September 23, 2019

Israel’s New Sephardic Chief Rabbi: Hillel or Shammai?

Upon his election as Israel’s new Sephardic Chief Rabbi/Rishon L’Zion, Rav Yitzhak Yosef said:

“I will not sway to the left or right from the path of the Torah, rather I will do everything in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”

His father, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi/Rishon L’Zion Rav Ovadiah Yosef, had these words of advice for his son:

“It is your task to have mercy on the oppressed and exploited members of society, and to stand by the side of the needy. Have pity and take care of the Agunot (anchored/chained wives in a dysfunctional marriage, whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, thus preventing them from moving on with their lives). Make every effort within halakha to find creative solutions to permit them to be released from these situations. You must hear the cries of the oppressed, and do all that you can for the sake of social justice.”

With regards to rulings in halakha, Rav Ovadia Yosef had these words of wisdom for his son:

“A person who has little knowledge of Torah, when in doubt, will always say ‘forbidden.’ On every issue, such a person will say ‘forbidden, forbidden.’ Such is not the path of Torah. The true path of Torah is to search for halakhic ways to be lenient, so as not to make the Torah a burden upon the Jewish people. You don’t need to be a great scholar to say ‘forbidden,’ and there is no wisdom in searching for halakhic stringencies.”

Both father and son Yosef spoke in the spirit of Hillel, whose sensitivity and care for (in Rav Ovadiah’s words) the “oppressed and exploited members of society” made his halakhic rulings the ideal path for rabbis – and the Jewish people as a whole – to follow.

One of the primary examples of Hillel’s bold, socially conscious halakhic rulings has its roots in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh. In this parasha, we are commanded to observe the special mitzvah of the Sabbatical Year (Shmitta), and the economic legislation mandating that all loans be forgiven during the Seventh/Sabbatical Year.

The mitzvah of loan cancellation in the seventh year is a piece of legislation intended by the Torah to ease the burden upon those who are unable to meet their financial obligations. This well-intentioned mitzvah met with abuse and misuse. A cheating trend developed where some people took out loans, knowing they will not pay them back, as they will hold off paying until the seventh year comes around, which then – by Torah law – cancels the debt. This awful abuse of the Torah’s goodwill towards society created a financial crisis during the late Second Temple period, as creditors were now afraid to lend money. Like in any good society, who usually suffers when people abuse the law? Those for whom the law was created. Creditors were afraid to lend out money, and those who most needed a loan were unable to secure one. But it’s the Torah’s law that the seventh year cancels the debt. What to do?

The Talmud records that Hillel the Elder saw that the situation in Israel was creating hardship on many members of society, and that the well intentioned Shemitta law from the Torah designed to help the poor was now working against the poor. Enter Hillel’s bold and creative halakhic innovation — the prosbul.

The Talmud teaches:

Hillel instituted the prosbul in order to mend society (mi’pnei tikkun olam). When Hillel saw that people were refraining to loan money to one another, he instituted an amendment to the Torah’s law (a takanah) stating that every creditor and debtor must appear before a Beit Din (Rabbinic court of law) to sign the prosbul. What does the prosbul say? That the undersigned understand that the seventh year does not cancel debts, and that the loan must be paid back in full. (By Hillel’s decree, it now became a halakha that the seventh year no longer cancels debts, and, as a result, this removed the fear from a creditor of lending money, since the now amended halakha stated that he must be paid back. As a result, those in need could now secure a loan).

Hillel’s prosbul stands out as the classic example of a rabbinic leader making a bold halakhic decision with the intention to improve the quality of life within society. Hillel understood that Jewish law is not frozen in time, rather is a dynamic system that allows for amendments and changes, especially when it comes to improving life for those who are most committed to following halakha. Hillel also felt that if people are suffering as a result of abusive loopholes within halakha, then halakha was no longer bringing honor and glory to God, and God could not possibly be looking down happily at Jews who were suffering as a result of halakha. I am sure if Hillel were alive today, the situation of Agunot, for example, would be quite different. It is the handling of these difficult issues in halakha that will determine if Rav Yitzhak Yosef is – in his own words – “doing everything in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”

But to be a true student of Hillel takes more than bold and creative halakhic rulings. There is also an overall approach to one’s fellow man – derech eretz (polite, soft spoken, courteous and dignified behavior) — that characterizes a leader behaving “in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”

When contemplating why Hillel’s rulings were ultimately chosen as the preferred halakhic path for the Jewish people, the Talmud teaches:

Since both Hillel and Shammai’s rulings are ‘words of the living God,’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halakha fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the teachings of Beth Shammai before their own.

Hillel also sought to unify the Jewish people with darkhei shalom (peaceful ways), which is why Hillel taught:

Be students of Aaron, a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, a lover of human beings who brought them closer to Torah.

Hillel loved the ways of Aaron, because they were his own ways.

In this spirit, Rav Yizhak Yosef has much to learn from one of his illustrious predecessors in the position of Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the State of Israel’s very first Rishon L’Zion. Considered by many to be a modern day incarnation of Hillel, Rav Uziel’s brilliant halakhic rulings were certainly in “the spirit of Beit Hillel,” especially as it concerned Agunot, orphans, widows and converts. But Rav Uziel also embodied Hillel’s call to be students of Aaron, an example of which is seen in his call to unity for the Jewish people, and for rabbis to serve as the engines in creating unity:

We must remove this divisiveness that plagues us, and instead make our work as a community a reflection of peace and love. But who will stand and lead this change amongst us? This specific task belongs to the “Faithful in Israel,” our rabbinic and spiritual leaders. This belongs to them, because the Torah is not an alienating force; rather it is a force that brings people closer together. The true announcement of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah will only happen when the hearts of parents are drawn closer to their children, and the hearts of children are drawn closer to their parents. It is about time that the “Faithful in Israel”(rabbis and spiritual leaders) unite forces in their sacred work, and unite the entire Nation of Israel around them.

Rav Yizhak Yosef is a Talmid Haham (rabbinic/halakhic scholar), and I have no doubt that he is up to the task of being a refelction of Hillel in his halakhic rulings. As a student of his father’s own halakhic rulings, he certainly has a rich legacy of halakhic leniency to build upon.

His greatest challenge, however (and arguably his most important task) will be to create an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and unity amongst rabbis, and for the Jewish people.

Honorable Rav Yosef: please – for the sake of Am Yisrael — be a student of Rav Uziel, a lover of peace and pursuer of peace, a lover of human beings who brought them closer to Torah.