After intense public criticism over their refusal to include non-Orthodox rabbis as teachers in their Shavuot “Leil Tikkun” learning event, the Orthodox Tzohar Rabbis group has agreed to permit a single session in which non-Orthodox teachers will have their moment in the program, with no Orthodox rabbis on the panel. This concession is not only too little too late, it’s not even a concession. It reinforces and amplifies the message of their initial ban on non-Orthodox teaching at the event.
Tzohar is at liberty to make its own policies about who is permitted to teach Torah. My question is why Tzavta would agree to host the event with these restrictions. Tzavta is a Tel Aviv cultural event venue owned by the Kibbutz Ha’artzi Movement. The decision by this respected institution to bow to Tzohar’s requests is a sad commentary on Israel’s growing religious rift, even between the so-called Liberal Orthodox, and others in Israeli society.
Five years ago, my family and I spent two years in Berkeley, California. There, Shavuot was a very special night. All the synagogues and Jewish organizations held a joint “Tikkun”, an evening of study, at the community center. Congregations of every kind — Haredi, Chabad, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Jewish Renewal and Ethical Humanist — came together to teach and learn. Apart from the wonderful mosaic of learning and teaching that this produced, there was another striking aspect of this Tikkun: Every participant was able to learn in his or her own way. Alongside sessions where Halachic restrictions were observed, there were those that used electricity or music.
This event was so inspiring that in my very first year as the Masorti (Conservative) rabbi of Kfar Vradim in Israel’s Galilee, I made sure to hold a joint Tikkun, and after the sessions held at our synagogue, led by religious and secular teachers, we held the second part of the Tikkun together with the Orthodox community, with a session led by the rabbis of both communities.
In general, in all my adult education work in the community, I always made an effort to invite Orthodox and Reform rabbis, along with secular thinkers, and of course teachers who are not rabbis. This was rooted in the conviction that Torah study is enriched for everyone by hearing other voices, and that diversity only enhances. This is also why I insisted that the community be actively involved in Limmud Galil, which brings together teachers of all Jewish stripes
I have studied Torah for many years — my love of learning Torah is what drove me to become a rabbi — and I have learned over time that my study of Torah and my ability to comprehend Torah are deepened by every additional voice. Knowledge is an important element and has value in Torah learning, but sometimes it also poses an obstacle to deeper insight. Similarly, values and worldviews can enable delving deep into things, but can also pose a limitation. The greater the range of knowledge and perspectives, the greater the ability for deep understanding of Torah.
It is my hope that every Jew will take responsibility for his or her own Judaism. They should reflect on their faith through the prism of those who are and are not proficient in Torah study; with a variety of rabbis and other scholarly figures. Tzavta’s willingness to accept Tzohar’s demand of an Orthodox-only Torah teaching event (albeit now with the addition of a largely non-Orthodox-only teaching session) reflects a narrow view of Torah study. It takes a path toward preserving hierarchies. And it reinforces the barriers that a secular person faces in approaching the Torah. It may even express a desire to uphold the hegemony of Orthodox interpretation and understanding of Judaism. Perhaps this comes from a wish to compartmentalize Judaism, and keep Israel as a state of the Jews, but not really a Jewish state.
I also think that if you ask Tzohar what motivates them to be partners in this event, they would say it is to attract people who do not usually come to study. There is nothing wrong with that, but we must remember that it cannot really be called partnership.
Starting next year, when I step into my role as dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, I will have the honor of working with the many rabbis and leaders who aspire to engage in a different Jewish discourse, one tailored for Israeli society.
This is a discourse that embraces equality and the premise that learning is strengthened as the diversity of voices grows wider. If you are interested in dedicating your life to influencing the Jewish discourse in Israel and developing different Jewish voices, I invite you to get involved.