When one hears the name “Kahane,” one generally thinks of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane (1932-1990), founder of the Jewish Defense League in the United States and the Kach Party in Israel. But this controversial figure had a younger brother, Rabbi Nachman Kahana, who is an accomplished personality in his own right. He authored a 15-volume exposition of Tosafot (“Mei Menuchot”), served as rav of the Chazon Yechezkel Synagogue in Jerusalem for 32 years, and was av beit din of the “Nascent Sanhedrin” established in 2004. He is also the author of “With All Your Might,” a three-volume collection of divrei Torah. He recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: You’re a rabbi, your brother was rabbi, and your father was a rabbi – does the “rabbi gene” run deep in your family?
Rabbi Kahana: Yes, on both sides. My mother told me there were 16 generations of rabbis before me. My grandfather was on the beit din of the great Meir Simcha of Dvinsk and knew the whole Shas by heart, word by word. On my father’s side, we have a family tradition that we are direct descendants of Ezra, who rebuilt the Second Temple.
You made aliyah in 1962, but you apparently had a great-grandfather, a Sanzer chassid, who made aliyah a century before you. Is that correct?
Yes. My great-grandfather, Baruch David Kahane, left Galicia for Tzefat in 1863. When he decided to go, the Sanzer Rebbe said to him, “I’d like you to be my messenger to establish Sanzer chassidim in Tzefat.” So my great-grandfather established the Sanzer beis medrash in Tzefat – which is functioning until today.
My grandfather Nachman was born here in Eretz Yisrael. He married a woman named Feiga, who was a descendant of Rav Yaakov Emden, and they had eight children, one of whom was my father. During the First World War, everything was destroyed since the Turks took everything edible as they retreated. So my grandfather took my father to Europe to learn in yeshiva, and he learned in the city of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) for several years. Then he went to study at the Chatam Sofer Yesiva in Pressburg, and later came to the United States where he was rav of a shul in Brooklyn for 40 years.
So you were born and raised in America.
Yes. The neighborhood we lived in was not Jewish at all. The people were of Italian and Irish extraction, and it was not easy. There were physical fights very often.
But my family was very much involved with Eretz Yisrael. During the 1940s when the Underground was trying to throw out the British, my father was one of the heads of the Revisionists. He and others would buy weapons and clandestinely send them to Eretz Yisrael because there was an American embargo against sending arms to [the Middle East]. I recall coming home one day and it was like Tisha B’Av in my family. My father was so sad, my mother was crying. What happened? There was an arms cache hidden on the roof of the Lubavitch yeshiva that was supposed to go to the Underground which the FBI had discovered and confiscated.
So I grew up in a different kind of family. There was the spirit of Eretz Yisrael in the house. It was not a normal American Jewish family. I knew from a very young age that I was going to Eretz Yisrael. It was not even a question.
Growing up, did you also know you were going to be a rabbi?
Originally I wanted to be a movie director. I wanted to be able to play God, to create my own world. But I very quickly discovered that it wasn’t practical. So when I became 18 or 19, I decided to become a rabbi.
What motivated you to write Mei Menuchot, your 15-volume series on Tosafot?
The Tosafot are the gateway to the rishonim. But the Tosafot are very difficult to learn because they were authored by geniuses, for geniuses. They did not write for our generation. So I authored a linear explanation of what the Tosafot mean. And I finished 130 chapters of the Gemara; it’s 35,000 pieces of Tosafot and 42 years of work. Now I’m writing other things. I just published a book in Hebrew, Hagut, which means “Thoughts.” It’s 180 articles or essays on all the various facets of life as a religious Jew in Israel.
You’re a proponent of building the third Beit HaMikdash. Why do you favor this move and what do you say to people who argue that we must wait for Mashiach to take this step?
The word “Mashiach” is very dangerous. It is equal to “Do nothing, push everything off to the next day.” It’s a sleeping pill. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to go to Israel, you don’t have to build – just wait for the Mashiach to come.
I know it’s impossible to build the Beit HaMikdash today because of various negative factors – the Muslims, the government, etc. But if you don’t dream, it’s not going to happen. You have to educate people for the day when it’s going to happen.
What was it like growing up the brother of Meir Kahane?
Meir Kahane was not “Meir Kahane” when I was in America. He became what you call “Meir Kahane” in the years that I was in Eretz Yisrael and he was not. When he founded the Jewish Defense League, I was in Israel. But before I came here, we learned together half a day, every day, for three years. We were very close.
How about after he made aliyah himself in 1971? Was it difficult being the brother of such a controversial figure then?
No, I didn’t have any complexes like that. But I wasn’t in the Kach Party. My family is much more “Israeli.” The JDL is something which is – I wouldn’t say anti-establishment but it was outside the points of reference of mainline Israelis. My family and I are mainline Israelis.
You were the rabbi of a shul in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter for over 30 years. Was that difficult?
No. I never once had trouble with the Arabs. There is a respect Muslims have for someone who is religious. And there is also an understanding that the Old City should be outside violence. It’s too explosive; it doesn’t pay.
Some people believe Jews can get along with Arabs as long as our respective positions in society are clear. Do you think your own experience supports this thesis?
The Torah and the Koran cannot get along together. There will always be friction. When I say we got along, it’s not that I loved them and they loved me. We both dreamt that tomorrow the other one would disappear. But we lived in a social kind of a way. Nonetheless, we both claim this land and that cannot continue for very long. Something has to change. Every inch of Eretz Yisrael belongs to the Jewish people – and only to the Jewish people. Gentiles – Christians or Muslims, it doesn’t matter – can only live here if they agree that the masters of the land are the Jewish people. If they don’t, they have no right to stay.