This week’s Torah portion begins by instructing the Jewish people to appoint for themselves judges and lawmakers; spiritual mentors who would lead and guide the Jewish people as they settle in Israel. The appointment of these authoritative figures is, from the Torah’s perspective a formula for perpetual success or incessant failure if the leaders are inept or heaven forfend, corrupt. Those who believe in the Torah understand that its message is eternal; precisely why the Jewish community must continue to evaluate its religious leadership in Israel today as well, regardless of how discouraging such an experience can prove to be.
In one of his essays entitled Directions for American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory, bemoans the fact that although the quest for vigorous and sensitive spiritual leadership should retain high priority, there is a dearth of first rank great rabbinic leaders in America,
“one can think of no indigenous American rabbinic leader certain to be remembered with wistful awe a century hence and of no giant majestically bestriding the contemporary scene and securely moving American Orthodoxy into the future”. The only inaccuracy of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s article is that the same bleak forecast applies to Israel’s Religious Zionist leadership as well. Rabbi Lichtenstein does attempt to remain hopeful or at the very least practical suggesting that, “much can and should be done to stimulate Torah leadership. The key is educational…ours is the task of infusing commitment so critical for the persona of a Talmudic Scholar who can also serve as a mentor and a leader, we are challenged to strive for a proper balance in his development, between insular concentration and relatedness to his ambient society”. The bad news is that much of the Orthodox so called Religious Zionist leadership in Israel today are trending away from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s formula for success as they continue to demonstrate not only their inability to deal with but even more troubling, their lack of understanding of the world around them and of the broad Israeli society they are meant to serve, impact and presumably inspire.
The three flagship institutions of Religious Zionism today are the Hesder Yeshivas, Mechinot – Pre Military Torah Academies, and the Garinim Toranim – young religious families who move in to areas which are predominantly secular and attempt to introduce educational programs and informal events to the secular public. Over the past few weeks I have had a number of offsetting experiences with each one of these institutions which I believe is but a reflection of the problem described above and the challenges that are yet to come.
Recently I hosted a number of students from the States and South Africa who decided to leave their homes and make aliya. In preparation for the army they chose to attend a special program supposedly designed for them in one of the most popular and prestigious Mechinot. Although the young men were from traditional backgrounds they were not fully observant and they were hoping to find out more about Orthodoxy and perhaps become inspired by the Mechina and its unique blend of Torah study and its dedication to military service. The students expressed how deeply disappointed they were to find that the rabbis of the Mechina were unable to relate to them; they consistently criticized “western culture” and expressed what the students found to be a skewed perspective of the broader Jewish community and the secular world. This lack of understanding and close-mindedness created an atmosphere of dissention and discouraged the fellows from seeking rapport with their rabbis and proposed mentors. I am not suggesting that “western culture” is void of criticism but a religious Zionist rabbi who ostensibly affiliates himself with the Mizrachi philosophy, should be expected to be worldly enough to identify the positives of modernity and should certainly understand his clientele in order to nurture rapport and a trusting relationship with his impressionable pupils. After Shabbat I called the head of the Mechina and explained to him the difficulties that the young men in his program were encountering. He reacted by saying that he was not responsible for the program and that it was introduced into the Mechina by another organization which should bear the brunt of the responsibility; my concern fell on deaf ears.
The same week I was speaking to an Israeli young man from the neighborhood who attends a different Mechina and he too shared his discontent stating that the head of the Mechina incessantly denounced “western culture” and the modern world; pigheadedly insisting that his perspectives in life were correct and discouraging the boys from considering alternative points of view.
A few days later I was giving a lift to a student from a very prominent Hesder Yeshiva in my car. He began to relate how his rabbi in the yeshiva was charged with the task of offering a number of classes on the challenges he and his mates would confront while serving in the army. The first dilemma which the rabbi decided to address and devote his entire session to was whether it was permissible to share a bag of chips with secular soldiers in the army considering that the secular soldiers will not make a bracha (blessing on food) prior to their eating. This Hesder student was appalled not only by the fact that the rabbi could not think of a more important issue to deal with in the context of the army, but also by the lack of sensitivity the rabbi was showing towards secular Jews and his inability to “strive for a proper balance…between insular concentration and relatedness to his ambient society”. Yes I am aware that there is halachic discourse revolving around the said topic, but would it not be more beneficial for a yeshiva student to share his chips with his fellow secular soldier even if it means compromising on a bracha, for the long term benefits of unity, respect and brotherhood?
A friend of mine, who is a member of a secular kibbutz in the Jordan valley, told me that the kibbutz invited and hosted a Garin Torani to run a learning program for the members of the kibbutz one evening a few weeks back. He said that it was a great program and people would have enjoyed more were it not for the opening introduction to the program by none other than the rabbi and head of the Garin, who’s opening remarks were about how the only way to have a meaningful life was to adhere to the mitzvoth, laws of the Torah, and subscribe to a religiously observant lifestyle. Many people found the remarks elitist and offensive, in fact two people got up and left the program. To add insult to injury, following his remarks the rabbi left and did not remain for the learning program itself (which in the end may very well have been a blessing in itself).
The world is moving towards extremes and many Israeli religious Zionist rabbis, who we would expect would be a bit more understanding of and tolerant towards the world around them, are moving in the same direction. There is interest among many religious Zionist rabbis, organizations and rabbinic trainees, to be involved with secular Israelis, but without a proper sense of flexibility, training of diplomacy and development of self-security, their efforts will prove more destructive then productive. In fact, it is worth noting that some of the institutions which are interested in and have been starting to make impact on Israeli secular society and the broader public are ones which are either spearheaded by or have heavy involvement from American born rabbis living in Israel. Some of these include the Yachad program under Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (who has had such great impact in Israel at large that in typical Israeli rabbinic fashion, they attempted to force him into retirement), Itim under the direction of Rabbi Seth Farber, Rabbi Daniel Tropper founder of Gesher Institute, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein founder of Keren L’Yedidut just to name a few. This is largely because these rabbis are well rounded, educated, and have dealt with and know how to deal with people who are different then themselves. They know what it is like to disagree with but to engage in dialogue with Conservative and Reform Jews (something which the rabbinate in Israel will have to learn how to do lest it continue to become more irrelevant then it already is) and many have engaged in interfaith dialogue as well.
Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1964-1972 , a time when the office of the Chief Rabbinate was still revered, noted that the difference between rabbis in Israel and rabbis in the United States is that rabbis in the United States have no power but tremendous influence, and rabbis in Israel have tremendous power but no influence. It is time for more of the religious Zionist Israeli rabbis to read the writing on the wall and to recognize that there is much for them to learn. They must realize that the more obstinate and inflexible they become, the more they lose touch with the Israeli community and the less influence they will have on the Israeli scene.
Legend has it that the great Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, would pay homage once a year to the Magid of Dubnow seeking insight for self -improvement. The Magid would say to him that it was one thing to become the great Rabbi Elijah while you are inside the walls of the yeshiva, let’s see you be the great Rabbi Elijah when you are outside the walls of the yeshiva. I challenge my Israeli colleagues to step out of your insulated corners and come deal with the world around you; you may find it is quite invigorating to have positive influence upon people who are outside the four cubits of your current existence.