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Teaching Secular Israelis About Judaism: An Interview with Rabbi Shalom Hammer


Rabbi Shalom Hammer

Rabbi Shalom Hammer

First the Eybeshitz Haggadah and now Rav Eybeshitz on the Yamim Tovim. Rabbi Shalom Hammer, a motivational speaker for the IDF, has just published his second work containing the wisdom of one of the 18th century’s most famous rabbis – famous for his genius and famous for being accused by the zealous Rav Yaakov Emden of believing in the false mashiach Shabbetai Zvi.

Rabbi Hammer recently spoke with The Jewish Press about his new book, Derash Yehonatan: Around the Year with Rav Yehonatan Eybeshitz (Maggid Books), and his work in teaching Torah to secular Israelis.

The Jewish Press: How did this book come about?

Rabbi Hammer: I used to give a shiur on the haftarot, and I was enthralled when I came across Reb Yehonatan Eybeshitz’s perush, Ahavat Yehonatan. His genius was amazing… just the amount of different sources that he brings in from all different areas of Torah – Gemara, Midrash, Kabbalah – and the way he then intertwines them. I was very impressed, so I started getting into his sefarim.

Is it difficult translating him?

The Eybeshitz Haggadah and Derash Yehonatan are not really translations per se, because if you were to translate Reb Yehonatan Eybeshitz directly, it would make no sense to the English speaker because he goes off on many tangents. So you kind of have to chop him up, rearrange, and then translate.

Have your two Eybeshitz books been well received?

I don’t know what well received means in the Jewish book world. Everything’s relative.

On your website, you’re described as a motivational speaker. What does that mean?

The rabbinate of the Israeli army has a division which is called the Jewish Identity Branch. Basically we do two things. Number one, we motivate chayalim in the IDF with ideology. There are many soldiers today who do not know the basics of Judaism. So we try to present Judaism in regards to how it relates to our nation, how it relates to our land, what they’re fighting for, etc.

Are the soldiers receptive?

I give three classes a week in the army jail, so you’re dealing with a type of clientele who at the very onset is not so motivated. So when I speak to them, it’s more about giving them inspiration, something to live for, and understanding that they shouldn’t see their army service as a burden but rather as a privilege.

What’s your next project?

I believe very strongly that the future of Israel is contingent upon teaching Israelis, mainly secular Israelis, Judaism. Not religion and not forcing them into religion, but Judaism – meaning, Jewish ideas, Jewish basics, Jewish foundations, without any agenda whatsoever of religious observance. So I started giving classes on Judaism and Jewish perspectives on different things going on in the country to secular kibbutzim and secular moshavim.

And it’s going very well. As long as you clear the air and they realize that there’s no threat of religiosity they’re very receptive.

As far as writing goes, I plan on doing two books. One is discussions with certain rabbis on major issues plaguing the Jewish world – what they have to say about that. And the second is a book that might be based on my experiences in the army and with secular Jews in Israel, which I think should also be revealing.

Concerning your first project, what exactly do you mean by Judaism without religion? Isn’t the importance of deed – ritual mitzvos – one of the points of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity? Don’t we believe that ideas and faith must be concretized in action?

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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