabinovitch certainly does not need my approbation for his sefer, nor would that be a reason for me to share my thoughts. Rather, I seek to bring it to people’s attention since it offers an example of what many claim does not exist, a halachist who is both fully traditional, unarguably Orthodox in all its senses, and yet at the same time displays a creative and flexible approach to the world of halachah, often showing the כח דהיתירא, the power of leniency.
As a personal matter, I would have preferred had the book opened with a biography of R. Rabinovitch’s life. He was born in Montreal, where he studied with R. Pinchas Hirshprung zt”l for several years, moved to Baltimore and studied at Ner Israel with R. Ruderman, zt”l. He served as a rabbi in Charleston for eleven years, Toronto for eight, and then moved to London to become dean of Jews’ College, after which he went to Maaleh Adumim.
He is also a mathematician who has published Probability and Statistical Inference in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Literature. Aside from the volume I am discussing, he has a book of responsa for Hesder yeshivot dealing with issues of Army service, and he and R. Zalman Nechemya Goldberg are the authorities who sign off on responsa by Eretz Hemda, the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, which seeks to train judges and spiritual leaders for the national-religious community in Israel and abroad.
Aside from the teachers with whom he studied most directly, the responsa show his close relationship with R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zt”l. Both R. Hirshprung and R. Henkin, I note, are less well-known (at least to me) than their importance and influence in their lifetimes deserves, perhaps for the lack of a significant written legacy by which to come to “know” them even after their passing from this world. We are the lesser for the loss.
R. Rabinovitch is not in the same boat, since he has written extensively, in particular his 14-volume יד פשוטה on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. What makes שיח נחום stand out for me is that it gives us a sense of how he, as a rabbi and posek, approaches halachic issues, not only how he goes about interpreting and understanding others’ works. And that sense is extraordinarily pleasant, since it shows us a man in control of significant swaths of Rabbinic literature, who operates with the substance, tone, and tenor of traditional sources to seek their most proper application to the pressures of everyday life. Although perhaps it should not matter, I did also find it helpful that he generally does so briefly, presenting his analyses, usually, in 2–3 clearly written pages.
Let me offer a few examples that happened to catch my eye, in the hope they will give a sense of the range and style of the work:
- In Responsum 22 (page 61), R. Rabinovitch rules that social workers can violate Shabbat to go to the site of a terrorist attack, viewing the psychological trauma as also a life-threatening danger. For political figures, such as the mayor of a town, he is less unequivocal, allowing them only to violate Shabbat to the extent necessary to direct the proper personnel to handle the situation; at the same time, he is aware and open to circumstances where the political figure’s presence will itself be a source of support and sustenance for the injured, in which case he would allow that as well.
- From 1961 (Responsum 48, p. 151 – as the editors note, this was decades before anyone else dealt with the issue), he writes R. Henkin zt”l with essential kashrut questions of a microwave, laying out its workings and his instincts as to how to rule on it. R. Henkin was already in ill health but largely endorsed R. Rabinovitch’s conclusion that the walls do not need to be koshered for Pesach beyond a good cleaning and that a clean microwave can be used for milk and meat successively with no time lapse, although he prefers that at least one of the types of food be covered in the microwave.
- From 1986 (Responsum 63, p. 210), he writes to agree with the perspective of R. Hirschprung and R. Gedalyah Felder (of Toronto) that a mikveh should be open to all who wish to use it, even if they are going to use it for purposes Orthodox Jews find invalid (such as conversions under non-Orthodox auspices).
- In Responsa 94-95 (pp. 323-329), he prefers the diaphragm to the Pill for birth control, and feels comfortable with a blanket permission to wait two years between giving birth and becoming pregnant again. He is open to the idea that longer would be needed, but that would require asking for further halachic guidance.
- A most interesting Teshuvah, not so much in terms of lenient or not, is his discussion (Responsum 101, p. 348) of surrogate parenthood, in which he concludes that the birth mother is the mother for halachic purposes, regardless of where the biological material came from. Were a Jewish couple to use in vitro fertilization and a non-Jewish surrogate to carry the child to term, R. Rabinovitch would require the halachically non-Jewish child to undergo conversion.
In other responsa as well, his technical and technological bent comes to the fore. Aside from the microwave and surrogacy questions, he deals at length with how to establish sunrise and sunset (Responsum 17, p. 40; the timing of these natural phenomena can vary widely depending on whether one is in a valley, a plain, or on a hill), several responsa on technical gynecological issues and their impact on a woman’s immersing in a mikveh (54-61, pp. 185-208), and – one I particularly enjoyed, 111, p. 305 – his correspondence with R. Henkin and Feinstein zt”l on how to properly write a get in the city of Charleston (until that time, divorcing residents had to go to Atlanta).
There are certainly occasions when R. Rabinovitch rules stringently, such as his insistence that Jews be interviewed for media that will appear on Shabbat only if it is clear in the broadcast that they recorded it before Shabbat (and not at all if the workers for the television station are Jewish, Responsum 14, p. 35), but the leniencies – for women to dance with a Sefer Torah (40, p. 127), for a couple who move to Israel to together choose which custom to follow (86, p. 290, and 88, p. 296), to leave Israel if necessary for a short trip (90, p. 301), to evaluate danger as a subjective matter, open to personal choice (89, p. 298), just to pick a random few—are far more prevalent and prominent.
Throughout, though, his erudition comes to the fore; not the blinding encyclopedic knowledge of a R. Ovadya Yosef, but a quiet mastery of a significant enough subsection of halachic literature to qualify him more than fully as one who works from within tradition to find the best way forward for Jews committed to Torah and mitsvot. Taking five pages spread randomly through a 300+ page work, I found R. Rabinovitch citing: Bah, Baal haTurim, Malbim, Hatam Sofer, Minchat Bikkurim (a commentary on Tosefta), Rashi, Grah Naeh (to record the custom of Yerushalayim), R. Sherira Gaon (from the Sefer haEshkol), Shulchan Aruch, Rema, Shach, Aruch haShulchan, Noda Biyehuda, Melamed le-Hoil, Yefeh Enayim, Gra to Yerushalmi (as well as Mahara Fulda there), Rambam, Radbaz, Tashbetz, Pitchei Teshuva.
A worthy addition to a Rabbinic library, but even more so, a reminder that the process of halachah need not be always stringent, nor can it be always lenient, need not be either shackled by the past or indifferent to it, but can build off of that past faithfully and productively, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה, to glorify Torah by applying it properly and appropriately in this and in all generations.
The original text of the review may be found here.