How can a “Rabbi” be so against religion in the worlds only Jewish and democratic state

If you receive Hiddush’s English language e-newsletter and hit the ‘reply’ button, your e-mail will go to my mailbox. Above is a response I recently received.

Putting the word ‘Rabbi’ in quotation marks suggests that the writer doesn’t accept the legitimacy of Hiddush Director Rabbi Uri Regev’s ordination from Hebrew Union College[1], but expects Rabbi Regev to share the correspondent’s understanding of what it means to be “against religion” by virtue of the fact that he bears the title “Rabbi”.

I sent back the following response:

Dear Sir,

 

Hiddush believes that the State of Israel and the Jewish People will be strengthened through freedom of religion, rather than religious coercion, and we work towards that end with great love and concern.

 

If you would like to know more about Hiddush’s vision for Israel, please see the attached Vision statement.

 

Thank you very much for your interest,
David

For me, the mission of religious freedom in Israel is profoundly compelling for halakhic reasons. Whereas this correspondent suggests that Hiddush is “against religion”, I would claim that we’re for it. Further, there is a solid, reasoned halakhic argument to be made against religious coercion, whether it be state-enforced or not, and I find myself wondering whether the Orthodox detractors of religious freedom in Israel are aware of it.

In 1991, Rabbi Eugene Korn wrote a seminal essay in Tradition Magazine titled Tradition Meets Modernity: On the Conflict of Halakhah and Political Liberty, which brilliantly explains the difference between our two divergent approaches to Jewish tradition’s intersection with modernity.

In his analysis, Rabbi Korn posited that there are two models in halakha for dealing with Jews who consistently violate Jewish law[2].

  1. Biblical and Talmudic literature often emphasize correction through coercion, since prior assent to the halakha is assumed.
  2. Late Rabbinic literature delineates the halakhic option of a non-coercive approach, applicable prior to assent, which focuses on education and moral suasion and tolerates behavior that conflicts with the halakha.

Before the Jewish emancipation, wrote Rabbi Korn, there was a broad general consensus amongst Jews that obligation to Torah law constituted their identity. Every medieval Jew saw himself as a commanded person, even if he failed to be systematically observant. However, in our post-Emancipation Jewish communities of Israel and the diaspora, there are wholly secular, nationalistic, and ethnic formulations of Jewish identity for which acceptance of the Torah and traditional mitsvot are largely irrelevant.[3]

Rabbi Korn cites multiple sources in his article, including the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878 – 1953) who became one of the leaders of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel during his final twenty years:

When the Divine Providence is concealed, when the masses have lost their faith, throwing [heretics] into a pit is no longer an act against lawlessness, but on the contrary, it is an act which would simply widen the breach; for they would consider it an act of moral corruption and violence, God forbid. And since our entire purpose is to remedy the situation, the law does not apply to a period when no remedy would result. Rather, we must bring them back through the bonds of love and enlighten them to the best of our abilities.[4]

One who puts quotation marks around the title ‘Rabbi’ in reference to non-Orthodox rabbis would likely dismiss Rabbi Uri Regev’s arguments for freedom of religion in Israel out of hand… but I wonder if he would also dismiss the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger (1798-1871), Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), all of which are referenced in Rabbi Korn’s analysis.

Religiously inclined people should be true to their faiths, and some will oppose freedom of religion in Israel regardless of late rabbinic literature. Still, any fair-minded thinker must acknowledge that a halakhically committed Jew could very reasonably support Hiddush’s mission, in the spirit of these great rabbis’ writings.

Lastly, a casual review of history will confirm that we arrived at the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish life in Israel because Prime Minister David Ben Gurion elected to fall back upon the Ottoman Empire’s ‘millet system’ as a concession to the ultra-Orthodox community in 1947, granting them sole authority over Jewish public religious life. Suffice it to say that Ben Gurion’s fateful decision wasn’t grounded in Torah study or review of rabbinic sources.

While Rabbi Korn didn’t quote Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) in his work, the Rav’s words still ring true and poignant as ever:

No undue influence and no coercive circumstances must interfere with the behavior of the person. If one is constrained by legislation which is provided by effective sanctions, by public opinion, by ulterior considerations to conform to certain codes of morality or ethical standards, then the sublime sacrificial action is desecrated, vulgarized.[5]


Footnotes:

  1. Did you know: there is no halakhic definition of the word ‘rabbi’
  2. Korn, Eugene. “Tradition Meets Modernity: On the Conflict of Halakha and Political Liberty.” Tradition 25:4 (Summer 1991): p. 39-40
  3. Ibid. p. 37
  4. The Hazon Ish, commentary on Yoreh De’a, 13:16.
  5. Holzer, David, ed. “The Rav: Thinking Aloud”. Holzer Seforim. p. 41