(Halevi, Rabbi Kellner notes, was so extreme that “[f]lying in the face of received halacha, he maintains that converts to Judaism remain inferior to born Jews.”)
In fact, one can look far and wide in the huge corpus of rabbinic literature and not find more than a handful of statements, none of which carries the imprimatur of halacha, concerning any supposed difference between Jewish and non-Jewish souls. In sharp contrast, we find a tremendous number of statements and observations concerning the righteousness of individual non-Jews and the reward that awaits them in the World to Come, as well as how both Jews and non-Jews will one day worship the one true God.
“The doctrine concerning the special innate ontologically superior nature of the Jews,” writes Rabbi Kellner, “is so obviously insane, so observably false in the real world (as Judah Halevi himself had to admit), and so totally unsupported by the overwhelming majority of biblical and rabbinic texts…that one is driven to wonder how anyone could take it seriously…” (From the book Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Maggid Publishers, 2012.)
Doctrine Versus Attitude
Over the Sukkos holiday, secular newspapers carried a report on comments Pope Francis made in a lengthy interview. According to The New York Times, the pope, in office for six months, said “the church had grown ‘obsessed’ with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception…” Pope Francis “criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.”
The pope is quoted as saying, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a severely injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
It would appear to me that this is a message that many Orthodox rabbis need to consider. It is clearly a foundation of the Jewish religion, but perhaps it’s a message that has been getting swallowed by all the “do nots” being preached, especially over the high holidays.
The pope did not change his church’s position on abortion or any other issue. He is just trying to change the focus. What happened in various shuls over the high holidays? How many times did rabbis in those shuls get up and say something along the lines of how happy we are that you are here, and how can we help encourage you to come every holiday, every Shabbos, every day, 365 days a year?
On the other hand, how many times did the rabbi (or someone else) get up and lecture about it being too noisy in the shul? Are people greeted to shul with a warm welcome – or a complaint that they’re late?
That’s not to say it’s OK to talk during davening or to come late to shul. It is not. But is that supposed to be the main message conveyed in shul? Is that supposed to be the message conveyed in advertisements in Jewish newspapers?
There is positive talk in the community of ba’ali teshuvah, Jews who have returned or who are at least trying to return to Orthodoxy. But in terms of numbers there are, unfortunately, at least as many Jews who are leaving Orthodoxy, youth at risk, and people who are shomer Shabbos except for texting.
I am not suggesting changing halacha any more than, lehavdil, the pope was changing church doctrine. What I am proposing is a change in emphasis of the message. A man who comes to shul every Shabbos, I would venture, is more likely to stay connected to the observant community than one who doesn’t. To say that you are better off not coming to shul than coming and occasionally talking during davening might be halachically correct, but it is not necessarily the message we should be conveying to people.
In the pope’s words, there are “seriously injured people” in our Jewish community – religiously at risk, as well as physically ill and financially desperate. We can never ignore halacha, but we do need to help heal people’s wounds, to be encouraging to people, to help move people to the next step in their lives and in their observance. I think, tragically, too many of us forget that.