Passover: Free At Last

Every year as we approach Passover, the Jewish Holiday which celebrates freedom, I struggle with the same question; what is the definition of freedom and how does it reveal itself in the context of the modern world in which we live today? Deriving a suitable answer can be challenging, yet it is the objective of the entire holiday. On the one hand we are required to reflect upon the enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt, an event which transpired millennia ago and which should be foreign to us. On the other hand it is difficult for us to comprehend freedom in a world which inundates us with pressure and obligations. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah obligates us on the Seder night to impart the message of Passover and the Exodus by way of a story. Stories conjure our imagination, they encourage dramatic reenactment and they stimulate perspective; and so in preparation for Passover I would like to share the following personal experiences which I believe will help augment our comprehension of what Judaism calls freedom.

I offer lectures and classes on Judaism to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim across the country. A few weeks ago I contacted a fellow who was in charge of cultural events in the secular moshav, Tzur Natan, regarding my coming by to offer one of my presentations. He told me he was interested and asked me to call him back in a few days to further explore my proposal. When I called him back two days later the fellow informed me that his mother had just died and he was thankful that I called because he wanted to fulfill the traditional Jewish laws of mourning but he was not sure how to do so and he was in need of guidance. Baring in mind that we had briefly spoken on the phone only once before and had actually never met, he explained how he did not know any rabbis and asked if I would assist as his rabbi, to which I obliged. Two days later I called the man from Tzur Natan to inquire about his welfare. He explained to me that he would be honored if I would deliver a class regarding Jewish unity on the seventh day of mourning, Shushan Purim, to honor the memory of his mother; again I obliged. And so, this Shushan Purim I did not participate in my families traditional Purim meal in Jerusalem because I went to Tzur Natan to offer and deliver a message on Jewish unity to a group of secular Jews I was not acquainted with, to honor the memory of a woman I had never met, out of respect for a man I simply did not know.

The man from Tzur Natan frequently calls me to ask questions and discuss fundamentals of Judaism; I have become his confidant and last week after discussing a particular law pertaining to his mourning period he proclaimed,
“Rabbi, I am glad that I have found someone who I feel comfortable enough to ask my questions to. You have helped me achieve freedom”.

Freedom from a Jewish perspective is not defined by a person’s physical status or financial security; it is a qualitative experience which even someone in mourning at the height of despair can derive greater understanding of by aspiring towards a more purposeful existence.

This past Shabbat I was in Hispin in attendance of the annual Shabbat with the Jewish Identity Branch of lecturers of the IDF to which I belong. The Jewish Identity Branch of the IDF consists of a group of handpicked lecturers and educators who, regardless of their differences, all share the same objective; to infuse the soldiers with a sense of identity and purpose. Our talks are void of anything which might be interpreted as religious coercion or political affiliation. Our words reveal our mission; to remind the soldiers of who they are and what they represent and to inspire them to believe that identifying with their past is key to preserving the Jewish people’s future. I wait in anticipation for this Shabbat because it is the only time during the year, at least that I am aware of, when a most diverse crowd of Chabad Hassidim, Haredim, Religious Zionists from the center of the country, Mitnachlim from the settlements along the West Bank, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, agree to put aside all of their differences and disagreements and congregate for one purpose and with one goal in mind. No one is interested in discussing our differences nor does anyone show any sign of discomfort because of them, quite the contrary, each and every one of us are genuinely concerned with learning from one another and disclosing our successes and failures. One of the places I visit every week is an army prison in which a number of those imprisoned include Haredi young men who refuse to serve in an army of a country and a government which they delegitimize. I expressed my frustration to the group over Shabbat and how difficult it was for me to offer a presentation which was meant to motivate and infuse the same principals of Zionism and Idealism which some of these young men rejected in the first place; to me this represented a personal conflict of interest. In response, one of the Haredi lecturers who was listening to me advised that I should try to see beyond the outer appearances of these young men, after all, he explained, many of them were lost and were just looking for someone or something to give meaning to their lives.  He explained that in the end of the day these were young men who needed help and any hint of inspiration in their lives could potentially encourage them towards a more substantial life. Here I was being politely told by a Haredi fellow that I should try to see beyond the periphery and that I should concentrate on the important task at hand. I was reminded that this Shabbat we unite for the sake of furthering the mission of our organization. This one Shabbat our concerns and perspectives were the same. This one Shabbat we would focus upon the soldiers, their ideals and the awesome contributions they make to help ensure national security and what we could continue to do to infuse them with the strength to continue to do so. This one Shabbat we would be truly free; free of disparity, free of espousing political alignments, free of casting suspicions. This one Shabbat we would declare that we are free men graced with a shared objective and working towards a common ideology.

Jewish freedom is not defined by the man; it is distinguished by an objective and completed with intent. Jean-Paul Sartre said,

“freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”; indeed, there is much to be done for the sake of our freedom and much more freedom to be had by all.

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Conversion Law: The Wind of Change

A young man who works for the police called me this week and explained to me that after having been married for a few years and unable to bare children, he and his wife opted for surrogate motherhood. Seeing as this would prove to be a rather expensive venture in Israel, the couple hired a surrogate mother from the Ukraine and was blessed with twins. Although not observant, the young man was sensitive enough to realize that he was confronted with a serious question regarding the Jewish status of his children and he wanted to certify that his children would be unquestionably included as members of the Jewish nation. He approached the Chief rabbinate prepared to have his children undergo conversion or any process which would guarantee his newborn’s Jewish status according to the strict letter of the halacha yet he was completely unprepared for the response he was about to receive. After hearing the young man’s concern, the rabbi told him that he himself would have to first become religiously observant and only then would the rabbi be willing to discuss the newborn’s Jewishness. Naturally the young man, who was taken aback by the tactless pronouncement and the insensible rabbinic figure in front of him, told the rabbi that if this was the case he too was not interested in being Jewish. 

Unfortunately these experiences and encounters are becoming fairly commonplace. The bureaucratic approach to Judaism and the impervious bedside manner exhibited by rabbinic authorities today has had and continues to have detrimental effects on Israeli society. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is supposed to represent a Religious Zionist institution which means that its approach should be embracing its authority should be inclusive and its organization should be objective; sadly this is not the case. I have warned many times that the more the institution of the rabbinate concerns itself with the letter of the law without showing concern for the people upon whom they wish to enforce the law, the more irrelevant it will become. I am often reminded of Rabbi Unterman, Chief Rabbi of Israel 1964-1972 who lobbied for tolerance towards secular Jews and wrote mostly about religious conversion and marital law, who explained that the difference between the American and Israeli rabbinate is that “the American Rabbinate has no power and tremendous influence; while the Israeli Rabbinate has tremendous power and little influence”.

Over the past years little has been done by the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbinate concerning the problem of defining and possibly ratifying “who is a jew”, little has been proposed regarding conversions and there has certainly been insufficient if any response regarding the Conservative (Masorti) and Reform Rabbinate and movements who have demanded some sort of credibility and who are growing increasingly appealing to the broader Israeli public. The Chief Rabbinate must uphold the proper standards of the halacha, but it should also recognize that it is a people’s institution and that the people in Israel, observant and secular alike, expect tolerance, patience, understanding and diplomacy from their religious leadership. Under such pretenses the new conversion law proposed by MK Elazar Stern of Hatenua is befitting and comforting at the same time.

Stern’s law proposes that conversions should no longer be centrally allocated and controlled by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem but rather there should be courts of law established throughout the country. Three designated rabbis (constituting a beit din) in each city would preside over local conversions and proposed converts can proceed in the city and beit din of their choice and preference. This would lessen the burden of a central authority, enable the smaller courts to confront the issue with less pressure and hopefully nurture a more personable rapport between the rabbis and the residents. (I believe this concept originated by the way from Jethro who advised his son in law Moses to train other scholars to perform the many duties which Moses did not have the time, patience or proper frame of mind to deal with on his own). Stern is not proposing any compromise in halacha, as some of those who oppose the law suggest, rather he seems interested in facilitating an amicable connection between rabbis and those who must follow their directives regardless of the fact that they don’t subscribe to the same beliefs. The Chief Rabbinate claims it is opposed to the law out of concern that it can potentially nurture “freelance conversions” which can compromise the integrity of what is supposed to be a rigorous conversion process. This may be so but I suspect part of their concern is the fact that they may simply lose the “power” referred to above.

Since Stern introduced the law there has been a two week hiatus which allows for all concerned parties to mull it over and entertain solutions; in my opinion the solution is fairly obvious. Smaller courts should be established to guide, rule and direct the people case by case for the reasons mentioned above while the larger chief rabbinate should be responsible exclusively for supervising and overseeing the duties of the smaller courts including setting the standards of conversions and halachic guidelines for them as well. Both of the courts will feel less pressure, the city courts will deal with their clientele more personably (in fact as a result of what will hopefully be a more understanding approach and patient process the person undergoing the conversion may develop a connection with the rabbi and perhaps  continue to seek his guidance on more issues which he may face as a Jew living in Israel) while the role of the chief rabbinate as a halachic authority will remain intact except now they will be dealing directly with courts and rabbis as opposed to dealing with the people who may have misunderstood their reason and purpose to begin with.

This law does not solve all of the problems with the institution of the chief rabbinate but it can initiate a progressive mindset and a more supportive and responsive system.

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America’s Jewish Identity is Contingent Upon Israel’s Jewish Identity

This past week Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister, Naftali Bennett, proposed an initiative to spend NIS 1 billion a year on programming in order to help bolster the identity of Jews living overseas. Bennett’s strategic plan for the Diaspora, known as the World Jewry Joint Initiative, is collaboration between his ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency, and its goal is to work with Jewish communities abroad to formulate and fund programs to prevent assimilation. At first glance the proposal is commendable yet upon reflection it is actually cause for concern. While the initiative demonstrates a vested interest in defusing assimilation and promoting Jewish affiliation in the United States, it also represents yet another failure to recognize and deal with the most pressing problem which is threatening the Jewish community in Israel; the deficiency in bolstering Jewish Identity.

As a lecturer for the Jewish Identity Branch of the Rabbinate in the IDF, I come across many secular youth and soldiers who are not only unaffiliated with their Jewish heritage and unacquainted with our forefathers who founded our tradition, but they are equally ignorant with regards to their Zionist roots and teachings of the founding fathers of modern Zionism; the same soldiers who have no clue who Abraham was are the very same soldiers who are seemingly unfamiliar with Ze’ev Jabotinsky. This demonstrates something which the broader Orthodox leadership in Israel does not seem to understand; the problem with the Jewish community in Israel is not one of religious devotion but one of Jewish affiliation. We should not expect secular Israelis to embrace religion without first linking them with the contemporary nation to which they belong, the land which they currently protect and the people which they must preserve. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there are large pockets of secular Israelis who are genuinely interested in sustaining these ideals. The Israeli Kibbutznik and pioneer of yesteryear may have believed that his connection to the land via Zionism as opposed to Judaism was enough to ensure Israel’s future but his children and grandchildren, secular as they may be and many still residing on the same Kibbutzim they were born on, are beginning to realize that this is not the case and are coming to terms with Zionism’s inseparable link to Judaism. The question Bennett should be asking is what is being done to facilitate this connection and by whom?

The Orthodox response, both Haredi and Religious Zionist, has been to establish organizations such as Rosh Yehudi and Maynei Hayeshua which aggressively promote kiruv – any means which will bring secular Jews closer to the fold and facilitate their becoming observant Jews. These efforts may be effective (although not necessarily intellectually healthy as their focus can prove to be narrow minded and subjective) for the few secular Jews who are on a spiritual journey towards religion but they do not address the many Israelis who are not soul searching but are very much interested in Judaism from a cultural and historical perspective; in fact many times these organization’s efforts are damaging as the secular Israeli assumes that this is the only Orthodox option out there and he becomes turned off by what may appear to him as fanatical and coercive. On the other hand, there are many secular Israelis who are becoming involved with learning groups surfacing throughout the country. These groups study Jewish basics such as Torah, Talmud and classic texts but there is little if no Orthodox representation; in fact many of the groups are either non-denominational or being taught by representatives of the Reform movement.

Recently I started an initiative in which I offer lectures and culture classes on Judaism to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim across the country. It takes a while for me to convince the Kibbutz that I have no religious agenda and that my vested interest is to unite the Jewish community in Israel by means of teaching, discussing and arguing about Jewish principles and ideals which all of us, consciously or subconsciously, share in common. Kibbutz Nir Am is situated down south on the border of Gaza and is the only Kibbutz in the South West Region which I have managed to visit; there is good reason for this. Assaf, a member of the Kibbutz, explained to me that Sapir University in Sderot was built through contributions by the Reform movement in the United States under the condition that the local council promotes entry for the Reform movement in Israel to teach Judaism and run services in the surrounding area. Assaf happens to be interested in Orthodox traditions and he prefers if there are classes in the Kibbutz that they be taught by an Orthodox authority, which explains why I managed to speak in Nir Am twice. However, under tremendous pressure from the local council, Nir Am is being persistently persuaded to hire a female Reform rabbi who will run services and teach in the Kibbutz. Don’t get me wrong, I have Reform rabbi friends who have hosted me as a guest speaker in their Synagogues and we engage regularly in dialogue; something which I strongly believe Orthodox rabbis ought to be doing in Israel as well, but that does not mean that I agree with them. I respect the fact that someone may want to search their Jewish roots by way of the Reform movement, but as an Orthodox rabbi, I am disappointed when I am denied opportunity to present the Orthodox opinion and perspective, much like I imagine the Reform are frustrated when they cannot present theirs. Assaf told me that he has gone to the local rabbinate and explained to them what is going on but his appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Truth be told, there is no one to blame for this predicament but ourselves. The Orthodox rabbinate and leadership have consistently approached the secular public and alternative denominations with suspicion and a “holier than thou” attitude and now we are beginning to pay the price. It is only a matter of time before the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States begin to question why they are contributing to a country which subscribes to a rabbinic leadership which does not even entertain engaging them.

The Orthodox movement in Israel, particularly the National Religious, must realize that they are becoming irrelevant to the Israeli secular public and that as they do alternative denominations will take their place. Considering the indifference of the Orthodox rabbinate towards this quandary, perhaps Naftali Bennett (himself an Orthodox Jew) and his ministry should search for ways to keep the Orthodox agenda pertinent and curb its intrusiveness while finding ways to bridge the gap between the Orthodox and alternative denominations by, at the very least, beginning to engage in a dialogue. The Rabbis explain that before one tends to the needs of foreign cities, one must first ensure that the needs of his own city are intact; how much more so does this apply regarding one’s own country.

When proposing the agenda of the World Jewry World Initiative, Bennett declared,

 “I’d say the big objective now is to keep Jews Jewish and to keep them connected to Israel, and the younger generation is becoming less Jewish and less connected to Israel as we all well know, , if Israel can give Diaspora Jews the feeling that they have a stake in Israel in some way, it could help smooth over the bumps in the road.”

The struggle for Jewish identity in Israel festers and will continue to do so, so long as programs are not implemented to make Judaism accessible to the masses regardless of their affiliation or lack of it thereof. Naftali Bennett is the minister of “Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs”, Jerusalem appears first in his title and then the Diaspora. I am not suggesting that we should not implement programs to assist the Diaspora in the perennial quest for Jewish identity but it is more important to introduce innovative and effective programs on foundations of Judaism in Israel and help ensure that your roads at home are intact before you “smooth over the bumps in the road” abroad.

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Fanaticism that Hides Behind Religious Zionism

Two weeks ago while the country was grappling with a storm outside, there was another storm brewing inside the halls of the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva in Jersualem; the Yeshiva started by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook in 1924 which was supposed to serve as the flagship institution of Religious Zionism. A group of Religious Zionist rabbis popularly known as “Kavnekim” (from the Hebrew word kav – line; representative of hard liners who adhere strictly to and rarely venture or explore beyond the teachings of Rabbi Kook) met at the Yeshiva to discuss reviving the activity of the so called “longtime” rabbinic association “Derech Emunah – The Path of Faith”. The rabbis decided to revitalize their activities (or inactivity as it were) in the hope of establishing their relevance in Israel.

An article on the Arutz Sheva news touted how, “some of Israel’s leading and most venerable religious Zionist rabbis attended alongside many young, energetic rabbis, all of whom represent mainstream Orthodox  life and values as disseminated by the flagship Zionist yeshiva, Merkaz Harav and its offshoots.”

The premise of this report and really the entire meeting is problematic because it suggests that the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva represents mainstream Orthodox life and values, when it does not. It also presumes that the young rabbis who attended the institution and claim to be leaders of Religious Zionism, understand what the values of Religious Zionism represent, when they do not. For example, Rabbi Yakov Ariel who is considered a main halachic authority particularly for this part of the religious Zionist world, recently stated that it was prohibited for women to speak from the pulpit of a Synagogue and that if a woman did so it was a Hilul Hashem – desecration of Gods name (a term which seems to be surfacing all too often in the Jewish community recently). Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Kohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem and also considered a forefront leader of the religious Zionist world (at least the one which Merkaz HaRav studetns claim to belong to) stated last year that one who gives birth to a down syndrome child, in addition to the typical “happy” blessing of Shehecheyanu (thanking God for bringing one to this time) made for all newborn babies, the parent should also make the blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet (Blessed is the true Judge), which is made when a person learns of a death. Rabbi Dov Lior of Hebron and considered a prize student of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, when asked a few months ago what should be the proper attitude of rabbis and religious leaders appointed by the public he responded saying, first and foremost rabbis must ensure that the land of Israel is not compromised; they must staunchly oppose any proposal suggesting that a small portion of the land can be compromised and, if indeed such policy is affirmed the rabbis must “wage war” against a government which advocates such policy. Just a few months ago, Rabbi Benny Nechtailer head of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, the largest religious Zionist youth group, called upon all girls who attend Beni Akiva ulpanot or girls yeshiva high schools, to come to the Western Wall and protest the prayer service of the Women of the Wall. All of these rabbis are students of Rabbi Kook and the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva; do they sound like representatives of mainstream orthodoxy? Do they sound like enlightened leaders of a community which supposedly fashions itself on tolerance, consideration and open-mindedness? Do they sound like the kind of rabbis who understand that before one sanctifies the world around them they have to first understand the ramifications of what it means to live in it? Are these rabbis truly living up to the aspirations and ideals of their spiritual mentor, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who wrote in his magnum opus, Orot, regarding the three distinctive groups in Israeli society,

“Orthodoxy which waves the banner of holiness.. . the second which is Nationalism…and the third, Liberalism…all demand the essence of what makes mankind, education, culture and ethics. It is obvious that to maintain a healthy existence all three must coexist and we must always strive to reach for this coexistence…it is not sufficient to recognize the positives of each one of these strengths but we must recognize the weaknesses of each one as well because recognizing weaknesses keeps us honest and helps us avoid exaggeration and hyperbole”. Would I be exaggerating were I to suggest that Rabbi Kook is warning against the traps of extremism?

Rabbi Kook seems to be warning against the traps of extremism, yet the young energetic rabbi who was appointed to spearhead the project of getting the religious Zionist rabbis more exposure in the media was none other than Rabbi Baruch Efrati. This is the same Rabbi Efrati who just over a year ago proclaimed that the Islamization of Europe was a good thing and that Jews should ‘rejoice at the fact that Europe is paying for what it did to us for hundreds of years by losing its identity”. This is the same Rabbi Efrati who defended the efforts of Islam spreading throughout Europe making no distinction whatsoever between Radical Islam saying, “With the help of God, the gentiles there will adopt a healthier life with a lot of modesty and integrity, and not like the hypocritical Christianity which appears pure but is fundamentally corrupt”. Efrati praised the Islamic faith as a religion which is relatively honest and educates a bit more for a stable life of marriage and creation, where there is certain modesty and respect for God.”, as opposed to Christianity – which, as the rabbi explains, is idolatry and has a tendency to “destroy normal life (apparently something which Radical Islam does not do???) and abstain from it on the one hand, while losing modesty on the other hand”.
Even if what Efrati was saying made sense, one would have to question his media savvy and wonder if the rabbi considered whether it was wise to publicize such radical and potentially damaging statements in the first place. After such considerations one also begins to understand why these rabbis and the institutions they represent remain insignificant across the broader consensus of the Israeli community.

The article continues explaining how,

“the traditional mainstream Zionist rabbis, whose lives are dedicated to the sanctified labor involved in enhancing Jewish life and study, each in his own city, congregation or yeshiva, now feel that they must also ensure that their voices be heard by the general public in an organized, synchronized manner.”

While this description may have intended to be complimentary in actuality it exposes a weakness, for it is precisely because these rabbis dedicate themselves to their own city, congregation or yeshiva, that they have indeed limited their effect and influence on the rest of society, which, from a Religious Zionist perspective is counterintuitive. Many of these rabbis are busy building an insular Torah world from within as opposed to fulfilling what their teacher Rabbi Kook, seems to suggest above; impressing upon the comprehensive Jewish community in Israel the meaningful attributes that Judaism has to offer and the advantages of adopting Jewish values and identity as a progressive lifestyle as opposed to a rigorous system which appears to be coercive and all too often judgmental.

Recently I found myself engaged in a conversation with a young man who studies in a “Kavnik” yeshiva and who considers himself a legitimate representative of its philosophy. I challenged him regarding the cloistered methodology of Merkaz HaRav and explained to him how according to my understanding Rabbi Kook preached the importance of appreciating the purity of every Jew regardless of affiliation or lack of it thereof. The young man described how the Kavnik institutions were achieving Rabbi Kook’s ideals by establishing houses of Torah, yeshivas and religious communities which would enlighten all of Israel. I pressed on explaining to this young man that many Israelis would never set foot in a yeshiva or synagogue, nor were they interested at all in learning about religion and in fact many did not even believe in God; yet many of these same Israelis would do anything necessary to preserve the Jewishness of the State; how were the Kavnekim planning to assist the secular Israelis who wanted to facilitate and enhance a cultural, historical and ideological connection to Israel but certainly not a religious one?

The root of the problem is that the Merkaz HaRav community consists of rabbis who cannot separate religion from Judaism, nor can they tolerate those who do. To a Kavnik a secular Jew represents someone who should be brought back “to the fold”; this is wrong and insulting to the secular Israeli. As an Orthodox rabbi I would love for every Jew to adhere to the words of the Torah but God forbid were I to disqualify those who do not, or even worse, doubt the sincere connection they have to their Jewish roots. So long as the rabbis of “the Kav” fail to incorporate this concept their ability to influence will consistently dwindle as it has over the last twenty years.

The report from Arutz Sheva bitterly concludes,

“On the fringe of the religious sector a new generation has risen whose laxity in observing halakhah (Jewish Law) comes with an ideological “cover”.  This latter group publicizes itself everywhere and gets admiring media coverage, even in newspapers that are thought to aim at the Religious Zionist sector.”

Perhaps it is time for Merkaz HaRav, its rabbinic figures and even its news station to stop espousing accusations at those who receive media attention, look within themselves and follow the words of their great master Rabbi Kook who said,

“The truly righteous do not complain about evil, but rather add justice; they do not complain about heresy, but rather add faith; they do not complain about ignorance, but rather add wisdom.”

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Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Words

As we approach the secular New Year, here is something to reflect upon.

A few years ago in June of 2007, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a man of repute who served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Atlanta Georgia for many years and now resides in Jerusalem, wrote an article entitled “Sorry seems to be the hardest words”. The caption of the article read, “Ours is a tradition of non-accountability. Our leaders never admit mistakes. They never apologize.”

In reference to the leading political figures in Israel at the time; Rabbi Feldman began his article explaining that if a Jewish Rip Van Winkle (Rip van Finkle?) were to awaken today (2007) and read the papers, he would wonder if he had ever really been asleep. After all, explains Feldman, politicians who were in the headlines for years, such as Peres, Olmert, and Barak, were still in the headlines and still remained in power despite their many errors and miscalculations concerning Oslo, the disengagement from Gush Katif, and perhaps most appallingly the calamitous consequences of the second Lebanon war. Feldman maintained that this was not so in other countries such as England where politicians who make serious mistakes resign from office, or, the United States where if the mistake is really bad, they apologize and go into re-hab, or, Japan where they commit harakiri. This is not so regarding Israeli politicians who, when failing, blame not themselves but everyone else around them, as they consistently manage to cling to office.

Seven years have passed since I read Rabbi Feldman’s article; sadly his message remains poignant and even more pervasive today then he himself may have imagined when he wrote it in the first place.

Today in the year 2014 I would add that Israeli politicians not only continue to make miscalculations, which is humanly understandable, but that many of them have committed crimes and are convicted felons who served prison sentences and yet they return to public life insisting audaciously that they are most worthy of representing their constituents in government, which is humanly deplorable.

Today in the year 2014 I would add that religious institutions and leaders of the rabbinic world in Israel suffer from the same symptomatic disease as their political counterparts; just look at some of the closing events of 2013 that have surfaced in the Jewish world in Israel. After Rabbi Mordechai Elon, once a leading figure of the Religious Zionist world, was sentenced to six months community service and a 15 months suspended jail sentence for allegedly sexually assaulting students some of whom were minors, he reacted by wryly stating that he has been serving the community for years and will be happy to continue to do so until he is 120 years old. Not only did Rabbi Elon’s cynicism invalidate the legitimacy of a court of law but even more troubling was his lack of remorse. Even as the rabbi proclaimed his innocence there was no attempt to appease those who may have misinterpreted his actions. He did assert that the entire episode was a learning experience for him. Indeed, it would be interesting to hear what he learned exactly; how to cope with one’s feelings of remorse, or perhaps the deep ramifications of serving as a leader under the scrutiny of the public’s eye. Perhaps we can ask Rabbi Chaim Drukman, himself a senior figure head of the Religious Zionist world, who currently employs Rabbi Elon in his yeshiva. What kind of message does this impart to the students of an institution which serves and recognizes the legitimacy of the Modern State of Israel (including its legislative body and law establishments) and of a yeshiva which is supposed to espouse an ethical consciousness for the Jewish world?


The last few weeks of 2013 brought news that there would be a reelection in Bet Shemesh after the Jerusalem District court found convincing evidence that ballots were tampered with and identification papers were falsified. Irregularities were uncovered by the police before and during the election as fictitious residents registered in the city to sway the vote in favor of the Haredi incumbent Moshe Abutbul. After the edict was announced the non Haredi community in Bet Shemesh, including myself, was euphoric. We were granted an opportunity to help our city from once again falling siege to a mayor who catered exclusively to the Haredi population and to witness the resurgence of a democratic election. Yet, as my emotion subsided I could not help but wonder how such disdainful acts of deceit and thievery could be implemented by a portion of the population who touted themselves as religiously devout. Even more disturbing was the fact that not one Haredi leader, rabbi, teacher, or figure head issued an apology or mentioned the disapproval of the hilul Hashem, desecration of God’s name, caused by the entire fiasco.

This past week I spoke in Kibbutz Nir Am on the border of Gaza on the definition of Jewish leadership and I explained that one need look no further than the recent Torah portions which extrapolate the personality of Moses; a Moses who needed convincing to take the mantle of leadership as a result of a modesty which revealed at times an insecurity; a Moses who felt the pain of a people even before he could call them his own; a Moses who would consistently remain loyal to a nation placing their needs before his and never questioning the potential of a unified people regardless of their personal differences including varied levels of religious commitment. I than referred to Menachem Begin who, after bearing the stress of the Peace for Galilee war, opted out of public life and removed himself completely from the face of Israeli society because he felt personally responsible for the lives of the soldiers which were lost and consequently unfit to serve his people. Whatever happened to the Jewish nation Begin took personally. This is not the case with regards to our present day political and religious leaders who cloak their self-interest behind self-righteousness.

I close the year 2013 with the same words Rabbi Feldman closed his article with in 2007,

“In truth, the Israeli tradition of non-accountability is not Jewish at all. On the contrary, apologies and regrets are an integral part of our tradition. Judaism offers the profound concept of atonement. We are always given the chance to repent and to ask forgiveness from God for our sins. But there is one condition. We have to specify the sin, and we have to state that we regret it.”

I open the year 2014 with hope that our future leaders across the spectrum will muster the strength and wisdom to be able to do so when inevitably necessary.

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When Judaism Becomes Coercive

The Women of the Wall, also known by the acronym WOW, is a multi-denominational feminist prayer group based in Israel which holds monthly prayer services at the Western Wall, whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray and read from the Torah at the Western Wall. This feminist agenda upsets many Orthodox Jews, some of whom have staged aggressive demonstrations at the Western Wall which have resulted in confrontations with WOW members. I try to frequent the Western Wall from time to time and I have never witnessed WOW; my familiarity with the group and its agenda was limited to what I heard and read about in the news which, as an Orthodox Jew, left me conflicted. My heart told me that it would be praiseworthy and beneficial for the Orthodox community to demonstrate tolerance and appear civil towards a group which, in the end of the day, was interested in expressing their allegiance to the same God they subscribed to. On the other hand, I would analyze the parameters concerning the status of women’s prayer groups at the Western Wall from an Orthodox legal standpoint. A little over a week ago during Hanukah I encountered WOW for the first time as I went to pray at the Western Wall and my internal conflict was resolved. I began to realize as I have many times before, that the struggle which they were experiencing was a reflection of a more serious issue which the Orthodox community suffers from and should address if it is to remain relevant.

The group of women at the Western Wall was anything but provocative and it was clear that they were not interested in any altercation; they came to pray and they were undisruptive. One of the arguments of the Orthodox against the women was that they would sing which was a problem of Kol Isha; a rabbinic directive in Orthodox law which forbids women from singing in front of men as it may prove to be alluring. Yet, as I stood praying on the men’s side of the outdoor plaza of the Western Wall directly opposite the women’s side, I could not hear the women’s singing, or prayers for that matter, at all. In fact I found other men’s prayer groups which surrounded ours far more disrupting to my concentration, but none of the men’s groups took notice of the WOW group on the other side of the partition, and yet all was not to remain quiet on the Western Wall front. A few Haredim stood on chairs and peered through to the women’s side of the partition (something which would surely classify as a breach in Orthodox law). They screamed at the group to stop praying and to leave the Western Wall as they were desecrating God’s name. I questioned whether this small group of rabble-rousers was qualified to espouse accusations regarding the desecration of God’s name, considering their own shenanigans they displayed just a few feet from the Temple Mount, the very place which promotes Jewish unification through sacrifice, supplication and atonement. As these events unfolded in front of my eyes I was busy trying to lead a minyan of men in our own group prayer, when a young man approached me insisting that we move our group to the inner part of the Wall far from the women’s section as it was forbidden for us to pray so close to WOW’s singing and we should avoid a desecration of God’s name. Disturbed by the young man’s intrusiveness I motioned to him mid prayer that we were going to continue praying where we were as were six other prayer groups around us as well. He forcibly grabbed my arm and attempted to remove me (and the entire prayer group as I was leading the services) from the premises. When I gestured that he should not touch me again he frustratingly declared that we were a group of sinners and that he would not pray with us “in the name of God”. There was that expression again; an expression which has become conventionally used within the Orthodox community to justify outbursts and demonstrations of impertinence and to hide the increasing weaknesses and insecurities which fester within the religious world. Rabbis encourage their followers to throw stones on the Sabbath at people who desecrate the Sabbath all “in the name of God”. Ultra-Orthodox “modesty police” patrol the streets of their neighborhoods physically assaulting anyone who they suspect has not dressed modestly enough according to the standards of their revered rabbinic leaders and authorities all “in the name of God”. People who claim that they strictly adhere to religious law and follow its statutes yet advocate and help promote cheating in municipal elections by falsifying identity papers to ensure that their candidate is reelected, all “in the name of God”. Educators who are accused pedophiles and yet given venues to teach Torah all “in the name of God”.

I am an Orthodox rabbi but I appeal not as a rabbi or as an Orthodox Jew but as a member of the great Jewish nation; it is time that we came to terms with the fact that oppression, extremism and fundamentalism are spreading and enjoying popularity within large facets of the Orthodox community (Religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox alike); something which is not only unacceptable but antithetical and detrimental to the Orthodox community. It is time to realize that the narrow-mindedness of the Orthodox world in Israel impedes progress and obstructs any potential impact it could have on secular Israelis to identify with their Judaism. It is time for Orthodox Jews in Israel to realize that it is not their job or mission to “make” secular Jews religious and that in fact such efforts are counter-productive. A few days ago I received an email from a secular Israeli woman saying that in Moshav Herut, the secular Moshav where she lives, they have an Orthodox rabbi who delivers a class on the weekly Torah portion without any religious agenda and open to all sorts of questions. She closed the email saying,
“I wish more Orthodox rabbis were like this one because if they were, there would certainly be less divisiveness within the Jewish people”.
It is time for Jews who are confident and secure with their Judaism regardless of their affiliation or lack of it thereof, to embrace a premise of respect towards others and to institute tolerance towards varying opinions within the Jewish faith which will help us concentrate on the true challenge in Israel, preserving our Jewishness.

I serve as a lecturer for the Jewish Identity Branch of the rabbinate of the Israeli Defense Forces and work together with a group called Mahane Meshutaf which fittingly means a united camp. Mahane Meshutaf consists of a group of approximately 50 men and women, a most diverse crowd of Chabad Hassidim, Haredim, Religious Zionists from the center of the country, Settlers from the settlements along the West Bank, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, commonly bound by an objective to infuse the soldiers of the IDF with a sense of identity and determination. Our talks are void of anything which might be interpreted as religious coercion or political affiliation. Our words reveal our mission; to remind the soldiers of who they are and what they represent and to inspire them to believe that identifying with their past is key to perpetuating the Jewish people’s future. Regardless of our most diverse backgrounds and cultural differences we remain united by the mission of our organization; to focus upon the soldiers, their ideals and the awesome contributions they make to help ensure national security (you would be surprised how much an inspiring lecture can have upon soldier’s morale). Our experiences and common cause has shown all of us, Orthodox and Ultra -Orthodox alike, that understanding and communicating are the ingredients which facilitate greater subscription and desire to identify with Judaism. Soldiers are not only receptive but they are responsive, often seeking personal advice from us because of our unthreatening composure, willingness to listen and forum of harmony. The second capacity is an undertaking which I believe is the key to ensuring Israel’s Jewish future. I travel the country offering lectures and classes on Judaism to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim (settlements), and although the premise of the lectures explore biblical passages and implement analysis of the Talmud, I am careful to avoid any statements which would suggest religious instruction or prescription. Admittedly when I began this venture I braced myself for resistance and expected skepticism, but all for naught, for I have been met with open arms and have been privileged to witness a craving from so many secular Jews in Israel to connect with their Jewish roots. Many of these Israelis are not interested in religion but they are extremely concerned with fortifying themselves and their children with Jewish traditional values so long as they are delivered in a non-condescending manner. This undertaking has allotted me an opportunity to meet the only religious couple living in the Kibbutz Midreshet Ben Gurion, located only minutes from Sde Boker and established by the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, who was anything but sympathetic to religion but who understood the significance of educating about and preserving Judaism. This couple chose to live on the Kibbutz because they want to demonstrate to its secular members that there are religious people who are tolerant and that we can live together in harmony. I have encountered kibbutzim which are part of the Shomer Hatzair movement, whose past members would never have agreed to step foot in a Synagogue, and whose present members have not only built beautiful Synagogues for the kibbutz but are busy contemplating ways to grace them with activities. As a religious Jew, I do not believe that being “culturally Jewish” is enough to maintain Jewish identity however I am cognizant of the current positive dynamics exhibited by Israeli secular society and interpreting them as anything other than an invitation to examine Judaism in non-coercive and expansive forum is a mistake.

It is important to be confident enough in our religion to realize that it can speak to people in different ways sometimes sporadically, but right now we should be concentrating on making Judaism accessible to the masses regardless of their affiliation or lack of it thereof by introducing innovative and effective programs on foundations of Judaism. This will help promote an understanding that all people in Israel share the privilege of shaping the future of Jewish history.

A week ago I gave a lecture about prayer at the Limud conference of the Galil in Rosh Hanikra. The audience consisted of predominantly secular Israelis who were genuinely interested in hearing about what the Torah has to say about prayer. It was a most refreshing experience as the group was cordial and surprisingly familiar with the texts. One of the tenets of Jewish prayer is the importance of group prayer and although there are moments designated within our prayers for an individual to express his desires and feelings, Judaism believes that praying in a group is most effective. As individuals we may believe that a prayer group is defined only by a group of ten men or that it can be fulfilled and perhaps enhanced by a group of ten women who sing and pray at the Western Wall, but in the end of the day we must use the paradigm of prayer to emphasize that we have so much to lose when we compartmentalize and so much more to gain when we look for reasons to amalgamate.

This week Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the forum of the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference in San Diego saying,
“The Western Wall is in Israel, but it belongs to all of you, it belongs to you and to me, to all of us”. The Prime Minister explained that there were a number of ministers in his cabinet trying to find a solution for WOW and promote peaceful coexistence. As he explained that they were working towards compromise he said “You know the nature of compromise, no compromise is ever perfect, but I am confident that because of the work we are doing together, we will ensure that the Kotel [Western Wall] is a source of unity, not division; a place where all Jews feel at home.”

So be it.

Posted in Hammer Time

Sorry Been a While

Dear Friends
I know it has been a while since my last post. I apologize; as if it is a legitimate excuse, I have been busy particularly with a new initiative of my own. This initiative is I believe, crucial to the JEwish future in Israel as you will see described in my newest Blog post described below. I look forward to your feedback.
thank you for your patience and continued support
Shalom Hammer

Posted in Hammer Time