Food for thought

Comprehensive interview with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in Israeli media

A recent detailed interview with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin appeared in the original Hebrew in Makor Rishon earlier this month, with select paragraphs translated into English below.

Partial translation of Rabbi Riskin’s interview

“If I could ask God one thing, I would ask: How is it possible that the Talmud is the most pluralistic piece of literature, but those who study it are the most narrow minded?” says Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. “It’s a shame, and it destroys and distorts the halakhah. Without adhering to halakhah [the Jewish people] cannot hold out, but in my opinion the greatest praise [due to] the Torah is that it is not singular. Our halakhah is pluralistic. The Chief Rabbis of the past understood this as well. Chief Rabbis Herzog and Goren did brave things when necessary. That’s how halakhah has always been, and that what we teach our students.”

“You’re opening a Pandora’s box,” says Rabbi Riskin when I ask him whether he believes that this chain of events proves that religion and the state must be separated. “I will say this in the clearest possible way: “When there is a Chief Rabbinate that is exclusivist, and it is not willing to accept rabbinical courts that rule such and such, within the framework of halachah, this is a problem. I certainly would not want to see conversions that are not halakhic. The aspiration is for every Jew in Israel to be able to marry any other Jew in the country, and for that purpose we must give [state recognized] power to conversion projects. We do not want a society in which there are Israelis who are ‘good Jews’ and Israelis who are not properly Jewish. Unfortunately this is what will happen if they [continue to] limit opportunities for conversion. And that would be a shame, a pity, a shame. So I think separation would be better. And I say this in tears.”

If the rabbinate recognizes Halakha in a singular, closed, or even [exclusively] ultra-Orthodox way, is it necessary to separate religion from state?

“I say it with tears, but yes.”

On the other hand, you can probably understand the concern regarding private courts for conversion. After all, there is no uniformity in case law, and there is no control over the entrance gate to the people of Israel.

“But there was never uniformity or control, and in the past they understood that there was a need for a House of Hillel and a House of Shammai, and ‘these and those are the words of the living God.’ read more

Marriage freedom advocacy: our most united effort

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oEric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, wrote in last week’s Jerusalem Post [link] about the nature of Israeli society. Is Israel the homeland of all the Jewish people, in which all of us can live according to our understandings of Judaism, or is there one recognized Jewish stream and the others have little or no authority?

Goldstein writes:

From its birth, Israel has stood as a source of inspiration and strength for Jews everywhere. And Israel reflects the aspirations of the entire Jewish people, about half of whom live outside of the Land of Israel. Our concern – shared by the 86 percent of Israelis who according to the Hiddush 2015 Religion and State Index support freedom of religion and conscience in Israel – is that these recent events will further distance many Diaspora Jews from the Jewish state and Israelis from Judaism.

Are the vast majority of North American Jews being detached from Israel as a practical matter?

We’re including here two readings for your seders [link], that evoke the hope of true freedom for Israel’s Jews: one by Rabbi John Rosove and the other from Gordon Silverman. Please feel free to distribute them to your congregation, or use them however you see fit.

Also included is this [link] to an English version of a Haaretz article reporting on the first analysis of the amount of money going to religious institutions in Israel. The amount is 13 times higher than the budget of Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, and 2.3% of Israel’s total budget. It shows how the Haredi parties and United Torah Judaism are attempting to educate Israel’s children according to their own version of history and dogma.

At stake is the vision of a Jewish State held by the vast majority of American Jews, and nothing less. Perhaps we don’t care about whether we can pray in our manner from our siddurim at the Kotel. Perhaps that’s not significant in people’s lives. But the larger point, our place in the mainstream of Jewish life, is critical to the future of our community and Jews worldwide.

While recent developments regarding the Kotel, conversions, and public mikvahs indicate a trend towards slowly undermining the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, the report on the budget demonstrates that the coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox is being used to educate Israel’s children toward a nationalist view of history, through both formal and informal education.

The campaign for civil and non-Orthodox marriages read more

Standing Up to Hate by Rabbi Pamela Frydman, RRFEI Chairwoman

Pam-2015-with-short-hair-1Sinat hinam, free flowing hatred between different branches of Judaism is not new, but it is once again virulent. As we watch the cauldron of intra-Jewish hatred boil over in the Israeli government and the Haredi and Orthodox Zionist establishments, many of us are at a loss for how to proceed toward Jewish unity. Perhaps it is time for the leaders of the major non-Orthodox movements to take the helm in Klal Yisrael and call for unity. Perhaps it is time for non-Orthodox leaders to declare that there is more than one valid form of Judaism and that Orthodox and Haredi Judaism are just as valid as non-Orthodox Judaism.

I have no doubt that this will cause our Orthodox and Haredi colleagues to laugh at us and mock us, but they are already mocking us and worse.

So why do this? I recommend doing this because it will address the sinat hinam in our own hearts and among our own non-Orthodox constituents and the unaffiliated. Look at the gender issue for example. Non-Orthodox women participate in “women only” Rosh Hodesh, sisterhood, Hadassah and secular activities. Yet many of them refuse to attend a worship service where women and men sit separately. Similarly, non-Orthodox men participate in “men’s only” activities sponsored by men’s clubs, brotherhoods, and secular organizations, yet they insist on sitting with their wife, mother or daughter during worship. I am not suggesting we give up egalitarian Judaism. Rather, I suggest that we focus on the empowerment of women as an issue that is separate from where we sit during worship and how we view the reasons for where we sit.

Gender based seating is just an example; we could accomplish the same goal by thoughtfully addressing kashrut, Shabbat or other forms of Jewish practice.

I do not suggest that our leaders call for unity while ignoring attacks on themselves and their movements. I do suggest, however, that our leaders take the lead in calling for unity while defending themselves, their colleagues and their movements.

I once asked a Haredi rabbi who works closely with non-Orthodox rabbis, “why do you work with us?” He said, “raising the water level helps to float all boats.” The more Jews affiliate and practice at some level or at any level, the more potential for Yiddishkeit to flourish. I like his answer because it is honest, it is not sugar coated, and the truth is that we need each other, and we should be supporting each other, regardless of whether we like each other or agree with each read more

On Orthodox Conversion in the Twenty-First Century

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oA Conservative colleague once told me that the auspicious Rabbi Max Kiddushin told her that if a person says that s/he wants to convert a rabbi should convert that person immediately and teach the person later.

Little did I know at the time that Rabbi Chuck Davidson’s research, found in our newsletter of January 18th, would prove definitively that Rabbi Kiddushin’s viewpoint was well-founded in tradition, assuming that the person was as well-meaning as Rebecca Thornhill, the author of our principle article this week (available at IDEALS: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.)

I believe the Jewish world is once again, after 200 years, struggling with the concept of Jewish authenticity in light of Modernity. Ms. Thornhill’s overwhelming sincerity should impress any Jewish stream, and modern Orthodoxy is fortunate that such a sincere, Jewishly motivated and educated woman has chosen Modern Orthdoxy to live out her Jewish life. I hope you will take the time to peruse the article and her arguments.

But why did we choose to reprint her article in the RRFEI Newsletter? For this reason: Ms. Thornhill demonstrates what is possible when national politics is removed from religion! She has placed herself squarely in the center of a vital and necessary discussion for the Jewish world: what constitutes authentic Jewish practice in light of modernity, and who is acceptable for conversion? Clearly, to skew a makhloket l’sheym shamayim, as is her article, because of power politics is not only a blight on the Jewish world, but harms Judaism’s capacity to adjust to modern realities and move forward, as demanded by a State that has not existed for 2 millennia.

This week, also, you will see updated discussions of issues surrounding the Kotel and the public mikvaot in Israel. How would these be different if the sole determining factor were the welfare of the Jewish people within a modern Jewish State? Suppose there were no central rabbinic authority defending its political power and its state supported budget? How might the Jewish people flourish as never before in the last 2,000 years?

read more

The right of Jews to control our own religious lives

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oThe Chief Rabbinate under Rabbi David Lau has instructed all the public mikvahs in Israel to not permit any conversions from any movement [link in Hebrew], and in that manner to prevent Reform conversions to Judaism. This in the aftermath of the Israeli Supreme Court decision two weeks ago permitting conversions in public mikvahs by all of the streams equally. The Orthodox would, under Rabbi Lau’s request, continue to have access to private mikvahs, to which Reform Jews have no access.

The attacks on Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism in general are heating up in the aftermath of the Kotel decision by the Israeli government, the mikvah decision by the Supreme Court, and the CCAR convention just held in Israel, which organized a liberal prayer service at the Southern Wall involving hundreds of participants.

In Dr. Alexander Guttmann’s book The Struggle over Reform in Rabbinic Literature he states that the early debates between the Reformers and the Orthodox ultimately had little effect, and when they figured that out, the leaders stopped arguing and proceeded to work within their own movements. He also stated that the common people had little interest in the arguments, and continued to intermingle with one another. Why have the disputes started up again? Obviously, the principle question is who controls the religious lives of Jews. It’s not primarily theological: everyone may continue to hold their own theology privately and may continue his/her own practice. The question is: who controls the religious life of the Jewish people?

While there have been other epochs in Jewish history in which specific issues rose to the fore, only now has this fight occurred in the first Jewish State in 2 millennia. The flash points of conflict, the use of mikvahs or the Kotel, are not as important as the right of Jews to control our own religious lives. This struggle involves the destiny of all Jews, even though they may be unaware it’s occurring. How ironic that the principle battle for the right of Jews to control their religious lives is taking place in Israel. But it’s our destiny as rabbis to play a critical role in that existential battle on behalf of all of our people. Jews must be allowed the right to religious self-determination.

Please post your comments, or send them to: organizers@rrfei.org. Also, see our FB group:[link].

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 read more

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; read more

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 read more

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 read more

Strategy: How to most effectively advocate for religious freedom and equality in Israel

Much praise should be extended to Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Steven Wernick for publicly airing the cause of full religious equality in Israel for all. Their exchange with President Rivlin at the 2015 Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY should encourage us to consider the issues they raised and the best strategy to be pursued in order to advance our shared interest of greater religious diversity and freedom and Israel.

Click here to read the RRFEI analysis of their exchange

While Rabbi Jacobs’ and Rabbi Wernick’s words certainly generated media attention, it should be remembered that the political reality of Israel is such that among Israel’s top leadership, the President is probably the least relevant when it comes to making official changes to the State of Israel’s policies. Further, even if this encounter had been with the correct official (such as Prime Minister Netanyahu), the question would remain whether the particular list of demands they set forth is most strategically appropriate.

The disadvantage of listing our demands

One disadvantage of such a list, which includes representation on rabbinical courts, state authorization to perform weddings, divorces and funerals, and equal funding for non-Orthodox communities, is that the Prime Minister could elect to deal with these demands gradually – one at time – over an indefinite period of time, while claiming to be carrying out his commitment to pluralism and expecting our gratitude and patience on all other matters. He could present his initiatives as tangible progress, thereby deflating the push on the major issues, or prolonging them indefinitely.

This is exactly what happened when the non-Orthodox Movements chose to challenge him regarding the Kotel, following the plight of the Women of the Wall who are denied their right to read from the Torah in the Women’s section (or, for that matter, to light Chanukkah candles). An indication of this pitfall could be seen back in 2013 during the JFNA General Assembly, as well as during the subsequent Reform movement’s Biennial at the end of that same year, when Netanyahu focused his message to the religiously diversified Federation world and the Reform leadership on his initiatives regarding the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. His words were met with great appreciation and applause, precluding (in both instances) any opportunity to address the audiences’ priorities, playing into Netanyahu’s hands by giving him the opportunity to present himself read more