Born outside of Montreal in 1928, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch has spent the past four decades in Israel where he has labored on a detailed, 23-volume commentary on Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah—an encyclopedic code of Jewish law—that is now near completion. Rabinovitch has aimed to elucidate the text’s meaning, and to harmonize the Mishneh Torah with Maimonides’ major philosophical treatise, the Guide of the Perplexed. Allan Nadler, who deems Rabinovitch’s work “the most systematic, comprehensive commentary on Maimonides’ code ever produced,” describes its author’s intellectual approach and career:
His extraordinary career and accomplishments notwithstanding, Rabbi Rabinovitch is hardly known to diaspora Jews, even those steeped in the rabbinic tradition. . . . As a rabbi, he cedes his judgment and authority to no religious organization, political party, or venerated Orthodox rabbinic tribunal. . . . He also has shown a brave indifference to the single most powerful religious institution in the Jewish state, Israel’s chief rabbinate. Three years ago, together with Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and David Stav, Rabinovitch established an independent [rabbinic court] to handle the cases of the thousands of Israeli candidates for conversion to Judaism with greater compassion, efficiency, and leniency than had been shown by state-sanctioned rabbinic courts. . . .
To the extent that Rabinovitch has a public reputation, it is as a liberal on the one hand and a hardline ultra-rightist on the other. The first reputation is due to his principled break with Israel’s chief rabbinate on their intolerant approach to conversion. By contrast, based on a few rather shocking political statements, Rabinovitch has become erroneously labeled as a messianic Zionist extremist. Although Rabinovitch is on the political right in Israel, this is a terrible distortion.
In fact, one of the most striking aspects of Rabinovitch’s philosophy of Judaism is its universalist humanism. He has, it must be acknowledged, said some incendiary things. . . . [R]ecently, he inexcusably compared members of the Knesset with members of the notorious Judenräte (Jewish councils) in the Nazi ghettos. Such extreme remarks are the result of his passionate but thoroughly un-messianic conviction that territorial compromise is a mortal danger to Israel and its citizens. Rabinovitch, who is by nature a lenient halakhist, tolerates no compromise, seeing it in the context of the obligation to save human lives. In short, on this one issue, his passionate humanism buttresses his extremism.
At the same time, Rabinovitch’s profound concern for the sanctity of human life has led him to take what might be termed “liberal” views that are not shared by the large majority of Religious Zionist rabbis. . . . Throughout his work, including a 2006 volume of responsa to queries from IDF soldiers, Rabinovitch insists on treating Gentiles, all Gentiles, regardless of their religion (barring ancient idolatry) or the degree of their hatred of Jews and Israel, as fellow human beings with all the rights that implies. . . . This view also leads Rabinovitch to rule that it is incumbent on medics in the IDF and Israeli doctors, as well as any bystanders who can assist, to treat and save the lives of Arab combatants, even those of terrorists wounded in the course of attacking Israelis (and even on the Sabbath).