Rabbi Dr Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch

Talmudic scholar who saw Judaism as a catalyst for the evolution of moral values


One of the most impressive Torah scholars to have taught in Anglo Jewry, Rabbi Dr Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, who has died aged 92, was Principal of Jews College, London from 1971 to 1983. As a talmudic scholar, halachic authority, mathematics professor, historian of science and author of a multi-volume commentary to Maimonides’s law code, the Mishnah Torah, he was a living embodiment of Torah u-madda, Torah and science.

For the last 38 years of a long and active life, he was head of the Hesder Yeshiva Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, and was widely recognised as one of the leading scholars in the religious Zion ist community. He developed a bold approach to Jewish law, and was especially encouraging of the role of women as halachic advisers. His combination of encyclopaedic Jewish knowledge, familiarity with a broad range of secular disciplines, human sensitivity, psychological realism and moral courage made him an exceptional exponent of Jewish law.

Born in Montréal, Canada, in 1928, he began studying Talmud with Rabbi Pinhas Hirschsprung at the age of 14. In 1948, he enrolled in Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore, where he studied with, and obtained rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman. He also studied mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, where he obtained a Master’s degree, later completing a doctorate at the University of Toronto on probability and statistical inference in ancient and medieval Jewish literature. While in Baltimore, he met and married his beloved wife Rachel Shuchatowitz.

From 1951 to 1955, he served as the rabbi of a Jewish community in Dallas, Texas, and then until 1963 in Charleston, South Carolina. He described his time there in the preface to his book of talmudic studies, Hadar Itamar. It is clear that, though he enjoyed serving the community, he found it less than challenging in its level of Torah scholarship. Towards the end of this period, he was offered the position of Chief Rabbi of Johannesburg as successor to Rabbi Doctor Louis Rabinowitz. He declined on the grounds that he could not, in conscience, live in an apartheid state.

In 1963, he accepted the role of rabbi of the Clanton Park synagogue in Toronto. He also taught mathematics at the University of Toronto and was an editor of Hadarom, the journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.

His particular focus was on contemporary issues in Jewish law, and it was in this field that he developed his bold approach to halachic decision-making, which became a notable feature of his later role within the religious Zionist community. His responsa are collected in the volumes, Melumdei Milchamah and Siach Nachum.

In 1971, he came to London to take up the role as Principal of Jews’ College, Anglo Jewry’s rabbinic training centre. It is fair to say that his 12 years in Anglo-Jewry were not entirely happy ones. The college had relatively few students, its finances were in poor shape, and the particular type of Torah scholarship he represented was not, at that time, widely appreciated. Prior to taking up the appointment, he had been assured that a Yeshiva high school would be created, to act as a feeder for the college. That never materialised. His students during those years were, nonetheless, aware of his greatness, as were a select number of lay people. He left a lasting mark on those who studied with him.

He had always wanted to live in Israel, and when the opportunity to do so presented itself, he accepted with alacrity. In 1983, he became the head of the Hesder yeshiva Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, founded six years earlier by Rabbis Haim Sabato and Yitzchak Sheilat. It is said of Rabbi Sabato that, after hearing Rabbi Rabinovitch for the first time, he immediately offered him the position. It was there that he found happiness and fulfilment, taking enormous pride in his thousands of students, both for their intellectual and spiritual achievements and for their courage while serving in Israel’s Defence Forces.

He devoted 50 years to writing his magnum opus, Yad Peshutah, his commentary to Maimonides’s law code, the Mishneh Torah. This is a momentous work of deceptive simplicity, showing how Maimonides understood the talmudic argument in each case, revealing his sources and inner logic. Rabbi Rabinovitch set out his own philosophy of Judaism in his Darkah shel Torah, subsequently expanded and published as Mesilot Bilvavam. He saw Judaism as a catalyst for the evolution of moral values in history, adopting many of the insights of Maimonides’s The Guide for the Perplexed. He believed that human freedom is a fundamental value in Judaism and was thus critical of religious coercion in Israel.

Unafraid of controversy, in 2015, at the age of 87, he agreed to become head of Giyur ke-Halachah, the conversion court designed to make the process of conversion easier, especially for children of Russian immigrants. He believed this to be essential to avoid major rifts in Israeli society in the future.

Predeceased by his wife Rachel and daughter Dina, he is survived by five of his children, Tovit, Mordechai, Tamar, Shoshana and Yonatan. We will miss his wisdom, clarity and courage.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch:
born April 30 1928. Died May 6 2020

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive