Machon Shilo: Interview with R’David Bar-Hayim


My final interview for the week was with Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, the founder of Machon Shilo, a center of Jewish learning in Jerusalem dedicated to the exposition and dissemination of Torath Eretz Yisrael, the Judaism of the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Bar-Hayim defines his vision as “laying the groundwork for a restatement and reconstitution of Jewish thought and practice, based on the Written Law and the Oral Tradition (Tora ShebiKhtav and Tora SheBa’al Pe), in order to facilitate the realization of the Jewish nation’s divinely mandated purpose and duty to establish “a nation of priests, a holy people” (Exodus 19:6).

For Rabbi Bar-Hayim the crucial issue of our day is the reconstitution of the Jewish Nation. “In order for the Jewish people to realize its true potential and destiny and live up to HASHEM’s expectations of His people, it is crucial that we cease to define ourselves as Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Moroccan, Tunisian or Yemenite Jews…and begin to see ourselves simply as Jews. Or more precisely: as Jews privileged to dwell in our ancestral homeland in which we aspire to live according to a full and authentic expression of Tora.”

Rather than relying exclusively on the traditions of Rabbinical authorities in the Exile who studied and lived Judaism within the historical context of a minority residing in a foreign land under non-Jewish sovereignty, R’Bar-Hayim’s school encourages the study and implementation of the traditions and rulings found in the ancient sources of Land of Israel. For instance, Machon Shilo tends to privilege the methodology and rulings of the Talmud Yerushalmi, compiled in Tiberias in the 4-5th centuries, rather than the Talmud Bavli, compiled by rabbinic authorities in Babylon some 200 years later.

One aspect of this approach explains Rabbi Bar-Hayim, is the reintroduction of Nusah Eretz Yisrael, the format of prayer and liturgy used by the Jews of the Land of Israel until the first Crusade (1096-1099), at which time most of the Jewish population of Eretz Yisrael was either massacred or fled the country. This calamity, explains Rabbi Bar-Hayim, sealed the fate of Torath Eretz Yisrael, with the result that by the 12th century the Halakhic rulings, customs and liturgy of the Babylonian Jews had become the norm throughout the Jewish world. It should be noted that the liturgies in current use – the Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite rites – are all based on the Babylonian custom and liturgy.

R’Bar-Hayim asserts that there is a qualitative difference between the study and practice of Judaism in Eretz Yisrael as opposed to the Galut (exile), a fact stressed in several Talmudic sources. While many of the ancient and contemporary rabbinic authorities also assert such a difference, he takes them rather seriously. What is needed at this juncture of history, he argues, is a reconstituted Halachic Judaism which is in step with and complements the modern reality of the sovereign Jewish people living in their ancestral land.

Here the Rav explained to me that there is no such thing as Judaism without a halachic system at its base; that Judaism only exists in its present form today because of this system put into place 2500 thousand years ago by chazal (the foundational rabbinic authorities). From this perspective, both Reform and Conservative Judaism are flawed concepts from the outset. The former because it was founded on a rejection of Halachah as a basis for religious practice, and the latter because of its efforts to pick and choose Halachic interpretations as convenient for social integration into the diasporic milieu.

However Orthodox Judaism too is flawed, according to Rabbi Bar-Hayim, as it was by definition a response to the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. Responding to the Reform movement’s complete disregard for traditional practice and established religious jurisprudence, the new and reactionary “Orthodox Judaism” (a previously unknown term) adopted an extreme and opposite approach, viz. that the Ashkenazi Jewish practice which had evolved in Europe until that time should be enshrined, denying the possibility of any change whatever, even where such change is mandated by the Torah itself.

In this sense, the anti-Zionist approach of the most Haredi sects like the Satmars who reject the legitimacy of the state of Israel are in fact the most orthodox of all. It was their forefathers’ custom to not live in the Land of Israel or to seek redemption of the land through human efforts. So too will they not engage in the building of the state or its society. They simply take the logic of orthodoxy as originally formulated to its most logical conclusion. As such, orthodox Jewry of today is fighting the “war” of religious practice in Israel today using the weapons of 200 years ago.

This is not and never was the intent of Halachic Judaism. The Rav argues that the rabbinical authorities of the past, Chazal, the Geonim, and the Rishonim, always understood the need and were willing to take stock of the realities of the present, to allow changes for the better. They were always redefining and reinventing certain elements of halachah, even changing well-established practices to suit the different circumstances and needs of the Jewish people in their times.

Now, with the creation of the State of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people and a territory under its political sovereignty, there is a need for just such an adaptation. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, understood this concept well, arguing that a newly reformulated, updated, and refreshed halachic system must be put in place in Eretz Yisrael. This as a means to become “more Jewish and more able to connect to Torah in Eretz Yisrael in the present historical context.” This need may not be pressing for those Jews who still live in galut, but he believes it is absolutely necessary for those who have returned to the land.

Why are we here? One of the reasons that the Jewish people who live in Israel need R’Bar-Hayim to complete and publish a Siddur Nusach Eretz Yisrael (a Jewish prayer book based on the liturgy and customs of Eretz Yisrael), suggests one of his students, is because we do not have a picture of our own reasons for living in the land. As long as Ashkenazi Jews continue to follow the customs that came from 12th century Germany and Sephardi Jews do the same with traditions from Spain, there will exist a psychological barrier between who they are and who they aspire to be.

As for the sources on the basis of which Nusach Eretz Yisrael can be reconstructed, R’Bar-Hayim explains that many snippets of the nusach are quoted in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Midrash Bereshit Raba, Vayikra Raba, Siphre, etc. In addition, the many thousands of manuscripts found in the Cairo Geniza towards the end of the 19th century, many dating from the 9th -12th centuries, have provided a wealth of material from a community where the nusach was still in use as recently as two or three generations ago.

Following the argument that a different form of Jewish practice is needed in the Land of Israel, we discussed what is religiously required of Jews in terms of taking control of the land. R’Bar-Hayim explained that there are three concepts which are of primary importance: kibbush eretz yisrael, yishuv eretz yisrael, and yeshivat eretz yisrael or in English, inheriting/conquering the land, settling the land, and residing in the land. While the second two obligations are individual in nature, the first is necessarily collective. Yet all three are intertwined.

To engage in kibbush requires that the land itself be already substantially Jewish in character. In order for the Jewish people to achieve sovereignty in their land, it is essential that the Jewish population first achieve a certain critical mass. This can only be achieved through both yishuv and yeshiva. This is precisely how, in practice, the Zionist movement laid the foundations for the eventual state.

To engage in yishuv, settlement, is primarily a concept of property ownership. A Jew can fulfill the mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael simply by buying property in the land, even if that individual never resides in or develops that property. The importance here is to increase the amount of property in the land which is under Jewish control. This was long the primary mission of the Jewish National Fund, which in the pre-state British Mandate, collected funds from abroad for purchase of land in Israel. Arguably organizations like Ateret Cohanim, who buy property from Arabs in Jerusalem, are engaged in the same practice.

So important is this mitzvah that the Talmud declares (Talmud Bavli Gittin 8b, Bava Qama 80b) that should a Jew be approached on Shabbat, when financial transactions are forbidden, by a non-Jew wishing to sell him land in Israel, certain Rabbinical prohibitions are waived. Specifically, the Jew may turn to a gentile and ask him to write up the contract and conclude the deal to guard against the seller changing his mind.

To engage in yeshiva, however, requires that an individual physically relocate his life and livelihood to the Land of Israel, preferably on a permanent basis. The Halakha does not obligate a Jew who visits Eretz Yisrael to remain. Similarly, a Jewish resident may visit countries outside Eretz Yisrael. It is however true that a Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael is not permitted to uproot himself and move to another country on a permanent basis unless certain extenuating circumstances apply (see Rambam’s MT Melakhim 5:11 seq.).

Both mitzvot incumbent upon the individual are necessary preconditions for the fulfillment of the collective mitzvah of kibbush eretz yisrael, the conquest and control of the land. When there are sufficient numbers of Jews living here who own sufficient property to establish institutions of state and society, only then would they would have the capacity to exercise complete control over the land. This is the purpose of secular Zionism as understood by early religious Zionists like R’Kalisher and later R’Kook. Once Jewish control in a significant part of the land was achieved, strength could be built to serve the complete redemption of the land, as in the vision of R’Tzvi Yehudah Kook and the Gush Emunim movement. “Unfortunately,” notes the Rav, “the Gush Emunim movement, and R’Tzvi Yehudah Kook, did not correctly assess the task before them. This is a long discussion in itself.”

From a kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) and arguably haredi perspective, the moshiach (messiah) will come appointed by heaven to lead the Jewish people back to the Land of Israel and herald a prophetic end of days. From the perspective of many religious Zionists, R’Bar-Hayim, and even of the Rambam, this is not the vision of mosiach. The moshiach, R’Bar-Hayim suggested, is someone who will be the political leader of the Jewish people and who will succeed in his aims. If this person does not achieve the central aims of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, then he cannot be moshiach.

Political leadership of any kind, let alone Jewish political leadership, does not exist in a vacuum. There cannot be a king without a nation behind him and so too there cannot be a moshiach without a people ready to go into battle, literally or figuratively, for the cause for which he fights. This “realist” perspective of redemption has important political implications for a religious understanding of the fulfillment of the promised biblical borders of the Land of Israel.

R’Bar-Hayim acknowledges that the Torah has many different definitions of Eretz Yisrael; that there exist more than one set of borders in the biblical texts. “To speak rationally,” it cannot be expected that Israel would seek to control these borders, no matter how expansive, unless it had the realistic means to do so and it would not seriously threaten the lives of the people who do already live in the state. In other words, a biblical promise may exist that Israel’s borders will one day stretch from the “River of Egypt” (perhaps the Nile, a tributary of the Nile, or the Wadi El Arish) to the “Great River” (usually deemed to be the Euphrates but by some the Litani), but that does not mean that Israel should risk its very existence to control these borders.

He believes that most religious authorities accept that the post-1967 borders, including much of the Sinai, encompass much of those lands which are integral to the Land of Israel. With reference to territories east of the Jordan River, some like Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionists took the map of the whole British Mandate as the political map to which they aspired. “But why should this be relevant to us?” They accepted this map because it was politically relevant at the time; not because it had a firm grounding in halachah and Torah.

The least, however, we should understand that Israel should not be willing to give its homeland away. The Galilee, Jerusalem, Yehudah, and Shomron are the heartlands of Jewish history. “Anyone who claims otherwise is a villain or a fool.” The Palestinian national identity, he asserts, was unheard of before 1967 and represents a conspiracy to do away with the state of Israel. The Israeli leadership, however, “is so lacking in vision, that it never effectively contended with this narrative.” Instead, it has accepted the Palestinian narrative while trying to operate within it.

If Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, he believes it would pose a serious threat to the continued existence of the State of Israel. But this is not to say that Israel would not survive such a move. Sooner rather than later, the Arabs will attack, and Israel will respond and again define its borders. “If the Arabs were smart, they would have taken what they could in Oslo, and then prepared for a big push (for the rest of Israel) after statehood.” Instead, they were not prepared to wait and began attacking Israel before they were sufficiently powerful to win.

Israel survived 19 years within “Auschwitz borders.” But this was a situation which did not last, largely because the Arab states could not wait to conquer the rest. This loss of land was not the final, irrevocable death blow to the state, and neither would another withdrawal be if it occurred today. The belief that the State of Israel may have the ability to defend itself despite existing in non-ideal borders, however, should not be confused with a halachic opinion that it is permissible for Israel to surrender the homeland. The establishment and defense of the state may lie in human hands, but the legitimacy of Jewish title to the land does not.

9 thoughts on “Machon Shilo: Interview with R’David Bar-Hayim”

  1. I was poking around online to find a way to order R’Bar-Hayim’s sidur Nusach Eretz Yisrael and was happy to have read this. I (Robert Blum from Portland, OR) think I went to Camp Solomon Schechter with you although I’m not sure you would remember me…

  2. FYI … the Nusach Eretz Israel siddur is NOT done by David BarChayim … It was put together by one of his Talmidim …he added his approval at a later date.
    Also I dont believe he allows jews living outside of Israel to adopt the custom of eating kitniyot, it was psak written for Jews in Eretz Israel. As part of his argument is that the Minhag Hamakom of Eretz Israel is to eat Kitniyot. So if you are Askenazi and live in US or Europe you should double check what He says before you do this!!!

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