In the early 1970s, Rabbi Ben Hollander was a talented and popular education director at Beth Tzedec Congregation, one of the largest and most influential synagogues in Canada. But at the urging of the senior rabbi, his contract was not renewed and a bitter battle ensued within the synagogue. Beth Tzedec was seriously divided, the senior rabbi was fired and newspapers in Toronto and beyond covered the dispute. It took many years for the congregation to recover from the scars.
As for Rabbi Hollander, Canada’s loss was Israel’s gain. He and his young family moved to Jerusalem, where he became a popular teacher of Torah to adults in many settings, including teaching both Reform and Conservative rabbinical students.
Rabbi Hollander also became the close disciple of Nechama Leibowitz, the foremost Jewish Bible teacher of the 20th century. Leibowitz’s method was close reading of the biblical text, following the lead of classical Jewish commentators such as Rashi. She argued that these commentators were invariably aware of and reacting to difficulties in the biblical text, and that accurately understanding what was “bothering” these commentators would enrich our appreciation of the Bible.
Leibowitz refrained from connecting her study of the Torah to the existential issues facing the State of Israel, but Rabbi Hollander’s view of Torah led him to become politically active in Israel as an advocate for peace. His Torah teaching often reflected his politics.
Now, 10 years after Rabbi Hollander’s death, his colleagues have put together a book consisting of short essays on the weekly Torah portions. The compilation, To Be Continued: Teachings on Parashat haShavua, was published by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) – the political advocacy group in which Rabbi Hollander took a leading role – with an introduction by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, RHR’s former president and senior rabbi, and a good friend of Rabbi Hollander.
Rabbi Hollander wrote many of these essays to deliver as sermonettes in 1993 and 1994 on the English-language radio broadcasts of Kol Yisrael, Israel’s public radio service. Other essays in the book were written by colleagues or family members. The title, To Be Continued, was Rabbi Hollander’s signature line at the end of his Torah classes, implying that Torah study is never really completed.
A short summary of Rabbi Hollander’s comments on the Torah portions that we are reading at this time of year exemplifies his methodology.
The portions of Toldot, Vayetzei and Vayishlach highlight the tensions between Jacob and his older twin brother, Esau. Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger to purchase the first-born birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) and later, at his mother’s urging, disguised himself and “stole” the blessing that his father, Isaac, had intended to give to Esau (Gen. 27:1-40).
Rabbi Hollander summarizes this information by writing that Jacob “followed a complex and sinister path of deception.” But, he adds, Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, felt they were following God’s will, as she had received a prophecy that her younger son would be the chosen one (Gen. 25:23). Following Leibowitz’s teachings, Rabbi Hollander points out that, in the Torah, Jacob received measure-for-measure punishment for these subterfuges, when his father-in-law, Laban, later duped him and substituted his older daughter, Leah, for his younger daughter, Rachel, whom Jacob wanted to marry. Laban justified his trickery to Jacob by saying, “It is not the practice in our place to put the younger before the older,” (Gen. 29:26) implying that while Jacob might have had no respect for the rights of the first-born, he (Laban) did.
Later, Jacob and Esau reconcile after Jacob has a nocturnal battle with an angel (or apparition) who apparently represents Esau. At the end of this battle, Jacob turns to the angel and says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:27). Rashi, noting the unusual form of the Hebrew word for “bless me” (berakhtani), which looks like a past-tense verb, even though we expect a future-tense one, explains, in Rabbi Hollander’s paraphrase, that “it is a reference to the blessing that he stole. He’s saying to the angel, ‘I will not let you go unless you declare that I was legitimately blessed.’ Jacob is saying, in effect: ‘I regret the pain that I caused my brother, but that was not my goal. At my mother’s insistence I did what I thought was God’s will. It was legitimate because of that motivation.’ ”
Again following Leibowitz, Rabbi Hollander explains that when Esau and Jacob meet, Jacob offers a gift to Esau and refers to that gift as birkati, literally “my blessing,” thus again implying that he is making amends for having harmed Esau by usurping his blessing.
Rabbi Hollander extrapolates from this story to current tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Though a committed and stalwart Zionist, Rabbi Hollander understood that Zionism caused problems for others. “We acknowledge that we made mistakes. We regret the suffering we caused our neighbours, particularly the Palestinians. We feel that we bear partial responsibility for the conflict, but we maintain a bottom line that our goal is legitimate…. We said that we want to return to our ancestral homeland, and that we have a right to do that, and that, after the Holocaust, where else are we supposed to go? Where else can we declare a state and protect ourselves?”
To Be Continued is a fitting tribute to a gifted rabbi and educator. It will keep his memory alive among his many students, friends and colleagues in Canada, Israel and beyond.