Rabbi’s Weilding Uninfluential Power

This past week a large group of Rabbis (somewhere close to 300 although difficult to give an exact number considering that a number of them, having come to their senses, quickly asked to be removed), from the Israeli Rabbinate signed a declaration forbidding Jews from renting or selling their properties to Arabs (non Jews), claiming that doing so causes economic and spiritual damage to neighbors by precipitating a fall in property values and increasing the possibility of intermarriage. In addition the Rabbis urged communities to use various means of coercion against anyone poised to sell or rent to an Arab, including “to advertise his name in public, to distance him, to prevent trade from being done with him, to prevent him from reading from the Torah and so forth until he reverses his decision that causes harm to so many people.” After reading this edict, I could not help but question the judgment and logic of the Rabbis. Were they not aware of the destructive repercussions and negative reverberations (in short what we call Hillul Hashem) this declaration would cause? Predictably, an article appeared in the Jerusalem Post questioning the purpose and function of the Rabbinate,

“The state’s employment of hundreds of city and neighborhood rabbis who express racist, xenophobic opinions upsets the delicate balance that must be maintained between Israel’s Jewish and democratic dimensions. Even from a purely functional perspective, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no need for the state to bankroll hundreds of city and neighborhood rabbis at a cost to the taxpayer of millions of shekels a month. Jerusalem has gone without chief rabbis since 2002, and the only ones who seem to care are the religious political parties who see the appointment as an opportunity to enhance their influence. Nor is there a need for city rabbis to provide kosher supervision. Experts in this field do it just as well, if not better. Besides, kosher supervision could easily be privatized.”.

This edict caused divisiveness, gross misunderstandings, and blatant criticism of the Orthodox Rabbinate (the official Rabbinate) of Israel.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein commented,

“the motivation behind the statement might have stemmed from “the love of the land and its inhabitants,” however nearly all of the ensuing events could have been predicted in advance – the public tempest, social as well as ideological; the rift among the citizens of the state, between and within sectors; opinion pieces in newspapers… attacks from Right and Left on the national-religious rabbinic establishment, coming even from Torah giants – everything was foreseeable. And you read and wonder about the wisdom of those who are supposed to be able to foresee the future…There is no doubt that the statement is based on rabbinic sources and the tradition of Halacha over the generations, but the document on whole creates the impression that it forms its conclusions based on premises that conform to a certain halachic stance [but which is not the exclusive stance]. We are dealing with central questions regarding meta-halachic issues. The willingness and ability to take broader factors into consideration, such as those that pertain to halachic content and their affinity to a historical and social reality together, demand a broader dialogue.”

Why don’t Rabbis and leaders of communities pay more attention to their choice of words and actions? Why is it that the fundamental of “Derech Eretz Kadma – The “way of the land” i.e. human decency and dignified sensitivity”, seems to consistently appear to take a back seat when it comes to Orthodox and Rabbinic decision making and behavior; when it should serve as the foundation of religious calculations and values? It is clear that the Torah had something else in mind, as is revealed in Parshat Vayechi.

When Yaakov Avinu is taken to be buried in his final resting place, Mearat Hamachpela, the Torah describes the entire procession and escort,

“So Yosef went up to bury his father, and with him went up all of Paroh’s servants, the elders of his household, and the elders of the land of Egypt, and all of Yaakov’s household – his brothers and his fathers household…His sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the Cave of Machpela”.

Not only does the Torah point out that the Egyptians sent an entire entourage to facilitate Yaakov’s burial, but it also lists the Egyptians first before listing Yakov’s sons, which is strange considering the priority of relationship.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that the Egyptians escorted Yaakov even though they may not have subscribed to, understood, or agreed with his standards of living, they had the common sense and decency to understand that a great man had passed on and that such circumstances demands attention and respect. After completing their escort services, the Egyptians left, as the Bnei Yaakov stayed both to eulogize their father and to assure his burial in Mearat HaMachpela, representing the fact that the Bnei Yaakov’s pursuits were not only based upon common sense and decency, but they also sought the deeper and meaningful values established by their father and forefathers, namely the values of Torah and Mitzvoth. Human decency and common courtesy should aspire towards greater meaningful existence. The Torah however, lists the Egyptian entourage first, followed by the description of Bnei Yakov, perhaps to demonstrate that while learning Torah and keeping Mitzvoth are the ultimate goals, all is predicated upon the concept of Derech Eretz kadma; prior to religiosity and spirituality, comes sensitivity and decency.

The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Unterman, once said,
“The difference between rabbis in the United States and Israel is that rabbis in the United States have no power and tremendous influence, while rabbis in Israel have tremendous power and no influence”.
Rabbis and Jewish leaders, particularly ones who call themselves religious, should remember what their religiosity is based upon. This may not necessarily require “seeing the future”, but it does require some foresight including the willingness to relinquish power for the sake of wielding influence.

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