Just this week the office of the Chief Rabbi of Israel stated that they could no longer accept letters attesting to the Jewish status from the prominent Orthodox American rabbi, Avi Weiss because of “his ‘questionable’ commitment to Jewish Law.” The chief rabbinate have been accepting letters from Rabbi Avi Weiss for years, and his commitment to Jewish law has not changed recently. What has changed, however, is that we now have new chief rabbis in Israel who are more committed than ever to the Haredi community and it’s principles.
This is an unfortunate development on many levels–but most of all because Harediism itself is broken. It has been a number of months now since, together with a colleague, I have made myself available to counsel people who are Frum and Stuck. We have now spoken to tens of people from Israel, Europe, and the U.S.A. who whilst outwardly living a Haredi lifestyle, inwardly no longer relate and feel stuck. Many of these people have no desire to turn their back on their religion. It is just that Haredi Judaism and the dogmas that have been presented to them since they were children no longer inspire or motivate them. These people are not seeking to go away from Judaism, rather they are looking for a Judaism they can believe in and practice, while still maintaining their moral and intellectual integrity.
It has become clear to me that Haredi Judaism is not working even for many Haredim. The leaders of these communities must be aware of what I have seen over the past several months, and the deep dissatisfaction with the form of Judaism they represent. Yet, instead of recognizing that they might be the problem, they have blamed it on everything else. It’s because of the internet. It’s because people are lazy. It’s because of Yeridat Hadorot (the decline of the generations). It’s because of people’s evil desires. The list of excuses goes on. It’s everything and everyone else’s fault but their own.
The simple truth is that the problem isn’t the internet or anything else, it is that mind control and indoctrination often ceases to work when people become adults. Unfortunately the Haredi leadership are in denial about this.
Last week my son, age 12, who goes to an Orthodox Jewish day school, complained that his teacher had given a virulently anti-Zionist talk during class. My son has been to Israel on numerous occasions, asked me a very simple question, “How could my teacher lie about Israel in this way?” This was a wonderful teaching opportunity and I explained that his teacher wasn’t lying, but was rather gathering selective facts to fit with his own inner-model of the world, while ignoring others that didn’t fit so well. This is a human tendency and we are all guilty of it on one level or another.
But what if my son was twenty five when he recognized that some of the things he was taught were inconsistent with the facts? That could cause a huge crises of faith. This encapsulates the fundamental problem of the Haredi world. So many of their adherents wake up in their twenties or thirties and look around and realize that what they were taught as facts are often not facts at all. And then the question becomes, if the leaders of the community lied about some things, maybe Judaism is also a lie. Thus, nuance and vigorous intellectual honesty is discouraged in a community which values restrictions and adherence. But this system isn’t working for many and needs to be modified.
Sadly, over the last decade or so, the chief rabbinate in Israel has stopped representing Kala Yisroel (Jews in general) and instead only represents a broken Haredi view of Judaism. Clearly, Rabbi Weiss is not Haredi and would disagree with many of the Haredi interpretations and dogmas. This, however, does not make him of questionable commitment to Jewish law. In fact, Rabbi Weiss represents a type of Judaism which is deeply committed to Jewish law, and at the same time committed to intellectual and moral honesty.
One is left to conclude that it is this combination–commitment to Jewish Law and commitment to intellectual honesty and personal integrity–that the Haredi community is afraid of most. In the final analysis, however, it is the combination that their own people in their communities are yearning for, and that they themselves are therefore trying to shut out. In that sense, the chief rabbinate not accepting Rabbi Weiss’ letter has nothing to do with Rabbi Weiss or his fidelity to Jewish Law, and everything to do with the problems and struggles Haredi leaders are having with their own communities.