Israel cannot fulfill her role as the truly Jewish State with the Rabbanut in control.

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oA few years ago a friend from the congregation called to say that Israel had become a regular topic in her home since her daughter’s birthright trip, and the experience reenvigorated her intermarried family’s Judaism. I told her how delighted I was, and then asked, “You know I speak about Israel regularly from the pulpit. Why the change now?” She said, “Oh, Mark, as soon as I hear the word Israel I stop listening.”

Personal experience touched their souls and drew them closer to amcha. But what happens when our people discover that they cannot marry in Israel, that funerals may be difficult to arrange depending on personal status, that weddings must be by Orthodox​ rabbis if they are even possible, or that a couple would need to live together outside the law or travel abroad to get married?

The much acclaimed recent success of the efforts of Women of the Wall after 25 years is a symbolic victory demonstrating the opinion of the vast majority of Israelis: Jews should be able to practice Judaism however they want and receive basic civil rights, like marrying as they choose. The Chief Rabbinate ought not control private lives.

We are witnessing Israelis who are fed up with the status quo and circumventing the rabbanut, even as the Chief Rabbinate further attempts to tighten controls. Once the new egalitarian section is established at the kotel, women will not longer be permitted to wear tallit and tefillin at the women’s section of the Kotel. It’s reported that there are new efforts to arbitrarily investigate individuals’ halakhic status, even when they are not seeking a wedding or another life cycle event. An ordinary Israeli citizen may now simply be called and asked to appear before a rabbinic court to authenticate their Jewish lineage​; and if they refuse, it may affect their personal status in the future, as the Rabbanut keeps files on individuals.

When the Hatam Sofer wrote “Hehadash asur min ha-Torah,” no one thought it would become the governing principle for a Jewish state. But here we are.

Much has been written in recent weeks about the inclusion of Diaspora leaders in Israeli decision making. Ken yirbu! If Birthright Jews and the vast majority of Israelis and world Jewry are to renew Judaism for a modern world, it won’t be in the Haredi mode. It will be diverse. Israel cannot fulfill her role as the truly Jewish State with the Rabbanut in control. The vast majority of world Jewry believe our cause is just and right, and want to see change.

From the 70s through the 90s, when I brought congregants to Israel, we prayed together in the Kotel Plaza, and people thrilled at the experience. It touched their hearts and souls. Women of the Wall and the others at the table have succeeded in giving us an opportunity for enhanced spirituality. The great question that confronts liberal Judaism is: will we make it real?

In future weeks, look for our program to effect that change. Let us hear your comments, as we move forward together.

See our FB group: [link], and please post your comments, or send them to: organizers@rrfei.org

The Kotel agreement – which path shall we choose?

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oSince the beginning of the rabbinic era Jews have embraced the ideal of creative debate, makhloket l’shem shamayim (M. Avot 5:17), and contrasted it with the political notion of a conflict for self-aggrandizing and strickly political reasons, like Korach’s rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16).

The Report of the Advisory Team for the Issue of Prayer Arrangements at the Western Wall [link] quotes the famous section in B. Yoma 9b regarding baseless hatred, sinat hinam, as the underlying cause for the destruction of the Second Temple. Clearly, the Jewish people again faces the choice between self-destructive political wrangling and tapping into the creative forces that have advanced Judaism for millennia. Which path shall we choose?

On the RRFEI website you will find opposing arguments l’shem shamayim [link] to advance the complexities of the practical arrangements to advance religious pluralism and diversity in the State of Israel and, and hence, among Am Yisrael. One way or another, this historical moment demands thoughtful contemplation from knowledgeable religious leaders regarding adjusting and improving Israel’s inclusion of the entirety of the Jewish people in the brit, at the very site in which that brit was maintained by prayer and sacrifice for over 1,000 years.

Clearly we confront many challenges. As the Report makes clear, the skeptics regarding implementation by Israel’s Government are raising important practical issues. Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush, asks whether the Prime Minister will use this agreement to deflect diaspora arguments regarding marriage and official inclusion of all Jewish religious streams in Israeli life. Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer sees the current “compromise” as capitulation. RRFEI’s own Rabbi Pam Frydman asks how to include other groups, the Modern and Open Orthodox, into the agreement.

Yet, I have not seen articles regarding what I consider the greatest challenge to this opportunity. Assuming that the new prayer area at the Western Wall is built, who will use it? If thousands of liberal Jews from all over the world flock weekly to pray in a new egalitarian Kotel, to experience what they were denied previously in the gender segregated sections; if rabbis bring congregations to lead fervent and heartfelt prayer, with liberal Jews leaning their heads against the wall attempting to feel the presence of the shekinah, as I have witnessed so often in the Orthodox section; if wives and husbands and children, holding hands or simply standing together, open their siddurim or just spontaneously pray in the place their ancestors prayed because this sacred place holds historic continuity and meaning in their religious imagination; if all of this and more happens because Liberal Judaism is a vital force motivating Jewish lives to connect to God two centuries after Moses Mendelsohn and a century after Haim Nahman Bialik, then this “compromise” will have achieved its purpose of enabling a greater spirituality and Jewish practice among our people.

The success of this opportunity lies in the religious imagination of liberal Jewish leaders in Israel and worldwide. It’s insufficient to watch others fervently embrace Judaism and wonder at their enthusiasm for accepting God. If that’s our forte, then the new area will not avail us, and our people will continue to thrill at watching others at prayer in the Orthodox sections. But the Southern Western Wall is no less the containing wall of the Second Temple than the Northern Section, and God is no less present there. The only question is whether the Western Wall is a relic or a present spiritual reality in our lives.

From the 70s through the 90s, when I brought congregants to Israel, we prayed together in the Kotel Plaza, and people thrilled at the experience. It touched their hearts and souls. Women of the Wall and the others at the table have succeeded in giving us an opportunity for enhanced spirituality. The great question that confronts liberal Judaism is: will we make it real?

Please go to our FB group [link] for further debate, and send your comments to me at organizers@rrfei.org.

Kol tuv,
Mark H. Levin

The Kotel compromise agreement – an historic moment?

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oIs this an historic moment? Only time will tell. I have often wished for the gift of prophecy, alas, it has never been granted.

We come to this crossroad in history: the expansion of the praying area of the Kotel and a sort of recognition of liberal Judaism, specifically the Reform and Conservative movements, in the eyes of the current Israeli government. Some would say for the first time. That, we would all agree, is a good thing.

The modern Orthodox have been left out of this step forward, and indeed there is a group within Nashot HaKotel who vow to fight on for the right to worship according to their custom at The Wall. (In this article [click here], you’ll see how one synagogue in Israel has established a kind of egalitarian mehitza.) Others protest that separating Am Yisrael destroys the unity ofAmcha. Haaretz contends this is a solution aimed, in part, at the Diaspora, but also cites the support of the Conservative and Reform streams in Israel for the long awaited opportunity to pray in accordance with their own minhag at The Kotel.

In the 70s I took groups to Israel and we prayed together without disruption in the back courtyard at The Wall. In the 80s we were disrupted by the watchman, but continued praying. In the 90s and 2000s we were not only disrupted, but it became difficult and then impossible to continue praying as a group. I haven’t tried since.

Why did we pray together near The Kotel? Our people had an innate sense that they had been here before, that they were praying as their families had prayed in a sacred location in which they had gathered, that somehow this experience connected them to Amcha joyously, as the Holocaust connected them mournfully. It was different than just being in Israel. Not land, but experience, Judaism as they knew it at home, a prayer life, connected them directly to their people. Praying touched souls.

The politics has taken more than 25 years to work through. But the Jewish neshama will not be denied. We witness, all over Israel, an indigenous Judaism seeking recognition even as it wells up spontaneously among the people. Religious theory would contend that an indigenous religion will grow over decades within a nation, a “civil religion.” Much has been published both about American and Israeli civil religion. But, perhaps not astonishingly, I believe we are witnessing the birth of a religious and Jewish, not socialist, civil religion in Israel. It’s not just the Diaspora that has won, it’s the entirety of the Jewish people.

I have said before in this space that I believe that we are fulfilling a sacred mission. I believe that. But the speed at which we arrive at our destination, and the breadth of the Judaism lived in Israel, these are yet to be determined.

Our work will be reflected in Jewish life for millennia. God bless all those whose work has brought us to this moment, and may we be invigorated and more determined in the knowledge that this sacred mission expresses amahloket l’shem shamayim, and we cannot be denied as long as we seek to connect Amcha with Tsur Yisrael v’Goalo.

Is “V’ahavta l’reyecha komocha” really only about our relations with Jews?

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oAfter the tragedy in France, a local woman said to me, “I know the right thing to do, I just don’t want to do it.” She didn’t want to allow Muslims into the U.S. She knew it was wrong. She knew we have for decades protested that had Jews been allowed into the U.S. before WW II hundreds of thousands of lives may have been saved, with millions of Jewish descendants. Now others flee for their lives. But she is frightened. Perhaps two years ago you read about the neo-Nazi who murdered three religious Christians coming out of Jewish facilities in Overland Park, KS. He was gunning for Jews but couldn’t distinguish between gentiles and Jews. This woman lives in one of those facilities. She’s frightened. Who can blame her?

Perhaps Nahman of Bratslav had it right, “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the ikar is not to be afraid.”

Do we judge others as tselem elokim, or is “V’ahavta l’reyecha komocha” really only about our relations with Jews? These questions confront us daily. With the publication of Torah HaMelech we shuddered at a halakhic justification for murder of “the other.” With the publication of Derech HaMelech by Ariel Finkelstein, we are presented with a halakhic refutation.

We witness the human confrontation with the fear of the “other,” whether the other is perceived as a Jew or a gentile.

Below, Orthodox posek Rabbi Yaakov Ariel speaks of basic human decency, a proto-Toraitic understanding, that murder is wrong. Anything forbidden to gentiles in the Noahide commandments is forbidden also to Jews.

I write this knowing that our mutual daily concern in RRFEI is the soul of the Jewish people. Here are two links to important articles by Tamar Rotem [link], writing about changes in the Haredi world; and Anshel Pfeffer [link], predicting that a family leaving the Haredi world is just the tip of what’s coming. You will see that some in Israel are naturally, on their own, arriving at some of our shared conclusions: that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has no business controlling people’s lives, that Jews should be allowed to freely choose our religious practices.

Even so, the struggle for the Jewish soul continues. Who gets to define legitimate Judaism? Which Jews does the Chief Rabbinate represent? How do we build a Jewish state for all of the world’s Jews?

Please take a look at the articles, and let us know in the Facebook group for RRFEI [link] what you think.


Yaakov_Ariel

האם הפוסק באמת יכול לגשת להלכה כשיש לו הנחות יסוד תורניות מוקדמות? מסתבר שלא רק שהוא יכול, אלא הוא אף חייב, במיוחד כאשר הוא דן בדיני נפשות. בהקשר זה ראוי לראות את דבריו של פוסק מובהק כמו הרב יעקב אריאל, על מספר רבנים ש”הקלו” בהריגת גוי לפני כחמש עשרה

שנה:

השאלה הבסיסית היא: מהי נקודת המוצא לכל דיון בדיני נפשות? האם נקודת המוצא היא החרדה מפני העבירה החמורה של שפיכות דמים של כל אדם ואדם, וההיתר ליטול נשמתו של אדם הוא חידוש ואין לך בו אלא חידושו, או שנקודת המוצא הפוכה, אדם שאינו מישראל הוא חלילה כדגי הים והאיסור לשפוך את דמם של חלק מבני האדם הוא החידוש? לא מצינו חלילה היתר כל שהוא לאיסור חמור זה של שפיכות דמים, שלא כפי שת”ח שלא שימשו כל צרכם התבטאו בתקשורת שלפי ההלכה מותר, כביכול, להרוג גוי. אין ספק שאת שורש העיוות הנורא הזה יש לחפש במידותיו של האדם, ביראת שמים הבסיסית שלו, בדרך ארץ שקדמה לתורה. המחריד הוא שצורבים שלא פסקו מעולם בדיני עגונות והפלות, “פסקו” בהבל פיהם בדיני נפשות, כשחסר להם הרקע הבסיסי לעצם הדיון בנושא כה רגיש, ששפיכות דמים היא העבירה החמורה ביותר בתורה. ולא עוד אלא שהוציאו דיבתם הרעה לתקשורת לתת חרב בידה נגד תורת

ישראל, לומדיה ומקיימיה.

A resource: Lenient Halakhic rulings on conversion

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oMany in Israel are working toward a return to halakhah as intended by our tradition, and not as a political gambit to secure power in the Jewish State.

We have heard in past weeks from Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who is working for a rational and traditional standard of kashrut that does not coerce Israelis into paying exorbitant fees or discriminating against other religions: a kashrut that is about food and not about politics. [link]

We heard from Rabbi Michael Chernick about those groups working to reform the marriage laws in Israel, so that the hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of Israelis excluded from marriage in Israel by the Chief Rabbinate will be able marry the person they love in the land of their citizenship and the land they serve. [link]

This week we are sending the booklet of halakhic statements [download here] collected by Rabbi Chuck Davidson of Jerusalem concerning historical positions important rabbis have taken on gerut. Hiddush staffer David Bogomolny has done us the favor of translating Rabbi Davidson’s introduction to his hoveret into English for ease of reading (see below). We know your time is precious, and thought an English translation might save a few moments. There follows over 170 statements of rabbinic opinions, some from rabbis you know and some less famous, who have defined conversion as a process of joining the Jewish people for those who sincerely seek membership in Am Yisrael.

You will see that Rabbi Yisrael Be’eri, who was the Chief Rabbi of Nes Tsiyona, contended that the intention to be a Jew who acknowledged that Judaism has mitzvot, even though the convert did not intend to keep those mitzvot, was sufficient for conversion. In other words, to convert to live a Jewish life as other contemporary Jews live as Jews in our time suffices.

As long as the convert accepts the authority of the Torah and the punishment for not observing the mitzvot, some would say l’hathila and some would say b’diavad, that person is accepted as a Jew. Historically conversion was not intended to build up and sustain a particular interpretation of Judaism. Rather, for many rabbis, it’s to build up the Jewish people in its entirety with true believers who accept the mitzvot as incumbent upon them, whether they perform the mitzvot or not.

From the writings of Shlomo Zalman Urbach we see that the issue, built on a p’sak from the 13th century, is that the ger accept becoming a Jew entirely of his own free will, without any coercion. The ger must desire to be Jewish. Rabbi Urbach wrote that the critical issue is to ask the potential ger if he wants to convert, and that acceptance constitutes acceptance of the commandments.

And see Rabbi Yehoshua ben Meir’s statement about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s opinion that joining the Jewish people is doing what others in the Jewish community do as normative in the community, in Israel including serving in the IDF as the other members of the community do, but not necessarily living according to the demands of halakha.

I hope you will peruse the piskei din. I found them surprising, and delightfully refreshing. Clearly there is much here that would unite the Jewish people in practice. Perhaps we could find a way for the different streams to come much closer in interpretation to what it means to live a Jewish life. Reading these opinions I became truly hopeful, and I’d love to hear from you what your opinion is.

I want to thank Rabbi Davidson for his superb work, and for sharing that work with us, his colleagues.

In this article by Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo [click here] you’ll see the claim that halakha intends to make us a moral people. I need remind no one of Hillel’s restatement of the Golden Rule in Shabbat 31a, or the questions about entering heaven also found there, the first of which is whether the person conducted his affairs honestly. Halakha’s intention is clearly to refine the soul and bring us closer to God, regardless of the movement we happen to represent. Rabbi Cardozo’s warning, I feel certain, is near to all of our hearts, as we watch Israel seclude itself behind a wall of religious chauvinism. We see we have many allies in the Jewish world.

Please see our Facebook page for RRFEI here: [click here], and I’d love to get your feedback.

B’yedidut,
Mark


A compilation: Thou shalt love the convert

by Rabbi Chuck Davidson

[Click to download]

ravchuckdavidsonSince the fall of the Iron Curtain, Israel has been privileged to receive more than one million Olim from the former USSR. This Aliya has continued for over two decades, blessing the State of Israel in many ways, including economically, academically, technologically, demographically and culturally. These Olim share a great desire to contribute to their new home, including serving in the IDF’s combat units in larger percentages than the general population. The second generation has been successfully absorbed into the country, and are no different from their Sabra peers who were born in Israel.

On the one hand, the successful absorption of these Olim has been a blessing to the whole country, and on the other hand it has presented significant challenges to Israeli society. This is a result of the approximately 300 thousand adult Olim who immigrated under the Law of Return, which grants the right of return to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent (provided they have not chosen another faith), who are not Jewish according to Halacha. Another 80 thousand children and adolescents who were born or raised in Israel are not Jews according to Jewish law. Of these 380,000, who are officially classified as “having no religion” according to the Ministry of the Interior, most consider themselves Jews in all respects.

Additionally, almost all of these Olim are considered “Zera Yisrael” (the seed of Israel), descendants of Jews, who themselves are not considered Jewish according to Halakha. Unlike the conversions of non-Jews, conversions of “Zera Yisrael” are considered a mitzvah of “bringing back the lost ones,” i.e., bringing back into the Jewish fold those that were lost to the Jewish people, which is especially true for Jews of Soviet ancestry who were cut off from all things Jewish by force of the communist regime for more than seventy years. And so, the Halakhic requirements for converting those who are “Zera Yisrael” are significantly less stringent than the requirements for converting those who have no Jewish roots.

This blessed Aliyah resulted in a number of challenges, including:

  1. The rate of intermarriage, which had been negligible in Israel before the fall of the Iron curtain, has grown tenfold, and now stands at about 5%, i.e. one in twenty. This phenomenon has penetrated even the Zionist Orthodox community, among those who no longer live their lives according to Halakha.
  2. Those who are classified as “having no religion” according to the Ministry of the Interior cannot get married in Israel due to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage.
  3. The cohesiveness of Israeli society, which is already fragile and tearing along political and ideological seams, has further weakened due to this incomplete absorption of the Olim from the FSU.
  4. Facing the historic opportunity of bringing Olim from the FSU towards Judaism, the Rabbinate’s inhospitable approach results in exactly the opposite and pushes them further away from their Jewish heritage.

Today, the pathway to government recognized conversion through the Ministry of Religious Services and the Chief Rabbinate requires those who are converting to convince the rabbinic conversion courts that they intend to live a Halakhic lifestyle as do Orthodox Jews, which most of them do not plan to do. Even most of those who do manage to complete this conversion process don’t actually live out this commitment. Therefore, the government’s conversion program actually puts the majority of this population off from pursuing conversion at all.

This booklet I have compiled addresses the critical question of the above mentioned population’s future, as well as the continuation of Halakhic Jewish status for an increasing number of Israeli citizens who have Jewish identities, but are not considered Jewish according to Halakha.

The booklet introduces the reader to more than 170 rabbinic citations on the matter of Jewish conversion over the centuries and millennia. The quotes have been shortened in order to present the material in simple and accessible language. However, the exact references are noted on every page, and in any case, the selected quotes represent the rabbis’ final opinions on this matter, to the best of my understanding.

The opinions included in this booklet only represent lenient Halakhic rulings. Clearly, in the matter of conversion, as with every other Halakhic matter, legitimate disagreements arise. Since the more stringent rabbinic opinions are better known among the wider public, this booklet aims to include the lesser known rabbinic opinions. This booklet was written with the intention of raising interest in the subject of conversion in the hopes that its readers will become inclined to deeply study the sources. Further, the booklet does not intend to represent any particular position as practical Halakha (Halakha le-ma’aseh).

My many thanks go to the great Rav Haim Amsalem, SHLIT”A, author of the monumental book “Zera Yisrael,” from which most of the citations were drawn, with the addition of a few gems that I uncovered with my own efforts, representing the Halakhic rulings of the leading rabbis of their respective generations. I merited the immense privilege, which is impossible to describe, of getting to closely know the Rav, pouring water on his hands, and learning the Torah of conversion from his mouth.

Kalman Pesach (Chuck), son of Pinchas, Davidson
2015

The role of Halakha in the modern, secular State of Israel

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oOver two hundred years ago our spiritual ancestors fought the battles of modernity, bringing Jewish practice into the modern world. Who knew that we would have to repeat the process two centuries later?

While all of us, as rabbis, emphasize the importance of halakhah in our lives and the lives of our constituencies, we also recognize the importance, authority and power of the secular state. But modern Israel has not yet concluded that the sovereignty of the State is paramount in all areas, and that fight is now being waged.

In this Hebrew article [click here for article] by Prof. Motti Arad [click here for Prof. Arad’s background and publications] we see the legal basis that the murderers claim for themselves. Prof. Arad also suggests a means around the problem: a הוראת שעה that will annul the rulings of the Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch that he claims permit such murders. (for my abridged English summary, see below)

This Haaretz article [click here] about the arrest of the West Bank bombers displays the perfect case. The man charged with the murders refuses to recognize the state’s authority. Rather, the accused says that he accepts only Jewish law. The problem is obviously both that the State has not been clear in imposing its authority, and there are rabbis who are in favor of the absolute sovereignty of halakhah.

Do we have a role to play in this discussion? What is your opinion? Should we be speaking to a halakhic approach to this issue of the relationship between Jewish law and democracy in the Jewish State? What is your approach?

For me, this is specifically an area in which we should insist on being heard. Just as last week Aaron Leibowitz [click here] published his approach to solving the problem of kashrut, and next week we will hear from Chuck Davidson about his research on the criteria for gerut, so, in my judgment, the interplay between Jewish law and State sovereignty should be a subject for the expert judgment of those who take a modern approach to halakhah.

Currently our efforts at Hiddush are focused, with other Jewish agencies like the AJC and JFNA, on marriage in Israel. Yet, I believe that there are those among us whose opinions and research must be heard in order for Israel to fulfill its mandate as the home of a modern Judaism.

Please contact me with your opinion, and also let me know if you’d like to help on the newsletter’s editorial board.

B’yedidut,
Mark H. Levin


Rabbi Mark H. Levin’s abridged English summary of Prof. Arad’s Hebrew article [link]:

In this article, published in September 2015, Prof. Motti Arad writes about the use of Jewish Law (Halakhah) to justify murder against Arabs in Israel, and what needs to be done to counter it. The Jewish terrorists, like members of Tag Mehir, as well as Yishai Schlissel, Meir Ettinger, and Yigal Amir, are being encouraged and justified by some rabbis’ interpretations of Jewish law that are inciting murder.

He writes:

“I have come to say that we are not speaking of people who are mentally incompetent, to point out a common denominator for all of the deeds, to explain a legal mechanism that justifies and even encourages the murderers, and to suggest a way to take care of the phenomenon.”

“There are three commonalities to Schlissel and the inciters:”

  1. “We are speaking of religious people who believe in Halakhah;
  2. They believe that ‘all that which is holy to Israel’ is being attacked from inside (Jews) and from outside (non-Jews);
  3. They are ready to suffer damage to themselves for the sake of ‘all that which is holy to Israel’ because they perceive us to be in a state of emergency.”

“… all hate crimes done by Jews in recent times have been done, apparently, by religious people, and in contradiction to the opinion of Daniel Oz, in these instances Halakhah is of decisive importance in their decisions to commit these crimes.”

“It is incumbent on the rabbis to prohibit [the transgressors] with a temporary order (hora’at sha’ah — an order by a Jewish court that can change Talmudic law according to current circumstances). It’s incumbent on the families to prohibit their children from committing these [murders that they read as permitted by the Jewish codes of law], and it’s incumbent on the communities to cooperate with the governmental authorities to clarify the plague, before all of us go up in flames. The Schlissels will obey.”