Israel – the land and the nation – lost a giant earlier this month with the passing of Justice Menachem Elon, a monumental talmid chacham who served on the Israeli Supreme Court from 1977-1993, and as its deputy president from 1988-93, bringing a deep Torah viewpoint to the highest tiers of the Israeli judiciary.
Menachem Elon was born in Germany in 1923. His family fled a year before the Nazis rose to power, making their way to Israel in 1935. He studied at the Hebron Yeshiva where he was known as an illuy, a young genius, and it was from there that he received his semicha. He earned his law degree from the Tel Aviv School of Law and Economics in 1948 and served as military prosecutor of the 9th Brigade during the War of Independence.
By 1954 he was already teaching law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Over the next several years, as he moved up the academic ranks, he served as a guest lecturer and visiting professor at Oxford and Harvard, among other universities; held senior editorial positions at such publications as the Encyclopedia Judaica and Encyclopedia Hebraica; and authored the foundational work on Jewish commercial law (discussed below) as one of the founders of the Mishpat Ivri movement.
He held several positions in government, including senior assistant to the attorney general of Israel, and adviser on Jewish law to the Israeli Ministry of Justice. In 1979 he was awarded the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest honor, for his work in jurisprudence. In 1983 he narrowly lost to Chaim Herzog in the election for president of Israel. In 1993, he was elected president of the World Union of Jewish Studies, a role he served in until 2005.
I could go on for pages listing just some of the accomplishments of Justice Elon, a man who was a selfless public servant and a loyal representative and champion of Religious Zionism – a man who single-handedly influenced an entire nation and civic system and who undoubtedly was one of the most influential and important scholars of the modern study of Jewish law.
I knew him as all those things – and as a caring and committed teacher.
When I went to NYU Law School from Yeshiva University, I was very wet behind the ears, neither mature nor learned. Furthermore, the advice I received from my own rebbeim at YU was that I should not really expect to do any serious learning while in the first year of law school, as the work load would be both heavy and hard.
So I crafted my schedule around that expectation – minyan in the morning, followed by a chavruta learning of Gemara Berachot with Aryeh Klein for 45 minutes, followed by hours of class and study; Minchah at 2:45 in Professor Lawrence King’s office followed by many more hours of class and study; Maariv, sometimes at the Courant Institute minyan, sometimes by myself in the law library.
But that all changed one day when I bumped into Rabbi Dr. Menachem Elon in the law school and started to speak with him. Rabbi Elon was spending that year as the visiting Gruss professor of Talmudic Civil Law, on leave from the Israeli Supreme Court following his unsuccessful campaign for Israel’s presidency. The truth is, I had almost no idea who he was at the time – I knew he was an Israeli Supreme Court justice, and that was impressive, but I had almost no knowledge of who he really was: a grand Torah scholar with a crisp theory of how halacha works and its relationship to secular law.
We met regularly during my first year of law school to speak about how halacha views many different aspects of the first-year law school curriculum I was taking. It was my first real exposure to the ideas now found in Rabbi Dr. Eliav Shochatman’s masterful work Seder Hadin, which really is at its core Jewish civil procedure, and I developed a more complete understanding of contract law in halacha, as well as some working Jewish insights into the rest of the first year curriculum. I imbibed more Torah than I ever expected to that year, much of it from informal lunch conversations with my newfound mentor, Justice Elon.