The Bridge-Building Work of Jeffery Woolf
A leading spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy who holds a PhD in Medieval Jewish History from Harvard, Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf is well positioned to communicate his perspective about where Israel’s Jewish community has been, and where it’s going. So if you ask him to take the pulse of the body politic, he has a ready answer: for today’s Jews, he says, he has good news, and bad news.
“The good news is that there’s a renaissance of Jewish identity among secular and traditional Jews in Israel,” says Woolf, a Senior Lecturer in the BIU Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud. “The bad news is that, because of a lack of Jewish literacy – or because of the cultural and communal indifference of the mainstream religious community – the needs of these people are not being met. In the midst of a feast, they’re dying of hunger.”
Raised in the US, Woolf studied for nearly a decade under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and received his doctorate from Harvard’s Rabbi Prof. Isadore Twersky. Today, Woolf believes – like his mentors before him – that a true Torah scholar has nothing to fear from intensive interaction with Western culture. “Rav Soloveitchik used to say that, along with Rambam’s traditional thirteen, there’s a 14th article of faith: that the Torah has nothing to fear from engaging with the world,” Woolf asserts. “By communicating Torah values while demonstrating a command of, and respect for, Western culture, it becomes possible to build bridges. The encounter also enriches our own inner lives. The point is not to back away, but to invest in deeper communication between Jews."
Well known for reaching across the aisle to promote intra-faith understanding, Woolf says that, in Israel, compartmentalization can make communication difficult. “The national religious are more engaged than the ultra-orthodox, but they still hold themselves apart,” he says. “While Jewish and Western values are sometimes at odds, cultural and social alienation between different sectors of Israeli society will cause long-term harm. “We speak Hebrew, but we don’t understand each other,” he says. “It’s a dialogue of the deaf.”
Along with his teaching, research and writing, Woolf has worked hard to communicate the beauty of Judaism throughout his career, while creating the infrastructure needed to address problems that threaten to keep Jews apart.
He was the founder of the Orthodox Roundtable, an American halakhic “think tank” which framed the discussion of every major issue addressed by the Orthodox community in the past two decades. Woolf was also the first Executive Chairman of Yeshiva University's Orthodox Caucus, and a moving force behind the RCA Pre-Nuptial Agreement – something that Woolf considers one of his most important achievements.
In Israel, Woolf helped launch the Lavi Conference – a framework that sought to advance a uniquely Israeli vision of Modern Orthodoxy. Its idea was to strengthen the Jewish world by forthrightly addressing the challenges posed to Judaism by (post) modern society, while protecting the integrity of Jewish tradition.
Ultimately, however, communication is the key. “Even with total media access, it’s hard to express a million-dollar idea within the ‘small change’ of a TV soundbyte,” Woolf says.
“Religiously observant academics – a niche filled by many BIU faculty members – have a 2critical role to play because they have the knowledge and the communication skills needed to convey the Torah in a manner that will command the respect of an intelligent audience.”
Again quoting Rav Soloveitchik, Woolf says that a Torah scholar should seek to be heroic – and humble. “It takes courage to engage in the world, and also takes courage to recognize that we don’t know how to solve every problem. My wife always reminds me of something that her mother is wont to say: that when you’re spreading the word of Torah, you need to remember that – with all our big ideas – our sages were very smart people, too.”