Rosh Hashana Past Reflections and Future Awakenings

This year in Israel we have endured certain challenges and perceived certain dynamics which will no doubt leave an indelible impression on the landscape of Israeli society and on the Jewish world at large. Being that Rosh Hashana is a time to reflect upon the past year in anticipation of the year ahead, here are three thoughts worthy of contemplation which relate directly to the three sections of the Rosh Hashana service and reveal the three functions of the shofar.

The first segment of the Rosh Hashana service called malchuyot, from the Hebrew word malchut – kingdom, confirms that God is the master of a people and protector of a nation, a concept that secular Israelis are becoming more comfortable with in theory even if it does not translate to practice. Over the past year(s) we have seen a growth in Israelis who are interested in connecting with their traditions and learning about their history even through the observance of certain practices which they consider Jewish cultural experiences. Today statistics show that over 56% of Israelis light Shabbat candles, over 78% participate in a Passover Seder, 69% maintain kosher homes, 80% say that they believe in God, 65% confirm that the Torah is the divine book of the Jewish people, 98% of Israelis have mezuzot on their door posts and 92% circumcise their male children. Many Israeli Jews have an interest in the place that religion occupies in the State of Israel and in the meaning of a “Jewish state” and for the vast majority it is important to live in Israel as a means of identifying with the Jewish people.

The second section of the Rosh Hashana service is called zichronot which emphasizes zachor – to remember; we are encouraged to reflect upon the historical events which impacted our loyalty to God and to one another and inspired our development into a nation. Over these recent past few months we witnessed the abduction and cold blooded murder of three innocent young men by Hamas terrorists. We experienced the height of anxiety as we consistently fled to bomb shelters anticipating our safety and the safety of our communities under a barrage of rockets and missiles which were incessantly fired upon cities throughout Israel fuelling the beginnings of Operation Protective Edge, an operation whose sole objective was to disclose and destroy a vast networks of tunnels created by Hamas terrorists for the exclusive purpose of perpetrating heinous acts of terror upon innocent civilians in Israel. Yet Israel was continuously chastised as the aggressor and for its mistreatment of innocent civilians who were unfortunately harmed or killed during the operation. The world’s media referred to Israel as inhumane regardless of the extraordinary efforts made by the IDF to warn civilians ahead of their planned attacks in order to protect their safety, and regardless of the footage which showed Hamas terrorists harboring themselves in schools and hospitals and using innocent children as human shields in order to protect themselves. In comparison, mass murderers such as Syrian Prime Minister Bashar-al Assad was hardly scrutinized for killing thousands of people using chemical weapons and torturing and killing anyone who opposed his dictatorship. Vladimir Putin ‘s aggression on the Ukraine saw over 3,000 deaths as innocent civilians were abducted by both Russian and Ukrainian forces on each side but he was hardly condemned. The IS (formerly ISIS) seized territories throughout Syria and Iraq in an aggressive Jihadist war path to “conquer the Middle East”, butchering and beheading thousands of civilians and President Obama remained frighteningly unresponsive. Yet Obama was not hesitant to join Ban Ki-Moon of the UN who criticized Israel for failing to do all it can to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza during Israel’s missions against Hamas terrorists. The criticism of Israel from around the world was heard loud and clear and our supposed ally’s silence was just as deafening; this opened pandora’s box as anti-semitic acts ensued. Jews were attacked in France, Australia, England (where statistics show that anti-Semitism has risen an astonishing four hundred percent) and even in places that we would have normally considered secure havens for Jews such as New York and Miami. This year the section of zichronot on Rosh Hashana begs us to verify as we have done in the past, that the world does not see or interpret the events unfolding around our nation the same way that we do and that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora regardless of how comfortable they feel and how at home they believe they are must take heed of the events unfolding in front of their eyes and recognize that they are strangers in a strange land; temporary guests whose stay will eventually wear thin as it has done consistently in the past, and that the only land where they can truly feel curiously but comfortably secure is in Israel.

Shofarot, the third and final unit of the prayer service makes reference to the shofar, the ram’s horn, which will be blown marking the day of our redemption. It is during this section that we are expected to think about how we can actively facilitate the redemption we eagerly anticipate, something which was made easier for us to envision over this past year as we have been privy to a legal process calling for all citizens in Israel to bear the burdens and responsibilities of the country and our nation. Consequently issues have been raised which were not addressed in the past and very slowly Haredim have begun not only to entertain but to enlist in the IDF and national service. Almost 2,000 haredim have enlisted in the IDF over the past year, most in combat units; an increase of 39% from past years. In addition the percentage of Haredim joining the work force continues to gradually rise which may explain the findings that with each progressive year the friction between the secular and the religious in Israel seems to be decreasing.

The first function of the shofar was to gather people and unify the nation such was the case at the foothold of Mount Sinai when the Jewish nation united for the purpose of accepting the Torah. This year we have witnessed a nation unite be it for the sake of praying for three innocent young souls or for the sake of consoling their families after the horrible truth of their misfortune was revealed following their abduction. Israelis of all walks of life traveled en masse to the towns bordering Gaza to offer relief and supplies to the residents in the Negev and our soldiers who were protecting them and thirty thousand people converged for the sake of escorting a lone soldier to his burial place in an effort to console his parents who no one ever met.

The shofar sounds in order to amass troops and prepare them for war as was the case with Joshua when he lead the Jewish people by the alarm of the shofar to conquer the land of Canaan. This year we have witnessed troops gather from all walks of Jewish life, secular and haredi alike, for the sake of protecting the same borders which were defended by King David before us.

With Rosh Hashana swiftly approaching we can proudly declare that we have been privileged to witness and benefit from the first two purposes of the shofar. When Rosh Hashana arrives, as we crown our king and recount our history, perhaps it is time for us to demand that we witness the third purpose of the shofar come to fruition in preparation for our redemptive future.

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IDF Protectors of a Nations Ideology

As a lecturer for Machane Meshutaf and the Jewish Identity Branch of the IDF I am often presented with a short window of time during which I am expected to transmit an inspirational message to the soldiers which will hopefully resonate with them after I leave; a message of Jewish unity and pride and the importance of wholeheartedly subscribing to their task at hand regardless of how menial or demoralizing it may seem. Often soldiers are weary and frustrated, least of all interested in hearing a speech or lecture from me and so I have to choose my words carefully and use my time proficiently. I welcome the challenge with reflection and preparation but when one is confronted with soldiers who are about to experience the danger of engaging in combat, one which I personally never experienced and therefore cannot realistically relate to, one can struggle to find the correct words which will empower and embolden the soldiers to confront their critical objective. In fact this past week I wrote to a friend of mine in the United States after I had just been on the border trying to help inspire the soldiers and he wrote back to me that he hoped that God put the right words in my mouth; indeed. I believe that I was able to impart a message to the soldiers, perhaps because God put the right words in my mouth; I share them with you because at this moment of truth for all of us, I believe they will help instill conviction in our hearts as well.

This past week’s Torah portion describes the Jewish war effort against the Midianites, sworn enemies of the Jewish nation during their travels through the desert to reach the land of Canaan (Israel). Interestingly enough the Torah describes not only the success of the Jewish army but goes at length to describe the booty, possessions and wealth which the Jewish people amassed as a result of their victory which begs the question; why does the Torah describe these spoils of war in such fine detail? Perhaps God wanted to transmit to His people that when one fights for his nation’s survival and is willing to sacrifice for his nation, particularly against a nation which threatens its very existence, indeed there are just rewards for doing so such as prosperity and fortune. In stark contrast when the Jewish people are preparing to conquer the land of Canaan they are clearly instructed that they are not to take from the silver, gold or any of the consecrated property and that it would all go to the treasury of Hashem; why with regards to the conquering of the land of Israel were the Jewish people forbidden from taking the spoils of their war effort?

Conquering and settling the land of Israel is a holy commandment from the Torah; one which is compared to fulfilling all of the commandments in the Torah itself. God wanted the Jewish nation to appreciate that the conquest of the land of Israel and the ability to secure those who wish to settle it, is itself the greatest possible reward one could ask for, in fact granting physical reward for such effort would belittle the significance and wholesomeness of this unique commandment in of itself.
Mivtza Tzuk Eitan – Operation Protective Edge as well as the last few IDF operations is not about territory but it is about ideology. Hamas are well aware that they cannot conquer the land of Israel from the people of Israel, but they are interested in disseminating a message of terror and perpetrating acts of chaos, destruction and murder throughout the land of Israel; doing so is rewarding for them. In stark contrast, the soldiers of the IDF recognize that their ability to protect the great nation of Israel and to ensure its safety, to restore order to a land with so many outstanding accomplishments and yet so much potential, is rewarding enough in of itself. Soldiers of the IDF do not fight for territory nor do they plunder the goods of war; they fight for an ideology which is committed to promoting productivity and encompassing life.

This week I was in an air force base which I frequent every week or so. As I exited my car and approached the shin-gimel (base entrance) a siren sounded. All the soldiers had already made their way to their shelters barring the two who were left guarding the shin-gimel, I quickly ducked into the guard station with them. Little did I know that part of my body was protruding out of the station when suddenly over the loud speaker one could hear the voice of the commander of the base saying,

“Rabbi please get back under the shelter and make sure you are entirely inside, after all you are very important and precious to us”.

Our soldiers are fighting for the distinct merit to be able to protect that which is most important and precious to us.

This week’s Torah portion completes the book of Numbers which describes the travels of the Jewish people in the desert and begins describing the preparations needed to conquer and make their way into the land of Israel. Upon completion of the book of Numbers all those in the Synagogue will proclaim,
“Be Strong! Be Strong! And may we be strengthened!”

I no longer struggle for words; to our soldiers I say be strong and to the Jewish nation who they are protecting I say, may we be strengthened by their service and their desire to perpetuate the ideology of this great people.

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We Choose the Blessing of Life

The Torah portion describes how Balak, king of the Moabites who were sworn enemies of the Jewish people, employed Balaam to curse the Jewish nation in order to seal their fate and how God transformed Balaam’s intended curse into blessing, foiling Balak’s plan. In the midst of the blessings bestowed upon the Jewish people, Balaam utters,

“…it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the (other) nations”. What is the significant meaning of these words and how do they constitute a blessing?

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a great scholars of the nineteenth century, explains that with these words Balaam prescribed a formula of success for the Jewish nation; so long as the nation would firmly commit to its principles of humanity and serve as a beacon of morality for all of humankind they would “dwell in solitude and never be reckoned among the (other) nations”, holding a par above all other nations. Rabbi Berlin explains that the greatest threat to the Jewish nation is the Jewish nation itself; for it is only when Jewish people assimilate and fail to maintain their identity that they are in danger of compromising their survival. Therefore a Jew must consistently probe the essence of his being and the rationale for his survival. He must distinguish himself from the rest of the world and from his enemies, particularly when he is confronted with tragic circumstances which can shake the foundations of his beliefs as is the case with the unfolding of the recent heart-rending events which have shocked the Jewish world. As we try to maintain our sanity amongst all the madness that is going on around us, here are some distinctions and introspective thoughts which we should seriously consider.

When one of our loved ones dies we do everything in our power to preserve their memory by enhancing the lives of those who are still with us. We establish big brother/sister programs, plant gardens, build memorials and create scholarship opportunities to encourage people to find ways to contribute constructively to society. This is why Prime Minister Netanyahu, who reiterated these points in his eulogy for the boys, has consistently responded to terror attacks by approving more units for construction in Israeli settlements and neighborhoods. This is opposed to radical Islamists who teach and encourage their children to execute acts of terror and make their mark in this world by murdering the innocent and traumatizing families. We bury our departed with heavy hearts and in deep reflection wondering how the person who has passed on would have expected us to continue to live our lives, while they escort their deceased to burial spraying bullets in the air and contemplating their next harmful strike with which to exalt and enact devastation. We the people of Israel embrace life, while they the supporters of Hamas and perpetrators of terror glorify death.

One of the most striking and strangely reassuring aspects I noticed at the funeral of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad, was the vast number of youth who attended. Here we are the first week of summer vacation and while youth throughout the diaspora were boarding buses en-route to summer camp our youth in Israel boarded buses to attend the funeral of three innocent children who had summer plans of their own just a few short weeks ago. While young people the world over were packing sunscreen into their duffle bags our youth were packing bottles of water in their nap sacks in order to avoid sun stroke and dehydration as they stood out in the sun for hours to pay their respect and to listen attentively to their President and Prime Minister administer speeches in the hope of ensuring them a secure future. The presence of our youth was not merely a show of support, it was a declaration; a declaration that that while they mourn the loss of their peers, they accept their role as future leaders who will secure the land, protect the people, and sustain the sacred institution called life.

My fifteen year old daughter and her friend were among the many youth who attended the funeral as well. When I drove them home after a long and intense day my daughter’s friend got out of the car and turned to my daughter saying,
“thank you for encouraging me to come and for giving me this opportunity to perform this mitzvah (positive commandment) on such a sad day”.

Indeed we will always be “a nation that dwells in solitude” but so long as we are privileged to hear our youth declare their gratitude and eagerness to perform, contribute and endure then perhaps we will be privileged to witness a curse transform into a blessing.

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Unite and Declare “Bring Our Boys Home”

The Torah portion of the week describes the familiar and unfortunate events which lead to Moses’s miscalculation and the tragic outcome by which he was denied entry into the land of Israel. Moses, probably the greatest leader known to mankind, is approached by a large portion of the Jewish people who complain that they want water. After approaching God for a solution, he is told by God to “speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters”, but rather than speaking to the rock Moses hits the rock with his staff. Hence in retribution, God informed him that he would not enter the land of Israel with His people. Many commentaries struggle with this episode as to why Moses, God’s most entrusted servant, was punished so severely over what seems to be a minor infraction. Maimonides explains that Moses’s sin concluded with his hitting the rock but it began with his misuse of speech as he amassed the Jewish people around the rock he said, “listen now o rebels”. Maimonides explains that Moses was wrong for having referred to the Jewish people as “rebels” because although it was said in a state of frustration, it was insulting and demonstrated a lack of faith in the people. It is difficult to describe the predicament the Jewish nation found itself in without water as a tragedy, and perhaps the people themselves should have demonstrated more faith in God having witnessed so many miraculous events during their journeys through the desert, yet Moses was punished for his tone and the way he addressed them under the circumstance. As I reflect upon the Torah portion and the circumstances we find ourselves in here in Israel today, I submit that unfortunately we tend not to learn from our past mistakes and history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.

The Jewish people are confronted with what everyone agrees (even at this point UN Secretary Spokesperson Farhan Haq of the United Nations) is a most tragic incident; the abduction of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel. Once again the people of Israel must grapple with questions which all too often resurface under heart-rending circumstances; what should we do and how should we react? As a rabbi I suggest prayer although I can understand how such a prescription, well intentioned as it may be, does not speak to all segments of the Israeli population. While I cannot come up with one successful formula with which to approach this imminent tragedy, let alone contemplate the developments of such a calamity, it appears that some rabbis such as Rabbi Dov Lior and religious publications such as Yated Neeman, believe that they can.

Yated Neeman ran an article asserting that the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths by terrorists was a punishment from God for the government’s enactment of legislation that would see a larger number of Haredi yeshiva students inducted into the army. The editorial compared yeshiva students to soldiers who serve on their bases (yeshivas) and that, “when the government tries to execute the systematic kidnapping of Torah students from their places of learning, when it tries to kidnap soldiers from their bases and to diminish the only army that truly protects [Israel], the land’s stomach churns and it wants to vomit them out”. One can only read such words in disbelief and wonder how it is possible for a publication which claims to represent the ideals of the Torah, whose ways are described as “pleasant and peaceful”, can be so insensitive to the families and victims involved and publish such distorted divisive comparisons at a time when people are longing for and in need of unity. I am not sure about the land’s stomach churning but I know that after reading this article, my own stomach took ill.   Rabbi Dov Lior accused the government of enacting policies that led to the kidnapping, “To our chagrin, we have been witnessing a serious deterioration in the government’s attitude toward the state’s Jewish character. There is a barrage of laws whose common denominator is to damage and chip away at the Jewish character of our public life.” He then wrote on his facebook page that Israelis should contemplate how their slackening religious observance brought punishment upon the nation. Lior’s audacity to accuse and castigate effectively reveal his self-glorification, and his attempt to play God divulges an insolence which desecrates God’s name at a time when sanctifying God’s name is of the utmost importance.

Lior and Yated Neeman consistently criticize people like Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and MK’s from parties such as Meretz, for their unsympathetic views of religion and their lack of appreciation for the contributions that religious institutions offer the country. Interestingly enough, immediately after hearing of the tragedy, Yair Lapid went to look for the prayer book he last used at his son’s Bar Mitzvah so he could utter some prayers to God as an act of unity at a time of need and desperation. Lapid said,

“I haven’t prayed for six years. Since the bar mitzvah of my son I haven’t been in a synagogue. When the story (of the capture) broke, I looked through the entire house searching for my grandfather’s siddur (prayerbook). I sat and prayed”. While the words of the rabbis who people turn to for spiritual guidance were accusatory and contentious, Yair Lapid’s words were inspirational and harmonious.

Meretz party chairwoman MK Zahav Gal-on responded to Rabbi Lior’s comments saying,

“It’s nice to know that the holy rabbi has opened a direct line of communication to God and can read his thoughts, if he can truly connect with the higher powers in such an intimate way then perhaps he can do us all a favor at the same time and also ask where the kidnapped [youths] are being held. Until Lior can bring us something useful from heaven he should keep his ugly incitement to himself”. While the words of the rabbis who people seek for wisdom were nonsensical, Gal-on’s comments were sensible and poignant.

Finally outgoing President Shimon Peres, himself not a religiously observant man, commented,

“Three families like this can lift up a nation to heights previously unknown, and I’m not exaggerating. It’s been several days that Israel is different, unified, joined, praying, fighting,”

It is comforting to know that the vast majority of the Jewish nation in Israel represents a sound united front in wake of the tragedy, yet it behooves us to promote unity and coherence even after God willing the boys are brought home.

Meanwhile, certain rabbis and leaders will have to continue to learn that words can be most damaging and that sometimes things are better left unsaid, but should they still feel the uncontrollable urge to speak, they should simply join in with the rest of us and declare,

Bring our boys home!

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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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