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Jewish Journal

Preaching Tolerance

A new book looks at Benzion Uziel, Israel's first Sephardic chief rabbi.

by Ronald J. Nessim

November 1, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Can religious leaders be devout but not fanatic? Can fervent belief and tolerance coexist? Such questions are hardly academic these days: the results of religious fanaticism now consume headlines, and lives. One set of reassuring answers can be found in the life of Rabbi Benzion Uziel. Uziel served as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine and then the State of Israel from 1939 until his death in 1953.

In "Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel" (Jason Aronson, Inc., $30) author and rabbi Marc Angel tells the story of this remarkable man.

The book is not straight biography. Rather, it discusses the rabbi's writing and teachings on a variety of topics. Most topically, it examines Uziel's desire to strike for a nonextremist balance between the secular and the religious.

Uziel was a traditional and religious man. Yet he was also a centrist and nonextremist in the classical Sephardic mode. (Indeed, unlike our Ashkenazi brothers, the Sephardim have never split into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.) Uziel deplored fanaticism and intolerance by both the right wing and the left. While loyal to the traditional halachic system, Rabbi Uziel was unafraid to make controversial and innovative decisions.

In the early 1930s, for example, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, and Rabbi Uziel needed to consider whether it was permissible to perform autopsies as part of the training of doctors in medical school in then-Palestine. The concern was over the laws of nivul ha'met, the disgracing of a dead body. While both realized the need for Jewish medical students to perform autopsies, the two rabbis came up with different solutions. Kook ruled that nivul ha-met only applied to Jewish bodies and that the laws governing the treatment of dead bodies did not apply to non-Jews. Uziel concluded, however, that the prohibition only applied when the dead body is treated disrespectfully. Autopsies performed in a respectful manner for a valid medical training purpose, did not constitute a desecration of the body. "In a situation of great benefit to everyone, where there is an issue of saving lives, we have not found any reason to prohibit [autopsies], and on the contrary, there are proofs to permit them." Uziel also saw no difference between Jews and non-Jews in this area since all human beings were created equally in God's image.

In contradiction to the images we are seeing of fundamentalist Muslim madrassas, or religious schools, Uziel believed that it was important for Jewish schools to teach both secular and religious subjects. He pointed to the intellectual tradition in medieval Spain where Moses Maimonides and the other great sages were conversant in science and philosophy as well as Torah. Maimonides and the others studied Torah and all other wisdom that contributed to the understanding of truth. Knowledge was not classified as religious or secular, but rather as true or false. Uziel believed that the apparent conflict between religious and general studies vanished when they were both viewed as part of a unified search for truth. Uziel's guiding principle in Torah interpretation was that its ways are "ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace."

Such a centrist, unifying approach in the last century is a reproach to the fanatics of our current one.

"Loving Truth and Peace" is available on the Jason Aronson Web site at www.aronson.com .

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