Toward a more Inclusivist and Compassionate Israeli Rabbinate

Last weeks Times of Israel had an article reporting on Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to a Solomon Schechter school in Manhattan. In the article, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, in referring to the Minister’s visit to a Conservative day school, was quoted as saying:

To recognize a path that distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people, this is forbidden.’

I wonder what the good rabbi would have to say about the visit of the world’s most preeminent Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz to a Solomon Schechter school in Westchester, NY last year. I was privileged to be present at Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Shiur/presentation and he happily shared the light of Torah with a room of his Jewish brothers and sisters. Rabbi Steinsaltz, is a world-renowned teacher, philosopher, spiritual advisor, and prolific author, whose life’s work has been to make the Talmud and other Jewish texts accessible to all Jews.

I recently submitted my doctoral dissertation on the effect of the Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli soldier participants. One of my research questions involved quizzing the Israelis about their Israeli and Jewish identities. Time and time again in the interviews and surveys I conducted, the Israeli subjects placed an emphasis on serving the State of Israel over Jewish religious practice. Serving the State included the elements of living in Israel, speaking Hebrew and serving in the IDF.

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Religious IDF Officer addresses my “Amazing Israel” Birthright Group.  Photo: © T. Book, 2015

One of the possible prime reasons for this phenomenon of disinterestedness and disconnectedness from religious ritual practice could be what amounts to a de facto detachment between the majority of the State of Israel’s Jewish population to its religious Jewish establishment. According to the soldiers I surveyed there was the tremendous antipathy they feel, as secular Zionist Israelis toward the State’s rabbinate. They view the rabbinate as a bastion of Ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist, non-IDF serving “men in black,” who alienate the majority of their potential constituents by being both incredibly out of touch and openly antagonistic toward any lifestyle that does not respond to their own. As Daniel Gordis observed:

Israel’s rabbinate lives as if the rabbinic hegemony over Jewish communities continues unchanged from the Middle Ages, as if the Enlightenment and Emancipation had not yet arrived.”

There is hope against the creeping trend towards wholesale Jewish illiteracy in Israeli society. One of the important alternatives is the Tzohar rabbinical organisation. Tzohar is a movement founded by religious-Zionist IDF-serving rabbis who are more open to the needs of the general public, not just the religiously observant sectors. They call for new guidelines for managing the marriage, divorce and conversion processes in Israel. The rabbis who volunteer for Tzohar are inspired by the inclusivist philosophy of Rabbi A.I. Kook (the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of pre-State Israel). To paraphrase Rabbi Kook, only when we learn what we have in common, and not what divides us, and share an unconditional love towards our fellow Jews then we will be worthy of complete redemption.

The purely righteous do not complain about evil, rather they add justice. They do not complain about heresy, rather they add faith. They do not complain about ignorance, rather they add wisdom.”

-Rabbi. A.I. Kook, Arpilei Tohar

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Zionism curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Education” (fifth edition, 2017, Koren) and is at present working on his next book, a history of the Jewish people. Tuvia has a doctorate in Israel education. His dissertation title is: “Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: Exploring the Influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli Soldier Participants.”
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