I don’t know who Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is. Never met him or heard about him until now. A quick search on the internet informs me that he lives in Jerusalem, is a human rights activist, and a member in good standing of Britain’s United Synagogue. That is the umbrella organization of Britain’s non Hassidic Orthodox Jewish establishment that Lord Jonathan Sacks heads. I have no clue what Rabbi Sylvester’s Hashkafos are. But on this subject I am one with him.
Rabbi Sylvester has penned an article in Ha’aretz that I believe highlights one of the biggest reasons why so many secular Jews in Israel reject observant Judaism. He blames the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for it. This may be an over-simplification but I think he is on to something. It is the very same thing I talk about quite often here. The religious right.
By example he tells the story of a secular Jewish Israeli who refused to wear a Kipa under the hupah at his own wedding. When asked why and told that even British Royalty wear a Kipa when entering a synagogue as a sign of respect , his answer was that as a Jew he had a right to practice Judaism as he saw fit. It is one thing for a non Jew to show signs of respect. He saw wearing a Kipa – something he does not believe in – as a form of religious coercion.
That took me aback. In 2013 it is rare to find a Jew so far removed from observant Judaism that he will not don a Kipa in similar circumstances. I recall channel surfing a couple of months ago and stopping on one of those ‘bachelorette’ programs where a man gets to choose from a group of women who he will marry (or vise versa).
Personally I can’t stand this form of entertainment (…and I use the word entertainment loosely). That episode happened to be the season finale and the man and his chosen bride were getting married. I stopped on that program because I noticed that it was a Jewish wedding. How did I know that? Because the bridegroom was wearing a Kipa. There was nothing else on that show that was even remotely Jewish. The women he chose wasn’t even Jewish. The man officiating was not Jewish. The ceremony was civil. And yet the Jewish bridegroom still felt that wearing a Kipa was the right thing to do.
But the above mentioned Israeli would have no part of that. Why? I believe that Rabbi Sylvester quite correctly blames the way the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is perceived. It is perceived as coercive. I would add that the Israeli Rabbinate is but it one cog in that coercive wheel. The way the religious right has been acting lately reinforces the image of ‘Gimee mine and get lost’.
The religious right may believe that God is on their side… that they are fighting for a Torah way of life and that the current government wants to destroy it. I completely disagree with their take, but I can understand why they feel that way. Even if one would concede their point that does not mean they have to behave in such a negative off-putting manner. Doing so is what creates and perpetuates bridegrooms like that Israeli.
The irony – says Rabbi Sylvester is that secular Israelis like him are people that are ready to lay down their lives for their people. All of them including the religious right of both Haredim and extremist Religious Zionists. And yet he is so angered by their religious coercion and behavior that he refuses to have anything at all to do with any symbols of observant Judaism.
The question is – why are many non Jews so much more respectful of Judaism than this fellow is? Rabbi Sylvestor tells us about the relationship Margret Thatcher had with the former Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz – and later with current Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. So enamored was she with Lord Jakobovitz that she was the one who had him placed in the House of Lords. He was her “favorite man of God.” Why? Well I can tell you one thing. It was not because of religious coercion. It was because he exemplified the best of Jewish values to the world:
Although she was a believing Christian leading a Christian country, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher held the British chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovitz, in the highest regard. She recognized in him a religious integrity which she felt was lacking in her church, so she consulted with him regularly…
Rabbi Jakobovitz, his successor, and other prominent Orthodox rabbis commanded similar respect. Those rabbis understood how to act like a Jew in public They understood Jewish ethics. They understood that acting the way they did was the Jewish way to act. And the result was a Kiddush HaShem. One that can bring justifiable pride in being a Jew even if one is not observant.
In Israel today, how many of our religious leaders instill pride in being Jewish into the secular public? There was a time where one could easily answer that question. Rabbis Haim Shmuelvitz, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and Yisroel Zev Gustman come to mind. How many religious leaders act like they did in public? How many expressed the Hakoras HaTov to the army as did R’ Shmulevitz and R’ Gustman? How many expressed sensitivity to a secular Jew as did R’ Auerbach – by not embarrassing a secular woman on a bus because she was immodestly dressed. He got off at the next bus stop much sooner than he had to so she would not think he got up because of her. He walked an extra two blocks so as not to embarrass her.
Compare that to the harsh rhetoric of today. As Rabbi Sylvester clearly points out at the end of his excellent article:
While the Israeli rabbinate is full of excellent scholars and fine individuals, rabbinic voices of decency and integrity are too often drowned out by the shrill, wicked cries of the religious and ultra-nationalist fanatics.
Our Israeli religious leaders must be associated not only with a strong Israel, but also with ethical, caring and compassionate leadership. They must speak out for Israel’s majority, and also for its minorities, for those who are learned in the law and those who are not. Then, I imagine that wearing a kippa under the [h]uppah will be far less of an issue for our many of our fellow Jews.
I could not agree more.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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