During the past few days, the Israeli media and public discourse have raged over the words of two rabbis, and what they mean for the place of the Halakha in our time. The first, Rabbi Eyal Krim, was appointed Chief Rabbi of the IDF, in what was considered a controversial pick due to some of his alleged past statements. The other, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, head of a presitigious yeshiva preparing teenagers for military service, gave a widely-publicized speech that could be mildly described as impolitic.
It seems to me that all of Jewish thought and tradition lies somewhere between Rabbi Krim and Rabbi Levinstein.
I’ve written and deleted countless versions of this article. I’ve sent it to so many friends and colleagues, and I still don’t think I’ve articulated my thoughts well enough. As an observant Jew, the Torah and Halakha have given me meaning and sanctity, but also pose profound challenges for our lives today. Within those ancient scriptures are commandments and rules that are extremely discomforting for our modern ears. Leviticus decrees death for homosexuals, while Deuteronomy specifies the conditions under which it is allowed to marry female prisoners of war.
Rabbi Krim did not shy away from either issue. While the Torah’s viewpoint on marrying a captive woman might be troubling for us today, he tried to interpret it through a modern perspective as best he could. And that put him in a lot of hot water with those who thought he was implicitly permitting rape in times of war. Likewise, he could not out and out contradict the Torah’s approach towards homosexuals, but still tried to find the most respectable and sensitive way to accommodate those whose lifestyle does not accord with his. This, for me, represents bravery.
Rabbi Levinstein, on the other hand, showed no such capacity for complexity and subtlety when he made his incendiary speech. He does not follow the Mishna when it proclaims, “Beloved is man, since he is created in the image [of God].” When he says that homosexuals represent aberrations that are corrupting the military, when he says that it is forbidden to hear their point of view, he is engaging in exclusion and bigotry. Rabbi Levinstein is still a spiritual guide for many of his former students that occupy important positions in both the public service and the army. When they turn to him, he takes the easy way out. He does not confront reality – he’s running away from it.
Or, to put it simply: one represents a willingness to work hard in bridging the gap between Jewish tradition and modern reality. The other takes refuge in strict adherence to the letter of the law, even when it represents divisiveness and intolerance. It’s the classic dilemma: fight or flight.
Some of my friends don’t observe the Sabbath. Others don’t eat kosher, or cohabitate before they’re married. For generations, Jewish society has found a way to include and tolerate them. After all, in the words of the Mishna, “you have no man who does not have his hour,” and the Talmud reads, “even though one has sinned, he is still of Israel.” This principle should guide our conduct towards each and every one who does not follow the letter of the Torah. For even if they do not obey the same rules as us, we are all still brothers and sisters.
Don’t get me wrong. There are limits. I’m against the watering down of our identity, and I believe modern society has gone too far in eroding Jewish tradition. But I also believe in the value of personal choice. Each of us has to choose whether to go against his instincts, and if so, how.
Observant Jewish society has its fair share of controversies, on Shabbat, the definition of a Jew, gender equality and toleration of homosexuals. I expect the secular society, and in particular the media, to allow us the time and space to resolve these issues among ourselves. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility, individual and collective alike, to do everything within our power in order to make sure that this process is respectful of those it might offend.
I sincerely hope that Rabbi Levinstein’s speech does not represent the further fracturing of the Modern Orthodox community in Israel. I have had the good fortune to know Rabbi Eli Sadan, Rabbi Levinstein’s co-leader in the Eli yeshiva, for many years. I trust that under his leadership, this institution will continue to produce some of our country’s most promising leaders, in the spirit of fraternity and goodwill he has been preaching for decades.