JERUSALEM - With his black coat, luxuriant white beard and spectacled, tired eyes, Rabbi Aharon Feldman looks the very picture of an aging, distinguished Torah scholar.
But Baltimoreans who expect the 69-year-old new dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College to be quietly absorbed in the Bible and the wisdom of the sages might be in for a surprise.
This is a man who has lived for 40 years in Israel, where voicing blunt opinions is a national pastime. And Feldman, who will join the noted yeshiva next month, is passionate on the subject of preserving Jewish identity. It is central to his views on the different branches of Judaism, the state of Israel and the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
"The Reformed and Conservative movements believe that the Torah as it's always been lived is outdated and therefore alterations have to be made," he says. But, "the Orthodox world is doing very well, and is very successful, without making these alterations. They're the only branch of Judaism that's flourishing, that has an extremely low rate of marriage assimilation [and] a sense of identity of the Jewish people. All of that is being lost by Reformed and Conservative Jews. Their children are intermarrying - they see no reason for being Jewish - and they're losing the battle for Jewish identity."
Politically active but not a citizen of Israel, he doesn't vote, sing "Hatikva," the national anthem, or fly the Israeli flag.
"I pray three times a day for the return of the Jewish people to Zion," he says, but "to the extent that the state of Israel seeks to redefine [itself] as a political entity as opposed to a religious entity, I can't accept it." At the same time, he says, only a fool could believe that if the state were disbanded, Jews would be safe.
Feldman believes the Palestinians "are out to kill us," but opposes Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza: "Anyone with a little vision should have seen that we were entering these people into danger." He also believes the current 10-month-old outbreak of violence represents "a divine hand showing us that we made a mistake." Loss of Jewish identity sapped Israelis of the will to fight for their country, he says, leading to the Oslo agreement and a view that "peace is the only solution."
"We have to repent by rejuvenating our commitment to Torah values and Torah culture." The Torah is the body of divine knowledge drawn from Jewish scripture and tradition.
Feldman's arrival at Ner Israel's campus in Pikesville will mark a return to his roots. His father was Joseph H. Feldman, a Polish-born Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore, and he grew up on Eutaw Street and later on Liberty Heights Avenue. He was captain of the basketball team at Talmudical Academy and fondly remembers bicycling out to what was then the edge of the city at Seven Mile Lane, watching airplanes take off from Curtis Airfield.
He studied at Ner Israel under dean Rabbi Yaakov S. Weinberg, before moving on to study and teach at yeshivas in New York.
In 1961 Feldman and his wife, Leah, left the United States for Israel to raise their children as "totally committed Jews, educated Jews" in an atmosphere suffused with religion. In the United States, "a religious Jew had to grow up in those days feeling self-conscious, feeling a little bit ashamed of himself and having different values, not being accepted."
"I think that's how I grew up," he says. "I'm not sorry for that experience. ... But it's a risk I didn't want to expose my children to."
The young family settled in Bnei Brak outside Tel Aviv, one of Israel's most uniformly religious communities and also one of its most congested and impoverished. It's a town where men spend their days studying and teaching the Torah, women nurture big families and care for neighbors, and children play safely on the streets and sidewalks at all hours - boys with boys and girls with girls, in keeping with Orthodox custom. They moved to Jerusalem 12 years later.
Feldman says his eight children and 60-plus grandchildren are, if anything, more devout than he is. Every Saturday afternoon, his younger grandchildren crowd into his dining room for a lesson. Three of his four sons and a grandson are rabbis. His daughters, he says, are married to "accomplished scholars."
Feldman is outside the country's mainstream. In Jerusalem, he lives in a self-contained world of Jewish scholarship and painstaking adherence to traditional customs in everything from dress to diet, a world where learned teachers are revered. Ten years ago, he founded Yeshiva Be'er HaTorah in Jerusalem, and serves as its dean and fund-raiser.
The ultra-Orthodox - or haredim, as the deeply religious, very traditional Jews are known here - draw frequent criticism and are reviled in some secular quarters for their claim on government subsidies, political influence and, in particular, the avoidance of military service by male yeshiva students.
Feldman prefers to be called a "Torah Jew," and sees himself as a different kind of soldier. The Torah's teachings and practices, he writes in his book The Juggler and the King, are like a city wall that protects the Jewish nation from foreign values, and Torah scholars are like the defenders posted in watchtowers.
Feldman occasionally is used by Am Echad, an Orthodox advocacy group, to explain the haredim's views to the media, and he doesn't mince words. Before Pope John Paul II's visit last year, he told reporters the haredim wouldn't pay much attention to it: "They are not like secular Jews who find their Jewish identification in what non-Jews think of them." He also said it would be "offensive" if the pope approached the Wailing Wall wearing a cross.
As a writer, Feldman is skilled at putting ancient Torah lessons into language a layman or a student can understand. One of his books is a guide to married life, The River, the Kettle and the Bird.
Geared to young men, it stresses a husband's responsibility to make his wife feel loved and appreciated, offering common-sense advice such as this: "If a husband would make a list of all the faults he has discovered in his wife and weigh them against the fact that his wife has committed herself to loving him and serving as his closest companion for a lifetime - despite all his faults - all complaints would vanish in their insignificance."
As rosh yeshiva at Ner Israel, Feldman says, he will try to maintain the school's tradition of "excellent scholarship" and contribution to the community. He will be concerned not just with the academic life of the students, but their moral development. He sets strict standards. Six years ago, when two Be'er HaTorah students were arrested for spitting on the grave of the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, they were expelled.
"One reason we founded [the school] was to create a tremendous emphasis on character development," he says. After the arrests, "we were ashamed of ourselves" for failing in this instance to instill "decency and consideration for others."
Feldman finds it perfectly natural to take on a new career at age 69. "Rabbis never retire," he says. "Very few get senile also."
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