Rabbis: Raise your voices against extremism

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In 1991, I published a booklet titled “Jewish Religious Extremism – A Threat to the Future of the Jewish People.”

It was translated into Hebrew, Russian, French and Spanish and widely circulated.

Critics accused me of sensationalism and exaggeration when I predicted that failure to stem the emerging dominance of rabbis promoting extremism in religious observance and radical nationalism would become one of the greatest threats facing the Jewish people.

Alas, in retrospect, I was understating the problem.

Recent times have seen almost daily headlines reporting new extremist proclamations or initiatives. The Chief Rabbinate has been hijacked by haredim (who hold the institution in contempt). Despite the impending national crisis over the many Russian olim who are not halachicly Jewish, they have exploited the Chief Rabbinate to impose the most stringent obstacles in an effort to deter potential converts. Following an unprecedented demand from the fanatical school of Lithuanian zealots spearheaded by Rabbi Avraham Sherman, they even seek to introduce retroactive annulments of conversions, and challenge the validity of thousands who underwent legitimate conversion by reputable rabbis in the IDF.

In other areas, various rabbis and religious leaders have recently been expressing views that brought the entire religious community into disrepute. Claiming to read the mind of the Almighty, the utterances of these rabbis were not only primitive, but completely out of synch with the Judaism that most of us were taught.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is an outstanding halachic scholar who has regrettably also developed a reputation for making such outlandish statements. While the nation was reeling over the tragedies and deaths caused by the Carmel Forest fire, he proclaimed that the disaster was a manifestation of God’s punishment for the failure of local residents to observe the Sabbath.

If this were not enough, almost concurrently, the nation learned that Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai had rejected an offer of fire-fighting equipment because it was being donated by Evangelical Christians.

And to top it off, a substantial group of extremist nationalist rabbis signed an appalling petition calling on Jews not to rent or lease properties to non-Jews, going so far as to specify coercive steps to enforce compliance.

A few weeks earlier in Safed, following a similar call from Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, an elderly Holocaust survivor faced threats that his house would be burned down because he had rented an apartment to Arabs.

SETTING ASIDE the crudeness of this approach, and considering the history of such discrimination against Jews in the Diaspora, one would have expected rabbis in a Jewish state to avoid such xenophobic utterances.

Judaism, like all religions, incorporates holy texts which are open to interpretation. There are certainly passages in the Talmud which at face value many would consider problematic.

For thousands of years, the overwhelming emphasis by our sages has been to interpret such texts and laws in a tolerant manner.

What further complicates the situation is the failure of many rabbis, especially the zealots, to display civility toward colleagues who do not share their outlook. Those daring to express dissenting views or promote lessstringent halachic interpretations are all too often dubbed heretical or worse by the dominant radicals.

This was exemplified when the scholarly Shas MK Haim Amsalem chided his party for transforming itself into “a Lithuanian-Sephardi party,” condemned the attacks on conversions, criticized army evasion by yeshiva students and also challenged the denial of secular education to religious children. He also said it ran counter to the tenets of Judaism for men to pursue a lifetime vocation of learning Torah without earning a livelihood.

For this he was denounced as a heretic, subjected to calls for explusion from the party, and even more outrageously, the Shas media compared him to Judaism’s symbol of ultimate evil – Amalek.

One can gauge the depths to which we have descended when one contrasts this vulgarity with the respectful manner in which disagreements are recorded in the Mishna, for example between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.

Throughout our history, rabbis were not merely interpreters of Halacha but community leaders in every sense of the word. But then, rabbis were among the most educated elite within the Jewish and often also the non-Jewish world. Indeed, until recently in the US and Western Europe, many rabbis held university degrees.

Alas, despite having in Bar-Ilan University an outstanding tertiary institution catering to religious students, many rabbis here fail to even graduate from high school. They were educated exclusively in yeshivot which took pride in denying them access to secular studies.

In such a restricted educational framework, with no exposure to the secular or non-Jewish world, it is perhaps not surprising that narrow and even bigoted concepts are expressed.

The damage these rabbis inflict on the state and on the image of Jews worldwide is enormous.

For those of us educated in the tradition of enlightened Judaism, of Torah im derech eretz, the fact that such primitive statements can emerge from rabbis in a Jewish state is particularly painful.

The only positive aspect to this is that – in stark contrast to the evil incitement from imams in the Arab world, whose views are endorsed by their state governments and media – these offensive outbursts provoked an almost universal eruption of condemnation from all sectors of society.

However, within the religious world itself, there was a deafening silence. Ironically, it was Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, head of the haredi establishment, who condemned this outburst by zealots, as did some spokesmen from Tzohar, the moderate rabbinical group seeking to build bridges rather than polarize relations with the nonobservant.

Prominent former chief rabbis, who traditionally would never associate themselves with such primitive remarks, appeared reticent to speak up. Likewise, Habayit Hayehudi, successor to the National Religious Party – once a moderate bridging group – had nothing to say.

BOTTOM LINE: It comes down to the failure of successive governments to break the stranglehold of extremist religious parties which exercise excessive leverage.

While, sadly, it is unlikely to happen, it would be a day of celebration for most Israelis if the Likud and the opposition Kadima could set aside their differences and agree to cooperate on reforms to overcome the burgeoning power of extremist religious forces.

If efforts are not made to stem the extremist trends and promote the moderate Zionist streams, the time is looming when the state will fall under extremist control.

We must ensure that rabbis on the state payroll are moderate, responsible and recognize the validity of the state. In addition, we should either dissolve the Chief Rabbinate or ensure that it is headed by rabbis committed to a Jewish democratic nation.

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This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post

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