David Bigman

From Slobodka to Jaffa and back again

My Torah studies left me optimistic about the future, but since October 7, I find myself returning to the doom and gloom edicts of my youth

While the practical dimensions of the post-October 7th world are largely beyond my purview, I have been grappling with its spiritual and cultural ramifications. For me, this catastrophe buried once and for all a perspective that I acquired about 50 years ago, and which had become, to a large extent, a basic paradigm for me: the modernist-progressive worldview of history.

My encounter with the riveting thought of Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook z”l cultivated and nurtured this view of history, but the recent painful events have prompted me to return to an approach to Judaism that I encountered in my earliest stages of spiritual development — a worldview that sees a mixture of light and darkness in every individual, wrestling within for dominance. Each person is given the choice how to cope with the shadows of the past that are a basic feature of our humanity.

These words are not written as an expression of any ideological or academic commitment; they are a personal reflection. Despite my inclination for poetic writing, I have no nostalgia for any imagined Lithuanian Haredi world, nor does the actual contemporary Haredi world hold much allure for me. My journey back into my youth seeks to extract insights that will help me cope with the evil within us and against the stormy murderous mad evil that stands before us, giving us no respite.

* * *

We were young yeshiva students in Israel and the United States. It was an exciting time. A wide range of spiritual and intellectual winds were blowing. The Holocaust cast a constant shadow, but there was also a tremendous Jewish renaissance. In the spring of 1967, with Israel’s a miraculous victory, we returned to the Temple Mount and the territories that we had only dreamed of. The yeshiva world, which, until then had been a faint reflection of a world that had been decimated, began to flower and develop. The Hasidic courts came back to life. Recordings of classic nigunim (tunes) made their way to us. The contributions of the study of Torah that flourished in the Mediterranean region began to enrich our world. The enterprise of the Bnei Akiva youth movement surged forward, and kibbutzim and collective moshavim sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. Yeshivot hesder, combining Torah study with army service, blossomed. The methodology of Talmud study of the Lithuanian yeshivas and Rabbi Chaim Brisker captivated us, as did the Mussar movement’s enterprise of character development. In America, yeshiva students like us, primarily the more modern ones, were active in the civil rights movement and in the struggle for the liberation of Soviet Jewry.

In general, the study of Jewish thought was not emphasized in yeshivas, though we did, for about half an hour a day, study “mussar” (ethics) as self-help books for character improvement (we hardly delved into the philosophical thought of their authors or their approaches to the great philosophical questions). We embodied the educational revolution led by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who emphasized refining character traits and interpersonal relationships. Often, there was a sihat mussar (a moral discourse) given by the “mashgiach” (spiritual supervisor), who likely was a graduate of European yeshivas who had survived and brought with him a taste of the world that had been wiped out. Our familiarity with Rabbi Kook was limited. We knew that he was a great scholar who supported the Zionist enterprise and who found positive aspects of the phenomenon of secularization. However, save for a few exceptional individuals and the student body of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, we did not study his writings.

In many respects, our lives were saturated with optimism. We saw the State of Israel flourishing and the diverse world of Torah coming back to life; we witnessed how struggles for the betterment of humanity worldwide began to bear fruit. Despite the harsh tones of self-examination and pessimism in the Mussar movement and its emphasis on the battle against the evil inclination, the yeshivas’ atmosphere was that of the joy of life. The worldview that unfolded before us emphasized the complexity of human nature, its inherent duality: spirit and matter, vigor and laziness, intelligence and folly, the good inclination and the evil one, the capacity to plummet into the depths, alongside the ability to rise to the heights of virtue and awe of God’s transcendence. An optimistic spirit prevailed. This approach highlighted that human beings are the pinnacle of creation because they possess the ability to choose their paths, and this ability is what grants them the status of an image of God.

The founder of the Slobodka mussar (ethics), Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, emphasized that self-awareness of one’s divine ability to determine the fate of the world through free will would grant a proper sense of responsibility to religious Jews, especially when it also included an awareness of the elevated status of every other human being. We were familiar with only a small part of his doctrine, but we knew that he demanded of his students that they dress dapperly as an outer expression of their lofty status as human beings. Any casual mention of this approach was usually accompanied by a cynical remark that “all that remains of [these] teachings is the stylish hat,” as a nod to the students of the Hebron yeshiva who were known for their fashionable dress.

* * *

When we eventually turned to a real examination of Rabbi Kook’s works, his thought burst into our world like a shooting star. Many aspects of his writing deeply resonated with us: his honesty, his freedom, his engagement with the questions of our times, his broad intellectual horizons, and the clear nexus between his teachings and parallel phenomena in cosmopolitan thought. But above all, it seems to me, the optimism in his writings captivated us.

The theory of evolution, which is currently conquering the world, is in harmony with the secret mystical insights of the Kabbalah, more than any other philosophical theory. Evolution, progressing on the path of ascension provides the optimistic foundation in the world, for how can one despair at the moment that one witnesses everything evolving and ascending?…” (Orot HaKodesh II, 537; Collected Writings I, 485, 780)

A discerning reader of this paean to optimism will pick up on its sub-tones: “for how can one despair at the moment that one witnesses everything evolving and ascending?” And perhaps a sense of despair may have also crept into us.

However, before all this, when we were younger still, our mentors from the Mussar movement tried to sober us up and instill in us a different, more realistic stance toward the nature of humanity. We experienced this as growing pains that would ease as we matured. The lectures we heard from the mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) seemed in retrospect like a trek through the desert, and Rabbi Kook was a refreshing oasis.

But time has taken its course, and some of our notions crashed upon the shores of reality. Voices from the past echo in our ears: human beings are created in the image of the Creator and endowed with the capacity of their Creator – with free will to build or destroy worlds. Human beings in their greatness can do good or evil, can behave decently or viciously, can walk with integrity or deceit, listen sensitively or apathetically. We are making our peace with the obvious truth: our lot is an ongoing struggle against evil both from within and without. That beautiful, optimistic vision of an evolving world that “rises up to the peak of absolute goodness” has evaporated, despite ourselves. Therefore, we return to climb a Sisyphean slope. We struggle to strengthen the good and fight the evil within us and within others. Unlike Sisyphus, the climb itself rewards us, because humanity’s greatness is revealed in our willingness to engage in the struggle.

We are now retracing our journey, to a grounded and realistic notion of the dignity of humankind and its greatness in the focal point of Torah. This approach insists that humanity has the ability to rise, but also to fall, and to fall even into the abyss of absolute evil under the cover of a corrupt religious exterior.

We learn the extent of the power of free will to choose from the far extremes of good to the far extremes of evil by analogy from the example of Pharaoh to every other human being. And our sages have already taught us that embedded into every human being are divine wondrous contradictory capacities. On the one hand, one finds ‘a strange god’ as the Rabbis expound: ‘Let there be no strange god in you’ – What strange god is embodied in the human being? This is the evil inclination’ (Shabbat 105/b). He has the capacity to descend to the depths and to turn his body into an evil reality, to the evil inclination itself, to the extent that he sees God before him with all his senses and nevertheless rebels against Him. And on the other hand, there is a heavenly divine element embedded in him, even in the midst of the most terrible decent, he still has the capacity to choose to elevate himself above all evil and to turn the evil inclination into the good inclination, the ‘strange god’ into an angel and to raise himself up to heavenly heights…” (Or HaTzafun II)

* * *

The fundamental point of the teaching of Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, the founder of Slobodka is the individual’s struggle. However, when the yeshivah relocated to the land of Israel, it identified, to some degree, with the Zionist enterprise, albeit in a vague and inchoate way. We understand now that the individual is unable to cope properly without full integration into society, and that society plays a decisive role in the individual’s struggle. Furthermore, we know that that integration will not succeed without the cultivation of the individual’s introspection. The call of the hour is to take the Slobodka approach to the greatness of the human being from the individual private realm of yeshiva students and to reapply it to the collective. It is not easy: both religious and civil society regularly scrutinize the societal norms and civic and religious leaders, but it must be done with empathy. For those with self-awareness of their foibles understand that judging others must involve a healthy dose of humility, so that we may proceed from the greatness of the individual human being to the greatness of the human race — for the good of Israeli society and for the benefit of all of humankind.

This blog piece was originally prepared in Hebrew for the Yashar online magazine. It was adapted for English by Ross Singer and Times of Israel staff.

About the Author
Rabbi David Bigman is rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma'ale Gilboa. He is also the Av Beit Din of the International Beit Din, the foremost religious legal body that is providing halachic solutions for agunot and working to end gett extortion. He participated in the founding of one of Israel's first yeshivot for women to focus on Talmud, now at Ein HaNatziv, and also served as rosh yeshiva at Ein Tzurim. A native of Detroit, he earned a BA in Economics from Wayne State University and studied at the Yeshiva of Detroit, (Rabbi Leib Bakst, rosh yeshiva) and in Israel at Kerem b'Yavneh, Mercaz HaRav, and Yeshivat Netzach Yisrael (Rabbi Yisrael Ze'ev Gustman, rosh yeshivah). His teaching emphasizes critical study of Talmud and encourages independent thought in all areas.
Related Topics
Related Posts