Divided by the Chief Rabbinate

Kol Nidre 5778
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

“They’re trying to throw dust in the eyes [of the public] and say that the Orthodox extremist Jews invented [the separation of sexes],” Shlomo Amar, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, said. “It’s like Holocaust deniers, it’s the same thing. They shout about Holocaust deniers in Iran, [but] they deny more than Holocaust deniers.” With this statement, former Chief Rabbi Amar likened non-orthodox Jews who supported a separate area of the Western Wall to be used for mixed assembly and prayers to Holocaust-deniers…. The rabbi — who stoked controversy late last year when he called homosexuality an “abomination” and noted that the Torah mandates a death penalty for those who engage in gay sex — said that gender separation dated back to Temple times and was clearly required by Jewish religious law. Petitions to the Supreme Court to allow mixed-gender prayer came from “wicked” people who committed “every injustice in the world against the Torah,” he went on. “They even marry Jews to non-Jews, they have neither Yom Kippur nor Shabbat, but they want prayer… and nobody should believe that they want to pray — they want to desecrate what’s holy.” (from an article by SUE SURKES September 6, 2017 Times of Israel).

Twenty-one years ago, Amar’s predecessor, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron in Israel wrote in his homily on the biblical story of Pinchas, that Zimri the victim of Pinchas’ zealous murder, was deserving of death because he was the first Reform Jew. Pinchas, you should know, despite that fact that he committed murder against another Jew, was praised in the Biblical text, because Zimri was having an open and public sexual affair with Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite priest.

The Chief Rabbi’s homily centered around the idea that Zimri must have been the first Reform Jew because he was guilty of intermarriage and therefore Pinchas should be praised for killing the person who brought intermarriage into our community. This is a complete and total misreading of the text and though it might sound like an apologia on my part, Zimri’s guilt centers not on intermarriage but on the fact that Cozbi, as the daughter of a Midianite priest, was trying to make members of the Israelite community into idol-worshipers by holding out sex as a reward. Yet the Chief Rabbi used his homily as an opportunity not only to castigate the liberal Jewish community but specifically drew on biblical references to prove that Pinchas was righteous in his action in the murder of Zimri. Although the Sephardic Chief Rabbi claimed that he meant to make no more than a homiletic point, there was, as one can expect, a great hue and cry from the non-orthodox Jewish community in Israel over the Chief Rabbi’s published remarks.

In the days following the publication of the Chief Rabbi’s homily, many in the Orthodox community were quick to castigate the non-orthodox Jewish community for their quick reaction of outrage and used this opportunity to lash out again at the Progressive movement in Israel and throughout the world for supposedly taking the Chief Rabbi’s words out of context. However, exactly one month later, news reports began to circulate that a series of death threats had been received by leaders of the Reform Jewish community in Israel and in the offices of many of the Reform institutions. Although some claim that these telephone calls actually began prior to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi’s ill-conceived homily, the number of calls grew algebraically with over 20 calls a day at the beginning of August to the office of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Civil Rights and Social Justice arm of the Progressive Movement in Jerusalem. By the end of the first week in August of 1996, a total of over 500 phone calls had been logged with both veiled and specific death threats, bomb threats and hate messages denouncing the Reform Movement as leading people to apostasy.

With the help of Israel’s Ministry of Telephone Communications, and the police in Jerusalem, many of the threatening phone calls were traced to a number of Orthodox Yeshivot in Israel. And if you think that this was a moment in the past, just last week an ultra-orthodox man from Bnei Brak was indicted for issuing death threats against the current head of the Progressive Jewish community in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv; the head of the Israel Religious Action Center, Anat Hoffman; and, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

And at the heart of this is the sanction given by the government of Israel, which pays the salaries of the anachronistic offices of the Chief Rabbis, and all of the Orthodox rabbis serving throughout the State of Israel. Israel’s democracy is daily threatened by its implicit theocracy – and its financial support of ultra-orthodox institutions and individuals that divide the Jewish community – not unite it. Even the idea of a “Chief Rabbi” is a legal fiction. There is no mandate in Jewish law that creates a Chief Rabbi – these were political appointments invented so that governments had a central address to liaise with the Jewish community, and make it easier to exact taxes from the Jewish community. When the State of Israel was founded, the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion stated that he was too busy creating Israel’s democracy to worry about religious issues, so left it to the rabbis to deal with issues of personal status (validating Jewish lineage, marriages, divorces and burials). Since then, an increasingly entrenched and empowered ultra-orthodox rabbinic leadership imposed its own interpretation of Jewish law upon an increasingly ambivalent and secularized Israeli populous. In the past decades, rather than deal with the religious demands orthodox rabbis have placed upon couples who want to get married in Israel, there is a huge growth industry for secular weddings in Cyprus. And in the same past decades, there has been a renewed interest in more liberal expressions of Jewish life as offered by the Reform, the Progressive and the Conservative Jewish communities – at the same time, the orthodox establishment has done more to foment hatred amongst its adherents for any form of non-orthodox Jewish expression. The words of the Chief rabbis echo daily in Israeli-state sponsored yeshivot – the very existence of this structure threatens the most precious aspect of Jewish life – Jewish unity.

What happens in the Jewish community of Israel is felt throughout the wider Jewish world. Twenty-five years I sat as a member of the Board of the Synagogue Council of America, an institution which for over 75 years brought together Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews to discuss various issues of Jewish life in the United States and to represent the Jewish community to the American public. I sat in those meetings and watched as the antipathy between the Orthodox and the Liberal communities grew to such a fever pitch that the organization was dissolved. Although the individuals around the table remained cordial and in some cases, might even have considered themselves to be friendly, it was clear that the Orthodox community and the non-orthodox community as represented by their official institutions had divided itself into camps, and the organizations which represented the various streams of Jewish life in America could no longer sit around a table and find ways to speak with one voice. Even today, there is a National Council of Synagogues which is made up of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist representatives and there is a separate organization that embraces only Orthodox organizations.

For years we have talked about the concept of K’lal Yisrael — the totality of the Jewish people, and yet the expression today is nothing more than a lie, for there is no K’lal Yisrael. There is no unity unless we decide to do something about it.

The concept of K’lal Yisrael can only have validity if we see ourselves as a unified Jewish people. What has become unfortunate is the rise of intransigence on both the part of the orthodox Jewish community to refuse to accept anybody who deviates from the norms they set for Jewish behavior — and the Liberal community for whom pluralism has become a watch-word and can no longer tolerate the intransigence and self-righteousness of the orthodox community. However, this lie is created because of us as human beings and is not part of Jewish tradition.

In Pirke Avot — the Mishnah’s tractate which contains the sayings of the early rabbis, the concluding verse of the first chapter reads: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, ‘ by virtue of three things does the world endure: truth, justice and peace.’ Al sheloshah devarim ha’olam kiyam. Al ha’emet v’al hadin v’al hashalom.”

Commenting on this verse great 19th Century Orthodox commentator Samson Rafael Hirsch states, “If truth should be removed from human speech… so that truth can no longer be known, … speech would serve humanity only to conceal thoughts and to spread error, falsehood and deceit. If justice should be eliminated from the deeds and the affairs of humanity so that people would no longer honor right as the most sacred of inalienable valuables…, and there would be no supreme authority to defend the rights of all with steadfast determination…. If peace should be banished from the sentiments and the esteem of humanity so that there would be no one who … would waive for the sake of peace whatever {can be} sacrifice{d} save, of course, conscience and duty. If truth and justice and peace should vanish from the earth, then no matter what else the world have in which to glory, the affairs of human beings will attain neither stability nor permanent value.”

This statement that the world rests on these three things: truth, justice and peace, should be guidance for all of us. But what is truth? Truth has been called by the rabbis “the seal of God.” Truth is the ability to speak that which one sees, but for the sake of peace, truth must always be spoken in love. In fact, Dr. Joseph Hertz, who was formerly the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire and also one of the great Orthodox commentators quotes Blake, ” A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” It is truth that we depend upon when two meet in conversation. Yet, when we call upon our texts to provide us with that basis of truth, it is here where we get into the greatest difficulty. I, like my Orthodox brethren, have no question that God’s revelation to us is perfect. However, I am more than willing to admit that our perception of God’s perfect revelation may not be so perfect. Hence those who cite chapter and verse of a text to prove that they utter the truth can only depend upon their own imperfect perception of that truth.

The same goes for the issue of justice. Justice should be our ability to call the innocent: innocent; and, the guilty: guilty. Yet we all know that, as much as we hope for issues of justice to be painted in black and white, the reality of the human condition has demonstrated, that justice can only be painted in shades of gray. Justice, we pray, is truth in action. Certainly, the Book of Deuteronomy chides us all: tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. These words were inscribed on the hearts of the founding fathers of this country. And justice executed without compassion is no justice at all.

The third of the issues upon which the world rests is shalom — peace. Peace can exist even where people disagree. Peace can exist where views may differ. Peace can exist as long as respect can exist. Respect is the lynch-pin of peace.

And respect is precisely what is missing in our Jewish community. The liberal and orthodox communities have lost respect for each other. And even within the orthodox community, there are those willing to write off rabbis who they think are too liberal. Just this past year, 170 known orthodox rabbis were placed on a list that was created by the Chief Rabbis of Israel as people whose religious decisions should not be trusted, and whose conversions would not be acceptable.

We often have a myopic view of Jewish history that it is only in the recent past that the Jewish community is as divided as it now finds itself. Truth be told, we know that throughout our past our people have been divided. In fact, the earliest rabbinic period, in those decades around the destruction of Second Temple — the earliest group of rabbis were known as the Zugot — the pairs. There were five great pairs of rabbis. The fifth great pair were known as Hillel and Shammai and they each had disciples known as schools. More often than not, these two schools disagreed about the application of Jewish law and the understanding of the way to live out God’s decrees. One of the great examples of that disagreement is preserved in the way we light Chanukah candles. For Beit Shammai — the disciples of Shammai had said that we start with eight candles and reduce one candle per day. Hillel and his followers suggested quite the opposite — that we start with one candle and build up, adding a candle each day. The law follows Hillel, yet with a nod towards Shammai, for we light the newest candle first.

In Talmud Eruvin (13b) Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Samuel: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting Jewish law is in agreement with our views and the latter contending Jewish law is in agreement with our views. And then a bat kol — a voice from the heavens — issued forth, announcing ‘eylu v’eylu devarim elohim chayim’ — the utterances of both, these and these, are both the words of the living God. But the halacha — Jewish law — is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.’ Hence, from the earliest time of the common era, the Jewish community remained divided in opinion as to the application and interpretation of Jewish law — and thus lived as a divided people.

Further in this Talmudic text we read, “Our rabbis taught for two and a half years were Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it would have been better for humankind not to have been created than to have been created and the latter, Beit Hillel, maintaining that is better for humanity to have been created than not to have been created. Finally, {the rabbis} took a vote and decided that it would have been better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created, but now that humanity has been created, let human beings investigate their past deeds and let them examine their future actions.”

Two thousand years ago the community was divided and yet, regardless of the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, the rabbis believed that a bat kol — a voice from the heavens — rang forth: eylu, v’eylu devarim elohim chayim (these and these are the words of the living God). How much I wish we could hear those words today. How much I wish that the Orthodox community would look at what we do and say, “We might not agree with what the non-orthodox community is all about, but their interpretation and their understanding is in pursuit of the living God.” And how much we need to be able to say the same of the Orthodox community. What for us may be intransigence is for the Orthodox community vigilance. When the Orthodox look at us and they accuse us of turning away from Jewish law, they fail to see how much we turn the law over and over again in order to find the words of the living God.

The recent past has demonstrated that we have lost respect for one another. And if we are to erase the lie of K’lal Yisrael and make it into a truth for our days, we must begin by developing respect for each other. Yes: we fight over Jewish law. We fight over the interpretation of that law and the application of that law. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters would accuse us of completely ignoring the law or twisting it in order to meet our own circumstances. But what we do is no different than what Hillel did two thousand years ago.

The great example of this is in the application of the laws concerning the sabbatical year. You’ll recall that every seventh year the Torah commands us to let the land lie fallow. One cannot harvest that which grows in the seventh year. The law also continues that in the seventh year all debts must be forgiven. Hillel discovered a remarkable problem. He looked around and he saw that towards the end of the seven-year cycle — if somebody was destitute and needed a loan from another member of the community, that person would be reticent to extend the loan knowing that in a few months hence the sabbatical year would begin and the loan would be forgiven. Hillel realized that in the fulfillment of the words of the living God which demanded that justice be pursued at all costs, the law was providing an opportunity for injustice to occur. So, Hillel created what was known as “The Prozbul” — an escrow account. Instead of completely releasing individuals from paying back loans, they would pay their loan into an escrow account in that seventh year, which, at the end of the year, would be turned over to the person who gave the loan. Thus, the letter of the law would be followed in that the person would be released from paying the loaner, and yet loans would still be extended in the sixth year of a seventh-year cycle because the person who gave the loan would know that he or she would be paid back. Hillel turned the law upside down in order to make it just. And throughout history, we see examples of the rabbis turning the law inside out to pursue what they believed to be the words of the living God.

Jewish law is not so inflexible as one might portray it to be. The innovations that the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have brought to Jewish law have all been done for the sake of communicating the words of the living God. What we need to do now is turn our thoughts inward. For 50 years, the Jewish community has worried about explaining ourselves to the non-Jewish world, through inter-faith relations. We’ve had quite a number of successes in that arena, especially with the Catholic, Protestant and Muslim communities. But perhaps it is time to put our efforts into intra-faith relations: creating opportunities for open and honest dialogue between the orthodox community and the Liberal community. We can make the lie of K’lal Yisrael into a truth to be valued and honored.

If Israel is to be a light unto the nations, it must be a place where all Jews are respected and valued. It is time that the offices of the Chief Rabbinate be closed. It is time for the government to not give implicit support to just one expression of Jewish faith. Institutions in Israel like Hiddush – which seeks to bring an end to the orthodox monopoly on issues of personal status must be supported. The growing Reform and Conservative movements in Israel must be seen as a viable option for those who want to deepen their connections to Jewish life and culture. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism stated: “I defend Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s right to hold hateful, odious beliefs about me and the Reform Movement, what I find indefensible is that his salary is being paid by the Israeli government. On Monday (September 4) a 39 year-old resident of the ultra-orthodox community of Bnai Brak was indicted for issuing death threats against me and my Israeli colleagues Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Anat Hoffman. Is anyone unclear as to where this man could have learned to hate Reform Jews?”

One should be heartened by the recent post from Rabbi Micky Boyden, one of the leaders of the Progressive Jewish community in Israel: “When one reads about the way in which Bibi Netanyahu backtracked on the Kotel agreement and the disgraceful manner in which the Women of the Wall are treated by the police and security personnel, one could be mistaken for believing that Liberal Judaism is having a bad time of it in Israel. If you add to that, the dislike that many feel for Israel’s right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many {non-orthodox} Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holydays are approaching and it is time to put the record straight. Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago, there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose-built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding. Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim (ultra-orthodox). Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. We are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bnei Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called “secular” Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative. Of course, many people don’t like Bibi. However, that doesn’t stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.”

So, we must create opportunities, not just for rabbis to sit and talk, but for proponents of liberal and orthodox communities to open themselves up to one another and learn what truly drives each other. In that way, we might be able to begin laying the foundations for respect and harmony. That respect and harmony does not have to come at the expense of selling out our ideals in order to please the other — it comes by accepting the idea that eylu v’eylu devarim elohim chayim — these and these are the words of the living God. Words of truth, spoken by people of faith, even though they may be of differing points of view, when spoken in pursuit of what is right and true in our Jewish life, are truly expressions of a God who dwells within us and among us.

Ultimately, for the sake of our community, we must build bridges of respect between the various streams of Jewish expression. As Rabbi Joseph Epstein wrote (Kitzur Shnay Lukhot Ha–brit, 6b) it is “only when all Jews work together as a community that the whole Torah can be fulfilled.” In this way, the world will be sustained by truth, by justice and by peace. And, thus, we will be able to live out this axiom for the sake of Heaven.

May this New Year find the entire community of Israel; unified as one people bound together by One God. And may this unity begin with the work of our hands — and our hearts, for the sake of peace.

G’mar Chatima Tova – may we will be well-inscribed in the Book of Life!

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