It is hard to conceive of a more repugnant editorial than the one published in Friday’s Jerusalem Post entitled “Wayward rabbis” (Apparently the title was deemed so negative that it was changed in the online editions.) The editorial castigates our nation’s rabbinical leadership for its opposition to the proposed government reforms in kashrut supervision and conversion and for good measure lambastes them for adhering to the Torah’s moral standards that are at odds with Western values. Perfect timing, indeed, like editorializing on Chanukah against the Maccabees for their fidelity to Jewish tradition and antagonism to Hellenism.
One might think that the opposition of the leading rabbis in the country to reforms of Jewish law and practice would mute the ardor of proponents of those reforms. After all, who but the rabbis are better situated to opine on such matters, given their dedication, years of study and experience? It is lost on the editorialists that merely being Jewish does not make one an expert on Judaism.
Imagine, for a moment, that the nation’s leading doctors joined together and opposed a particular government edict regarding the Coronavirus. (They probably should, but that is a different topic altogether.) No one would consider condemning those physicians for their opinions or suggest that they be fired, silenced, prosecuted or replaced by more “diverse” and accommodating doctors. In fact, one would be foolish not to strongly consider their recommendations or their resistance to a given approach, seeing that they have studied medicine and others have not. Editorialists have routinely denounced governments across the globe for not following the doctors, the science, or the data.
Why then are doctors’ opinions treated with greater deference than is accorded to the Rabbis? Why do some people value the guidance of physicians but belittle the guidance of rabbis?
The answer is multifaceted. In the worst sense, it reflects the attitude of the heretic (noted in Masechet Sanhedrin 99b) of “Mai ahanu rabanan?” How have the rabbis ever benefited us? But that itself presupposes a cavalier attitude towards Judaism, as if Jewish law doesn’t matter at all and the Torah offered us suggestions but not commandments, suggestions that we can spurn if we don’t like them. And Westerners struggle with obeisance to any authority figure.
More typically, this dismissive posture reflects an approach to Judaism, and often religion generally, as something that lacks real substance or gravitas. To them, religion is meant to be fluff. Feelings count more than do facts or laws, and since we can intuit the right and wrong ways to live, who needs rabbis? So if the Western rejection of traditional morality feels right, that must be Judaism. If people want to join Judaism for whatever reason, they should be allowed to, no questions asked, because that too is Judaism. If a ritual does not speak to one’s sensibility, then abandon it or reform it. Science is real, Torah is not real. As such, we would sound like fools if we laymen offered amateurish opinions on physics or medicine, but Torah? Apparently, everyone can have an opinion and claim it is legitimate, even journalists and pilots. It completely dismisses the rigor, dedication and discipline needed to acquire expertise in Torah.
That conceptual error engenders the view of rabbis as mere functionaries, or in the words of the editorial, “there to provide services.” What a constricted and ultimately embarrassing and uneducated view of the rabbinate! I am reminded of the old school rabbinate whose primary purposes were to be available to Jews to “hatch ‘em, latch ‘em, and dispatch ‘em” (meaning present at the Brit, where actually a mohel but not a rabbi is needed; there to officiate at a wedding, which today’s reformers also want to revise; and present at a funeral, where technically speaking a rabbi is also not required). It was the rabbi as supervisor of life cycle events, called upon to spout a few platitudes to which no one paid much attention, and then to be ushered aside.
But that conception of the rabbinate died decades ago. Its death was hastened by the collapse of the non-Orthodox movements in America whose members, among other things, began to largely tune out their spiritual leaders who responded by supporting every new ideological and immoral fad in the hope of remaining relevant. That failed miserably and the toll it has taken in assimilation and intermarriage is so steep that those who shepherded those catastrophes now extol the virtues of assimilation and intermarriage – and want a seat at the table to plan the Jewish future.
“Who is a Jew,” by conversion or otherwise, is a Torah issue, a rabbinic issue, and not a governmental or journalistic concern. No Jew has authorized the Knesset to determine matters of Jewish law – not to decide Jewishness, move Shabbat to Tuesday or permit the consumption of cheeseburgers. Israel has many Muslim and Christian citizens, and it would obviously be preposterous if the Knesset took it upon itself to liberalize conversion to Islam or Christianity on its own authority. Israel can rightly decide who can be Israelis but not who can be Jews. That is up to the rabbis, and properly so.
Similarly, the definition of sin or mitzvah, right and wrong, moral or immoral is a Torah issue, a rabbinic issue, for which guidance should be sought and accepted. To chastise rabbis for espousing Jewish morality is as absurd as chastising doctors for prescribing antibiotics. Neither pressure nor parades will change that. As faithful Jews perceive it, matters of the spirit are in fact more real than matter of the body, for the former is eternal and the latter temporal.
The narrow minded view of Judaism as just ceremonies, meals and feelings is self-defeating in the extreme. Whether or not Israelis recognize it, our claim to the land of Israel is rooted in the Torah. To the extent that we diminish the Torah, reform or revise it to suit transient trends, we undermine our claim to the land. It is this same mentality that gives rise to the notion of the Kotel as an historical site that should be available for all forms of worship rather than a sacred place of traditional Jewish prayer, in the shadow of the holiest place on earth, the Temple Mount.
It is obvious that matters of Jewish law should remain the province of the authorized decisors of Jewish law rather than politicians or journalists. But rabbis should also be emboldened to speak out more, not less, on public issues that touch on moral, ethical and political matters. (Here’s a good laugh line: the editorial asked “Would we allow a situation in which a Supreme Court justice would openly voice his or her opinion on controversial political issues?” It is as if they never heard of Aharon Barak, who of course claimed that everything was justiciable, not political – as long as it suited his preferred ideological conclusions.)
Rabbis must be wary of being used as mere functionaries. Here is a good example. Rather than recite a chapter of tehillim at the state ceremonies for Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (which an eight year old can do), wouldn’t it be more meaningful if the Chief Rabbis actually spoke words of Torah – instead of the annual clichés of the President, Prime Minister, Chief of Staff, etc. – about the ultimate meaning of these events, the State of Israel, the prophesies of exilic calamities and eventual return to the land of Israel? That perspective, that analysis, is sorely lacking in these somber events.
What do rabbis do? True, they interpret the Torah in line with tradition, they decide questions of Jewish law, and they guide Jews (and even sometimes Gentiles) through the vicissitudes of life. But primarily, they are to be voices of Jewish morality and reason, especially when they run counter to modern life. They are here, to the best of their abilities, to bring a divine perspective to events and challenges, even if they won’t always agree on every conclusion. The criticism of “how have the rabbis ever benefited us?” was directed at rabbis “who study the Torah and the Mishnah for their own benefit” and never engage in public affairs.
Ironically, these wayward journalists want just that – rabbis who remain in the House of Study, uninvolved with the public, to be trotted out for ceremonies, and then duly criticized for their aloofness. But here is another irony. Today’s Chief Rabbis, for example, engage with the public far more than any Cabinet Minister or Knesset member ever does. They engage daily, teaching, guiding, interacting, and sharing the eternal wisdom of our Creator.
It is a shame that many journalists, wedded to their own agendas, do not see it. If they even tasted it, they would savor the Torah as the elixir of life and the rabbis as purveyors of goodness and wisdom. And together we would build an Israel that is proudly Jewish, awaiting the coming redemption.