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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Rabbinate’

Torah & Norman Solomon

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Having just celebrated Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.

Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.

I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.

Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.

But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.

Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.

Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale”. The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.

Israel Hotels Attracting Tourists with OU Kosher Certification

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Israeli restaurants and hotels are more interested n seeking kosher certification from the American-based Orthodox Union (OU) in order to attract foreign tourists, according to the Kosher Today newsletter.

It said that many American Jewish tourists generally are more familiar with the OU than Israeli rabbinic certifications.

The OU operates in Israel in an office near downtown Jerusalem and has several kosher supervisors.

Not all restaurants are willing to accept OU supervision. Kosher Today noted that the La Cuisine restaurant decided to forfeit its OU certification for Passover rather than agree to its requirements for proper cleaning of the facility before the holiday.

Netanyahu Approves Egalitarian Section at Western Wall

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Women finally have the official nod to pray with a tallis, read from a Torah scroll and do more or less as they wish in a new “egalitarian” section to be enlarged at the southern end of the Western Wall, Haaretz reported Monday.

The newspaper said that Prime Minister Netanyahu told Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who formulated the proposal, to draw up a timetable for establishing an egalitarian section at the Western Wall, popularly known by the Hebrew term “Kotel.” Sharansky is to meet with Office of the Prime Minister director Tzvi Hauser and with National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who is orthodox, to move the proposal off the drawing boards.

The decision ostensibly undermines the authority of the orthodox Rabbinate at the Western Wall, where there is a men’s and women’s section but no permission for women to pray in a non-traditional way.

However, the “victory” of the “Women of the Wall”, led primarily by American immigrants belonging to the Reform movement, is not necessarily the opening shot to challenge orthodox Judaism as the authority in Israel.

Indeed, it may be the last shot as well as the first.

The Prime Minister reportedly was encouraged by the massive support from American Jews for the women’s demands at the Western Wall, the most popular religious site for Jews visiting Israel.

The sight of policemen arresting women for the crime of disturbing public order by wearing a tallis or trying to carry a Torah scroll to the Western Wall was too much for American Jews, offended by the apparent affront to the pluralistic understanding of “equality.”

Buoyed by massive coverage in the American media, led by The New York Times, the Diaspora shouted from the rooftops, although not from the women’s sections of synagogues. The shouting was no match for the austere face of the orthodox Rabbinate, which often does everything it can to distance Jews who don’t do as they say.

The Haaretz report that the adoption of the plan “would wrest exclusive control of prayer at the wall from the Orthodox” may be wishful thinking for the newspaper, known for its bitter opposition to anything that smacks of religious authority if it is by orthodox Jewry.

If the women think that the Sharansky plan sets the stage for the Reform movement to challenge the orthodox rabbinate, they may have to say a lot of prayers to fulfill their wishes.

As much as the American Jewish committee thinks it influences what happens in Israel, one important factor in Netanyahu’s decision is that most of the Israeli public could care less one way or the other about the issue.

Most Israelis are not orthodox but most also are steeped in tradition and Middle East culture. They consider many American customs a bit odd, if not weird. Westernization is fine at the malls, and if women want to pray like men, fine.

The right of women to wear a tallis and read from a Torah scroll in their own egalitarian space does not mean that Israelis won’t stay quiet if the Reform movement wages a war on the entire orthodox establishment.

As secular as Israelis appear to be to Americans, scantily or oddly-dressed women often are seen in Israel reciting Psalms while traveling on buses or waiting at the bus stop.

Secular Israelis have a common cause with non-Orthodox Americans on the issues of civil marriages and divorces, but they will not necessarily be in a hurry to support a direct challenge to the orthodox rabbinate, which is a crucial part of modern Israeli culture.

The fact is that the Women of the Wall’s “victory” confines them to a special area, away from the popular Western Wall area. True equality, in their view, would be able to pray exactly where everyone else prays.

In effect, they may have lost the war by winning the battle.

Shas’s Attacks on the Jewish Home and Religious Equality

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is working very hard to ensure that Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews are all given equal treatment: Until recently, Conservative and Reform Jews had felt very alienated by the Israel Chief Rabbinate, but Orthodox Jews did not.

Recognizing the inherent unfairness in this, for the last few years, the Rabbinate has been taking dramatic steps to ensure that Orthodox Jews also feel just as alienated.

Jewish Week: Jerusalem — About 20 years ago, an infant girl (“Nina,” a pseudonym) from an Orthodox family underwent a conversion in New York that, by Orthodox American standards, was and still is beyond reproach.

The three converting rabbis, whose names The Jewish Week has withheld so as not to harm their reputations, are highly respected figures in the mainstream Orthodox Jewish world, according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).

But that hasn’t stopped Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or Israel’s Ministry of Interior from questioning the conversion, evidently because it took place in a synagogue-based beit din (rabbinical court) that did not meet on a regular basis, and not in an external beit din dedicated solely to conversions, The Jewish Week has learned.

Read more of the world class treatment the Israel Chief Rabbinate in thisarticle by the Jewish Week.

None of this should be surprising especially in light of the blistering attacks from Shas on the “Jewish Home” (Religious Zionist party) before the elections by R’ Ovadya Yosef:

“They call them the ‘Jewish Home’ but this is not a home for Jews; it is a home of goyim [gentiles],” Yosef said. “They want to uproot the Torah, to institute civil marriage. It’s forbidden to vote for them. These are religious people? Anyone who votes for them denies the Torah.”

“They are all wicked, haters of Torah and mitzvot. They want to institute public transportation on Shabbat,” Yosef charged. “A Jew who wants to marry won’t have to go to the rabbinate — have you heard? How can they call themselves religious? How can we be complicit in this?” (Times of Israel)

Shas is so proud of these statements, that the official Shas party channel on youtube publicized the video (sorry it’s only in Hebrew).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1NDnxcmqF0]

And then, in case some misguided soul thinks this was only pre-election nonsense, the Shas party newspaper “Yom L’Yom” attacked the Jewish Home party:

Translation: The man with the kipa the size of an eye personifies how his kipa is the size of a “half shekel coin.”  The agreement he is working hard on creating with the chairman of the new-old hatred party [Yesh Atid party] shows that “something new is happening here [ "something new is happening" was the campaign slogan of the Jewish Home party]. Something Reform. Something “Goyish.” “Remember what Amalek did to you” which tried to weaken the Torah — this is an eternal concept.  Also in Israel. G-d forbid,  a new “Jewish Home” is being created.  Those who wish to weaken the Torah aren’t part of a “Jewish Home” — it is a house of “Goyim.”

The Torah and Judaism survived for thousands of years before the Shas party, and will continue to survive and flourish even if the Shas party is not a member of the government.  In fact, based on the situation above, Torah will probably flourish more with Shas out of the government, and hopefully the Chief Rabbinate will revert back to a Rabbinate for all of Israel, with tolerance and justice for all.

And until R’ Ovadya Yosef publicly apologizes for lambasting the “Jewish Home,” the “Jewish Home” party should ignore Shas completely.

Editor’s Note: Shas co-chairman Eli Yishai called Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel to apologize about the attack in the publication, but Yosef has made no apology for his remarks.

Visit The Muqata.

Lapid: Let Conservatives and Reform in

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Yair Lapid, chairman and founder of the Yesh Atid Party, which ended with a surprisingly strong second place finish in the Israeli election Tuesday, had his first and only major appearance in the United States at last year’s convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. In May 2012, Lapid addressed the Atlanta convention of the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis.

During his address to the RA, Lapid focused on the need for increased religious pluralism in Israel, as can be seen in this online video excerpt of his remarks.

The full video of


Lapid’s entire remarks is also available. Highlights can be found at the following points:

9:00: “This is really important because I believe that Jewish identity is in danger, and you are the gatekeepers … You are part of the last line of defense that believes that Judaism shouldn’t be the jailhouse of ideas, but the liberator if ideas. Judaism should not be the disintegrator of people but what gets people together. And Judaism shouldn’t be subordinated to small politics because it answers a higher rule.”

19:34: “I’m going to do whatever is necessary, whatever is in my power, to make it feasible to women, Conservative or Reform, to pray at the wailing wall, wearing their prayer shawls.

“Why? Because Israel cannot be the only country in the Western World that has no freedom of religion for Jews. This is just wrong.”

20:20: “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that there are going to be civil marriages in Israel.

“The total dominance of the Israeli Rabbanut over marriage and divorce in Israel is an insult to every free man. This is just wrong. “I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure the equality of all movements of Judaism in Israel … in conversion, in budgets, in the eyes of the law.”

21:45: “The majority of Israelis are actually Conservative, they just don’t know it. “The majority of Israelis want a pluralistic, sane, welcoming Judaism; they are just not aware of the fact that there is such a thing.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/lapid-let-conservatives-and-reform-in-loosen-rabbinates-control/2013/01/24/

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