A Serendipitous Comment to Hillel Goldberg’s Post

A scant few hours after Rabbi Goldberg posted his essay , I showed up at a school where I teach, only to discover that my class was preempted by some visitors who were going to address the entire school. I recognized one of them as Rabbi Benny Lau, since I had debated him on the conversion issue a few months ago in Toronto. We parted on more than good terms despite our differences, so I made a point of listening to his presentation instead of ducking out and returning to my office.

It was a good decision. Rabbi Lau related a beautiful thought, that took him back to his yeshiva days. A group of his fellow students accompanied Rav Amital shlit”a to Neot Kedumim, the famous nature preserve, a bit off the Tel Aviv-Yerushalayim road, not far from what today is Modi’in. They were met there by Nogah HaReuveni, the secular botanist who spent years putting together the park that makes not only Tanach, but Mishnah and Gemara come alive. (My favorite parts are the road lined with about every sukkah described in the mesechta, and the live demonstration of threshing on an actual threshing floor using reconstructions of period implements. They toast and salt fresh grain kernels, too, so you learn why קליות,that ancient snack food, beats potato chips in a modern taste test.)

The famed botanist addressed a question to the students. “When G-d told Yechezkel (Yechezkel 37:16; Haftarah of Vayigash) to take “etz echad” and write upon it “for Yehudah and Bnei Yisrael his comrades,” and then to do the same for Yosef, what was he asking him to do. What does “etz” mean? They responded, not sensing the trap, that etz meant a piece of wood.

HaReuveni could scarcely conceal his disdain. “You are supposed to be yeshiva students? Don’t you know that etz can indeed mean a piece of wood in the language of Chazal, but never in Tanach? Etz in Tanach always means a tree. [Note: The Targum and other standard commentaries all render etz as a piece or tablet of wood – YA] But if it means tree in our verse, how could Yechezkel then be told to bring them together and make them one? How do you join two trees?

“There is only one way. You can take the limb of one tree, and graft it on to a different tree. Often, you move a limb from a weaker tree and join it to one with rich, deep roots.

“I will explain to you what G-d told Yechezkel. The two kingdoms at the time were quite different in their commitment to tradition. In effect, there were two communities, just as exist today with the rift between religious and secular. G-d told Yechezkel that there cannot be a Jewish people without both parts! You have to see to it that they are brought together. Secular Jews have a place alongside the frum. They can be grafted on to the stronger trunk of tradition. From it, they can draw sustenance and spirit. But their limb can thrive as well!”

I never got an opportunity to meet Nogah HaReuveni. He was niftar in 2004. After hearing this vort, very much in synch with Rabbi Goldberg’s thesis, I am even more disappointed in not having had that opportunity.

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17 Responses

  1. L.Oberstein says:

    I wrote an article about our family visit to Neot Kedumim that was published in their newsletter this Pesach. The problem is that a person like Nogah Hareuvaini and his generation were saturated with idealism and were Jewish in the fiber of their being.What about today’s secular Israelis raised in secular Israeli society? How Jewish are they, how much does Tanach influence them, or even exist as far as they are concerned? The divide between Neot Kedumim and nearby Kiryat Sefer is an ever wwidening gulf. How can these disparate groups build a Jewish State? That is the question that I asked at the end of my article and it did not scare them away from asking to publish it. What indeed is the answer?

  2. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    I don’t know the answer to Rabbi Oberstein’s question, but I keep meeting secular Israelis who are dedicated beyond imagination to our peoplehood, and give of themselves 24/7 to protect Jewish interests. They are senior consular figures, and while they may not be typical, their existence leaves room for hope.

    In Rabbi Oberstein’s defense, when I ask them about the prognosis of transmitting enthusiasm to the next generation, they usually do not have much to say.

    I would like to believe that the contact they have with frum Jews who help them in their work, and then invite them to their Shabbos tables, might plant the seeds of a suggestion in their minds.

  3. Raymond says:

    Dennis Prager, admittedly a controversial figure in some circles, has nevertheless been a major influence on my way of thinking about things. Well, one of his many expressions is, “G-d cares about more than just religion.”

    One of the things that bothers me about the religious Jewish world, is that religion is apparently their entire life. I agree that such single-minded focus is necessary to create the truly great Torah scholars. But only a tiny handful of people ever become a Rabbi Moshe Feinstein or a Vilna Gaon. what about the rest of us common, everyday folk?

    Given the right teacher or author, I myself can really get into Torah study, especially when analyzing the character and motivation of the various people mentioned there. But I am also interested in things like great literature, classical music, philosophy, economics, politics, health, sports, and so forth. But when I go into such subjects, who is it I study? Shakespeare, Mozart, Plato, Adam Smith (indirectly)…all gentiles. No offense intended, but local musical bands that claim to be followers of the late, great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, simply cannot compare to Neville Marriner and his St-Martin-in-the-Fields playing the magnificent final movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. And as far as I know, Shmuel Agnon is the only world-class writer of literature who was also a religious Jew (Isaac Singer made good writing look so easy to do, but he also rejected his religious upbringing).

    I think that is where secular Jews are coming from. They want to include aspects of life into the Jewish world that does not involve religion as its chief and only focus.

  4. Garnel Ironheart says:


    Modify Dennis Prager’s statement and you have your answer: God cares about more than just sitting in a crowded room shteiging a gemara all day.

    Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt”l, had a choir in his shul because he felt the effect it created enhanced people’s prayer experience. He went to look at the Alps because he thought God would ask him after his death “Nu, so what did you think of them?”

    If listening to Mozart allows one to gain a greater sense of the Divine in this world, if the inspiring words of Shakespeare enhance your understanding of Torah, then it is all good. It is only when secular subjects develop importance independent of God and Torah that the trouble begins.

    Some observant groups have decided this trouble is too easy to get into and therefore ban it all secular things. The real trick is to balance the secular with the holy and realize that God created it all.

  5. AH says:

    …G-d told Yechezkel that there cannot be a Jewish people without both parts! You have to see to it that they are brought together. Secular Jews have a place alongside the frum…

    Absolutely mind-boggling to read such statements on a “Frum” site.

    First off, since when do we repeat “Torah” from a jew that Openly flaunts an disobeys the torah??!!

    And what is the message he is trying to convey. That the secular lifestyle, with chillul shabbos, treifos, No taharas hamispocho etc. is just as acceptable to hashem!!

    Oy l’uzlayim sh’kach shomois!!

  6. Herschel H. says:

    Oy veh AH my dear beloved brother,

    Please read carefully again the vort. It was certainly not saying that the secular lifestyle is “just as acceptable” to G-d. For your statement that “since when do we repeat Torah from a Jew that openly flaunts and disobeys Torah” – please see the Rambam on how it is important to value truth from wherever it may come from and Rabbi Meir who kept learning Torah from his off-the-derech Rebbe.

    Let us not judge our fellow Jews, no matter how misguided they are, down to the fiery pits of hell just yet – and please let us be open to the possibility that maybe some of the ways that they lead their lives could be incorporated into a healthy Jewish Torah lifestyle without contradiction or problem. Maybe it is one of our problems as a “frum” society that we do not encourage that a good-paying job, spending time with friends and family, going to get groceries at the store, taking care of their spouses is ALSO part of a religious lifestyle, maybe even the very thing that is most desired by Hakadosh Baruch Hu – sanctifying that which is the lowliest and most secular for the sake of service of G-d.

    For us to solve any problems, we musn’t live in Worlds of blacks and whites… that is the problem of extremists in all parts of religious Worlds, let alone the Jewish World. Please let us open our eyes and ears to something new and refreshing while at the same time grasping onto tightly the strong branch that is our Torah that keeps us connected to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and His people.

  7. L Oberstein says:

    Is AH serous or sardonic?

  8. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    “Don’t you know that etz can indeed mean a piece of wood in the language of Chazal, but never in Tanach? Etz in Tanach always means a tree”

    It would seem that according to Nogah’s assertion, וערכו עצים על האש would be a violation of לא תטע לך אשירה כל עץ אצל מזבח ה”א אשר תעשה לך.

    Yeshiva students…

  9. Menachem Lipkin says:

    There is a succession of four recent articles here which highlight two vastly different approaches to those outside the circled wagons we call frumkeit these days. I don’t really want to name names or engage it a tit-for-tat over specific issues with some of these articles.

    Suffice it to say that, IMHO, Rabbi Adlerstein and Rabbi Goldberg are the trail blazers here. Their ability to look well beyond our narrow confines and narrow-mindedness and see beauty and value where others only see conspiratorial danger is both inspirational and enlightening.

    Way too much of our time and energy is expended in preemptively striking out at these “dangers” and/or pedantically pulling apart our perceived enemies. With the right orientation a “danger” can become an asset and the critique we rush so quickly to attack may hold valuable lessons for us.

  10. observer says:

    Further to Binyomin Eckstein regarding

    > Don’t you know that etz can indeed mean a piece of wood in the language of Chazal, but never in Tanach?

    What would Mr. HaReuveni have done with Melachim I 18: 33-34?

  11. Raymond says:

    Okay, I think I have figured out how I can explain my position on this. I remember years ago, hearing someone whom I suppose is a controversial figure, although I do not know why: a Rabbi named Norman Lamm. I wish my memory were better, but I seem to recall he was prominent at Yeshiva University, perhaps even its President.

    In any case, what the controversy was, or what his position was or is, is not my concern right now. I bring him up because several years ago, I heard him speak, perhaps at an O-U convention here in Los Angeles. There is no doubt that the talk he gave had a Torah theme running all through it, but interspersed with his many quotes from the Torah and our Torah sages, were quotes by such secular gentiles as Jean-Paul Sartre and several others. What left me spellbound in utter awe of the man, was the way he was able to weave together seemingly unrelated, even gentile thinkers, right with Torah thinkers into one seamless whole. It was absolutely magnificent.

    Well, that is what I might aim for, if I had anywhere near the formidable intellect that Dr Lamm has. I want to take truth no matter where it comes from, and somehow incorporate it into the Torah world, without compromising G-d’s Torah.

    And to respond to something Garnel Ironheart said above, I am most definitely inspired by some gentile music. I dare anybody here to listen to the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto or the Andante movement of his Piano Concerto 21, and claim otherwise. Ofra Haza’s incomparably beautiful, angelic voice also invokes heaven for me, but I would not want people here to get too upset with my words.

  12. cvmay says:

    You would benefit learning Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook’s two principles of Ahavas Yisroel, ‘segulah’ and ‘bechirah’. In short ‘segulah’ is the natural inheritance that is part and parcel of every Jewish soul while ‘bechirah’ is the choice of a Jew to outwardly express this nature by observing mitzvahs. (In other words the secular & religious Jew)
    The bottom line is that the sinners, the ‘kofrim’ and the ‘apikorsim’ remain part of our collectively chosen national body no matter how hard they may try to deny it. And for those who can see and understand this fact, it is imperative to bring them closer to us by accentuating this immutable fact, rather than by DECRYING it.

  13. Bob Miller says:


    You have to admit that many of the “kofrim” etc. are actively hostile to any manifestations of Judaism around them, their inherent “segulah” notwithstanding. Is all the responsibility for a rapprochement on us, or isn’t some also on them?

    Raymond (and Garnel),

    I also feel uplifted or at least pleasantly entertained by classical music (that is, mainly by some baroque, classical, or romantic era compositions) but am not ready to say it enhances my spirituality, except by putting me in a better frame of mind. Also, there’s no point in naming compositions that affect you personally and daring others to check them out. As another musician, Sylvester Stewart, said, “different strokes for different folks”.

  14. Raymond says:

    To Bob Miller, is that really the case that music does not enhance one’s spirituality? Does that even apply to the soulful music of the late great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach? If music does not enhance spirituality, then why do Rabbis bother leading the singing of Jewish songs at their Sabbath tables? And what about the Levites who would play music in the Holy Temple when it stood in Jerusalem?

    As for the different strokes for different folks idea, I am not sure that is true either. While each person has his or her own taste in music, the three greatest musical composers of all time are overwhelmingly considered to be that of Johann S Bach, Wolfgang A Mozart, and Ludwig V Beethoven. This has to be more than a coincidence.

  15. Bob Miller says:


    I did not say that (what I’ll call) authentic Jewish music doesn’t enhance my spirituality—read my comment 13 again. I’m talking about secular classical music.

    As for JS Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, rest assured that I, too, like their music. So? What if I liked Haydn and Dvorak more? Or Bartok, Kodaly and Weiner?

  16. Raymond says:

    I will acknowledge that some Jewish music moves me in a way that even Mozart/Bach/Handel do not. But this does not have to be an either/or situation. There are many exquisitely beautiful pieces of classical music that transcend, at least in quality, so much of what passes as Jewish music. I feel inspired when I listen to this 18th century German/Austrian/Italian music.

    Besides, what happens when Jewish music actually imitates classical music? I am thinking here in particular of two of Handel’s pieces of music, that have become a popular chanukah song in one case, and part of the benching in the other case. I can imagine Jews feeling inspired by those supposedly Jewish songs, thinking they are so Jewish, yet they have allowed their bias to influence what they determine to be spiritually edifying.

    What I am trying to say is that the power of music to inspire, stands independently of its particular origins. I happen to like traditional Irish folk melodies, which is pretty odd considering my origins are Eastern European. Yet that does not stop me from feeling moved by a piece when I hear it, if it happens to resonate with me.

  17. Shaya Karlinsky says:

    I think AH speaks more from an emotional reaction towards non-observant Jews, rather than having his reaction informed by our sources. Among numerous sources that justify the approach taken by Nogah Harevueini (which doesn’t need to be interpreted as a justification for Hareuveini’s possible secular ideology}: All public fast days were required to include “Posh’ei Yisrael”; The Bartenura explains the law in Masechet Megillah, Ch. 4, Mishna 9 that imputes the status of “an heretical approach” to one who says that G-d should be blessed by the good ones, by writing that even the evildoers must be included in the “agudah” of the Jewish peoples’ fasts; and Rav Volbe’s speaks at length about the idea that Klal Yisrael is composed of a range of Jews, from righteous to evil doers – “THAT is the Klal Yisrael” writes Rav Volbe.

    Shaya Karlinsky

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