Supreme Ct. Justice Hendel: 'Maimonides remains a guiding light'

Supreme Court Justice at 10th Rambam Conference: "Hard to believe that one person managed all that Rambam achieved."

Rochel Sylvetsky,

Rambam Conference
Rambam Conference
Eliran Aharon

At the start of his lecture at the 10th Conference for Preserving the Heritage of Maimonides, Supreme Court Judge Neal Hendel said (translation by this writer): "Looking at the scope and sheer number of the Rambam's writings – such as Sefer Hamitzvot, The Mishne Torah, Guide to the Perplexed, letters to Jewish communities, - it is easy to think that his name represents an entire school of scholars, akin to the Tosafists. But there was only one Rambam (the prolific 12th century savant Maimonides, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known in Hebrew by the acronym Rambam, ed.) – and he was also a physician, scientist and community leader."

That sentence explains how a three day conference on the Rambam has taken place annually for a decade without running out of new material and riveting speakers, all introduced by famed and subtle Israeli linguist Avshalom Kor. It also explains why hundreds of people, most of them Religious Zionists, attend the conference in Tiberias every year, why every lecture is packed, and why various aspects of the Rambam's work are the subject of conversation at the festive Shabbat meals – and even on Friday's choice of short day trips in the area including Rambam's recently refurbished burial place in the city. The only event that did not center on the Rambam was a spectacular evening with famed Israeli singer, Yoram Gaon and the Sabbath prayers led by young, talented cantor Avi Miller.

Academics often call Rambam an elitist, conjuring up the picture of an austere scholar who feels that the highest level of perfection is intellectual and looks down upon the common man. He is characterized by his opinion that only through knowledge can one be close to G-d and by his request that his philosophical works not be read by ordinary people because they would misinterpret them.

On the other hand, said Justice Hendel, close perusal of Rambam's supportive letters to Jewish Diaspora communities in need of encouragement and to a convert who wishes to be able to say "the G-d of my forefathers" like his fellow worshipers portray a caring, warmer personality than academic researchers would suggest.

In fact, during the conference, that aspect of the Rambam was revealed through the analysis of his decisions - that not only did he care about people, he had a profound understanding of human psychology and social interaction.

Professor of Jewish Civil Law, Eliav Shochetman, quoting the two Biblical verses forbidding falsehoods, showed how Rambam deals only with the one applying to a legal context when listing the commandments. Shochetman suggests that Rambam does not list lying per se as one of the forbidden sins because there are times when a lie can soothe or please without doing harm while telling the stark truth would accomplish the opposite. As an example, he reminded the listeners of Rabbi Hillel's instruction to praise the beauty of every bride whether or not that is actually the case (justification being that her new husband sees her that way), while Shammai stuck to the humiliating truth.

Justice Hendel fascinated the audience by showing how he has used Rambam's logic and values in Israel's Supreme Court, extracting the psychological principle behind some of his halakhic decisions. One unusual case was that of a haredi woman whose unborn baby was found to have congenital defects that could lead to the choice of aborting the fetus. Doctors did not inform her of their findings because their experience led them to believe she would not have an abortion for religious reasons. After the baby's birth, the mother sued for compensation for not being given the opportunity to exercise personal autonomy, regardless of whether her decision would have been the one the doctors predicted. This, he said, is analogous to the principle in the cases of a dangerous animal (a bull) which halakha decrees must be killed or a tree growing over a neighbor's yard which must be trimmed. In both cases, halakha mandates a course of action, but if another person decides to perform that action because that is the law, he is fined for preventing the owner from deciding whether to perform those mitzvas.

Hendel explained Rambam's two-phased description of marriage –in ancient times, simply a matter of choosing a spouse, with a legal process added once the Torah was given at Sinai. This, he said, explains the two steps in Jewish divorce. The legal writ of divorce is not enough, both partners have to agree to end the union they chose to create.

Rambam is a source of comfort, said Rabbanit Rachel Sprecher Fraenkel, mother of Naftali Hy'd, one of three teens kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in 2014. She spoke of how Rambam helps us realize G-d's kindness and personal Providence in how he dealt with tragedy, such as his brother's drowning, through faith and reliance on Heavenly reward and punishment, even if he does not actually see it happen during his lifetime.

Both Rabbi Eli Sadan of the Eli pre-army academy and Professor Zeev Harvey of Hebrew University spoke about different aspects of faith in the Rambam, while Rabbinic Judge Buchris discussed the obligation to obey the Oral Law as passed on by Rabbinic Sages.

The Rambam's interest in science, of course, was not forgotten, and the question of how he might respond to today's advances was discussed. The Chief Rabbinate representative at inquests, Rabbi Rozha, spoke on using technology for identification purposes in case of death but also to help chained women and Professor Zecharia Madar talked about nutritional advice, while Professor Dror Fixler showed how science is part of Torah study in the Rambam's thought, and in his view, forms the bridge between intellectual and the metaphysical.

The city's new mayor Ron Kobi, Itiel Bar Levi of the Torah Education Department and the municipality's religious education head Shmuel Barabi were warmly thanked by retired Education Ministry Supervisor Rabbi Dr. Eliahu Aviad and Rabbi Chaim Fogel, Chairman of the Rambam Heritage Center, both of whom are the force behind the conference's success.




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