Guest post by R. Daniel Rapp
Rabbi Daniel Rapp is associate dean of Judaic studies and a visiting assistant professor of Talmud for the Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program, as well as associate dean of Judaic studies at Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies at Yeshiva University.
I began my career as a student in Yeshiva College in January 1988. I was somewhat ambivalent about starting Yeshiva, as I would have much rather finished the year in Israel and was still not comfortable with my decision to attend YU. Like so many students before and after me, I could not figure out if my afternoon classes were some unfortunate byproduct of the reality of needing to make a living, or directed towards some higher, amorphous purpose called “Torah U’Madda.”
I believe that it was my second Thursday at Yeshiva when a Torah U’Madda lecture was scheduled in Rubin shul. The topic was less than gripping – A Halachic Analysis of the Minimum Wage, given by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine. Some of my friends were signed up for Rabbi Levine’s Comparative Economic Systems, a course which compared halacha and economics, and spoke highly of the course, so I decided to attend.
Never before (or afterwards for that matter) was I so taken by the content of a lecture. Rabbi Levine began by analyzing the law from an economic point of view, considering the tradeoff between a living wage and the inevitable jump in unemployment, followed by a halachic analysis of the power of government to interfere in private negotiations between workers and employers. Most impressive for me, however, was his conclusion. Economic studies show that the loss of jobs because of a raise in the minimum wage is most acutely felt by teenagers who lose summer jobs and part-time after school jobs. Rabbi Levine stated that this was a positive outcome as young Jewish men and women should be better spending their spare time learning Torah.
This was it! A world-class scholar armed with PhD in economics analyzing current issues, looking through the prism of the Torah, using both the laws and worldview of the Torah in his search for the truth. I approached Rabbi Levine after the lecture, introduced myself and got over-tallied into Comparative Economics Systems. I had found a mentor.
When I ran out of classes that I could take with Rabbi Levine, I petitioned him to take an independent study where he would teach me practically how to apply the Gemara and halacha to real world cases and policy. He accepted, and changed my life.
The topic Rabbi Levine chose for my independent study was labor unions and the right to force workers to join the union. My first assignment was to find sources in the Gemara for labor unions. The ground rules were that I had to do all the research and he would provide no help. Also, he informed me of one teshuva by Rav Moshe Feinstein, which I was not allowed to see. I would meet with him every week or so to get the next step in my journey. Having progressed through a yeshiva education based on reading marei mekomos and then being told in shiur what the sources said, this approach was both new and difficult for me. Week after week, I built on my own reading of Gemara, Rishonim, and Poskim until I developed an approach to the halachos of labor law and related questions.
Then reality set in. Rabbi Levine had me read the Igros Moshe, which flatly disagreed with most everything I said. Rabbi Levine allowed me to wallow in my depression for only a short time until he challenged me again. On what did I base my approach? Rav Moshe could not argue with the Rishonim I cited. It was time to go back and reconsider my reading of the Rishonim and determine whether my original reading was true or whether Rav Moshe had a better interpretation. Rabbi Levine inspired me to work on the project long after the semester ended. Ultimately, Rabbi Levine included it in the most recent book he edited, which was published by Oxford University Press
I have been blessed with other rabbeim who have taught me the majority of my knowledge and have provided me with invaluable advice in leading my life, but it was Rabbi Aaron Levine who taught me how to read Rishonim. Without him, I could never consider a life of learning and sharing my knowledge with others. For this, I am eternally indebted to him.
As the years went by our relationship grew. I was privileged to sit as a dayan with Rabbi Levine at the Beth Din of America, and I worked with him when he taught in IBC.
Whenever we spoke, the message tended to be the same – I needed to publish. I would respond that I did not have the time necessary, and that the population that cared about what I had to say about the Jewish view of obscure areas of the law was somewhat limited. The response was always the same – “This work is of critical importance! Scholars are seeking the truth and we need to show them that the Torah provides the truth!”
Of course, he was right in terms of the value of the work. The problem was that no one had Rabbi Levine’s combined abilities. In order to represent faithfully the wisdom of the Torah to the highly educated world of scholars, one needs to be both a talmid chacham extraordinaire and scholar in one’s own right. This was Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine.
We have lost an unparalleled promoter of Torah knowledge to the academic world, a man who embodied our Yeshiva’s mission. May we all strive to continue his work.