‘Tis the Season

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A little belated but still relevant…

In this lecture (link), R. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff lists whom he considers the top students of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik by decade: In the 1970s, R. Chaim Ilson. The 1960s, R. Hershel Schachter. 1950s, R. Aharon Lichtenstein. And in the 1940s, Rabbi Zvi (or Harold) Kanotopsky.

Oddly enough, I’d heard very little about R. Kanotopsky until recently, despite his son-in-law and daughter being the principal of and my teacher in high school. He was a rosh yeshiva and professor in YU until he moved to Israel in 1970, where he taught at Bar Ilan University, Hebrew University and Michlalah. He passed away prematurely a few years later.

In Rays of Jewish Splendor (pp. 48-54), R. Kanotopsky addresses the oddity found in Genesis 35:2, 4:

And Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments…” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their hands, and the earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree which was by Shechem.

Why did Jacob’s sons have “foreign gods”, apparently idols, with them? R. Kanotopsky, writing in the late 1940s or early 1950s, explains (pp. 51-52):

The Sforno — one of the classic commentaries on the Torah — has the following to say about this episode. There is a principle in our Halacha which states that an idol worshipper, even though he has worshipped a particular idol can, if he so desires, nullify the power he has vested in this idol… These were idols which they took from Shechem. And even though the people themselves had nullifies them, it was the wish of father Jacob that they be removed from the possession of his household. This is one interpretation…

On of our serious errors and dangerous failings is that we are not well versed in the finer details, in the minutia of idolatry as was our father Jacob… With the season’s non-Jewish festivals now in the air this problem takes on tremendously important proportions. If we were in a position to prove to the satisfaction of every Jew in the American Jewish community that the various elements of the Christian festivals that come into play during this season constitute idolatry, from the Jewish viewpoint, the problem of Jewish participation in this panorama would be solved. No Jew would wittingly and consciously participate in these ceremonies. The difficulty arises and the problem becomes increasingly aggravated because we have come to believe that these symbols have long lost their religious content and implications. Many Jews have come to believe that the articles and the objects and the celebrations have taken on secular implications and have shed completely their religious implications. Our Christian neighbors would, of course, be the first to refute this argument and this contention. But our shallowness and our superficiality in religious thinking leads us to find nothing wrong in feasting our eyes on the dazzling beauty of the ×¢”×–. Our argument is the same as that suggested by the Sforno. We take ×¢”×– into our homes because we delude ourselves into believing that they have been emptied of any religious content שבטלום עובדיה, that others have long nullified the idolatrous implications. This concerns us very directly. The modern blessing of television has served to bring this problem directly into our own homes. We are concerned not with a televised church service. This did not bother father Jacob. We are concerned with the more subtle forms of ×¢”×– that threaten to rob the Jewish home of its completely Jewish character. We are concerned with the secularized commercials שבטלום עובדיה — that are not intended to carry religious implications…

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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