Todd Berman
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Choosing a kinder, gentler religious Zionism

With the ascent of parties that uphold a harsh version of Judaism, I worry for the soul of my religion and seek a Torah whose 'ways are ways of pleasantness'
Illustrative: Father and daughter learn together in preparation for her Bat Mitzva at The Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women (A.K.A. Migdal Oz), an Orthodox Jewish institution of higher Torah study for women, located in Gush Etzion, Israel. 	March 19, 2009 (Flash90)
Illustrative: Father and daughter learn together in preparation for her Bat Mitzva at The Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women (A.K.A. Migdal Oz), an Orthodox Jewish institution of higher Torah study for women, located in Gush Etzion, Israel. March 19, 2009 (Flash90)

With the seeming victory of the Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionist parties, I am nervous. I’m not frightened for my physical well-being or the financial benefits due to these parties’ success. Living in the greater Gush Etzion bloc, my neighbors and I will likely benefit. No, I’m worried about something much deeper – the soul of my religion.

I wasn’t born into ideological Religious Zionism or its cousin Modern Orthodoxy. Raised as an active Jew in the Conservative Movement schools, camps, and synagogues, I found something spiritually missing. I felt a lack of religious consistency and, to be honest, the serious commitment needed to satisfy my religious aspirations. Like so many friends, I moved “movements.” (I never like the word “movement” for expressions of Judaism.) I entered the crucible of yeshiva study in Israel for several years and pursued an intense and what I saw as an authentic learning regimen in religious Zionist environments. The strong sense of community, worship of God, and concern for the Jewish people touched my soul deeply, while the Torah, Talmud, and the sea of commentaries challenged my mind profoundly. I always felt that in yeshiva, I found my people.

Zionist education played a role in my youth; however, living and raising children in the Jewish homeland sealed the deal. Despite the acute security situation, I, like so many of my neighbors, relish the ability to live in the Jewish biblical heartland.

The beauty of Modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism attracted me. I am worried that something deep-rooted is changing.

The incoming leaders of the religious Zionist party are reputed not to reflect the ethos of Orthodox tradition I recognize and love. To be clear, it’s not that I can’t make textual arguments from biblical or Talmudic literature to support homophobic, Xenophobic, and dare I say, racist positions. Nor are the views of some politicians a complete historical anomaly. It would be dishonest to say otherwise. The texts are there.

Some embarrassing information appears in history books. But I believe these elements do not lie at the heart of Torah. Every traditional Jew confronts various sources and authorities and must choose which aspects of the past to emulate and which leaders to follow. Which should dominate and which others should play a minor role ultimately defines how a Jew, and any religious person, sees the will of God.

We are given a choice on how to read our tradition.

Interpretations of the famous verse in Leviticus 19:18 highlight our options. The Torah tells us, ‘and you shall love your friend as yourself.’ Rabbi Akiva exclaims that this is “a great rule of the Torah.” (Sifra ad loc) Any translation of Hebrew biases the reading. Some read “your friend” as limited to members of the Jewish people. Yet, several 19th-century German Orthodox rabbis read this expansively. In his Torah commentary, the Ketav Ve’Kaballah, Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg states, “All manner of good and kindness a person feels in his heart that he himself deserves from his friend, he should do for his comrade – which is every person.” Similarly, Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, not surprisingly for those who know his writing, suggests,

This [command] is a request that we can fulfill even with others who we feel no connection…the foundation of this command is “I am God” in the name of God we are commanded to act accordingly to all our comrades. For God has given the command to all of humanity to be comrades…the person who is spiritually and ethically whole will not distinguish between doing good to himself and to fellows.”

We can choose the xenophobic interpretation or the expansive one.

I choose the Torah of Rav Meklengberg and Rav Hirsch.

A perspective on the world was encoded in the very fabric of the text of creation.

The Torah declares, “God created man in His image; in the image of God, He created him. Male and female, He created them.” (Genisis 1:27). Our sages explain, “Therefore but a single person was created in the world… for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) All are endowed with the Divine image. “Rabbi Akiva used to say, beloved is Man for he was created in God’s image. It is a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in God’s image, as it is said, ‘For in the image of God did He make man’ (Genesis 9:6).” Rabbi Yisrael Lipshitz, another 19th-century German rabbi, notes in his popular commentary that the text clearly refers to all people.

Racial elitism seems to be in opposition to what many rabbis and theologians believed was the goal of the Torah. There is no room for xenophobia or racism in Judaism.

This is the path of many of my teachers, such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Yehuda Amital.

I choose to follow thinkers who see all of humanity to have been created in the divine image.

Just because you can…

In Leviticus 19, the Torah obligates us to be holy. Nahmanides suggests that holiness comes from refraining from permissible acts. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. Now religious people have the power to end the Pride Parade. But maybe those in the government can just not do anything. I don’t like protests or parades. I also don’t like sports events so much. So, I don’t go. Just because you have power doesn’t mean you have to wield it.

A new Knesset member immediately raised making “reparative sex therapy” legal again. This is a medical practice rejected by many mainstream medical agencies worldwide. Many suggest it is harmful. The central premise of an entire tractate of Talmud is that one should do no harm. The rabbis suggest, “one who desires to be pious should be careful regarding the laws of damages.” (Bava Kama 30a) Indeed, if many doctors claim this practice is damaging, the pious act, based on the best medical science, would be to refrain from promoting a possible harmful practice.

The entire approach to people with same-sex attraction flies in the face of tradition. “F says, don’t judge another until you reach his place” (Avot 2:4). Do those wanting to restrict the rights so recently gained have any clue about the struggle LGBTQ+ people go through? Of course, the verses on male homosexual acts seem clear, as does the punishment for this and many other things, such as Sabbath violation. But to paraphrase a statement of Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, the famed Chazon Ish, the penalties today seem barbaric and no longer serve their original purpose. Today, we must love people and not try to drive them away. (See Hazon Ish Y.D. 2)

I choose a Judaism that tries to do no harm.

The path we choose is, in many ways, up to us. When it comes to expanding women’s leadership roles, relating to non-Orthodox Jews, and treatment of non-Jews, etc., there are always expansive approaches and ones meant to limit. Both sides can find support in tradition.

Regarding women, there are several examples in Jewish history of women who served various roles with the support of some traditional rabbis. The prophets, including Miriam, Devorah, and Hulda, served in roles that show women can have religious functions. Maimondes’ voice in opposition is not the only position. Finding ways to promote modern women’s scholarship and leadership fits modern sensibilities and halacha. It is not a small thing that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught the first class in Talmud at Stern college. Navigating the complex history and tradition of women members of the Jewish community requires sensitivity. Not all will agree with the broader approach. But this is the traditional Judaism I choose.

Jewish unity

What about the greater Jewish community? Many within Orthodox Zionist society speak of the “unity of the Jewish people” or plan events to relate to the Diaspora. Yet most Jews in the largest Diaspora are left out of the conversation. Religious Zionist thinkers need to realize that the great denominational wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are over; otherwise, we will fail to bring the nation of Israel together. I disagree on the fundamentals of theology and definitions of Jewish values with many non-Orthodox friends. But as a people and as a nation, we need to find paths of communication and mutual respect.

The Kotel compromise was one such area. Major authorities such as Rabbi Asher Weiss and Rabbi Eliezer Melamed have declared the Robinson’s arch area a non-Orthodox prayer space. Where is the value of preventing others from using it as they see fit? In a responsum written in 1962, the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein noted that if non-Orthodox communities help pay for the building of a mikveh, then they too have a right to use it and the managers of the building have no right to restrict them. (Iggerot Moshe, YD 2 #125) Respecting others doesn’t have to be complicated. The Torah and God are served by an expansive traditional Judaism which welcomes others in their search for the Divine.

There are many areas where legitimate disagreement among Orthodox legal authorities leaves room to tilt the scales toward kindness. All agree that oppressing converts is counter to Jewish law. Yet, the rabbinate has been accused of doing just that. The Batei Din in Israel have become a constantly criticized body. Whether or not the criticism is justified, Maimonides is clear:

There are other deeds included in [the category of] the desecration of [God’s] name, if performed by a person of great Torah stature who is renowned for his piety – i.e., deeds which, although they are not transgressions, [will cause] people to speak disparagingly of him. This also constitutes the desecration of [God’s] name…Everything depends on the stature of the sage. [The extent to which] he must be careful with himself and go beyond the measure of the law [depends on the level of his Torah stature.]

Treating people with kindness and respect enhances the stature of Judaism. Acting in a manner that causes derision of the Torah profanes the name of God.

This is the Orthodox Judaism I seek.

Halachik literature describes a meta-legal rule “on account of human dignity.” The Talmud closely circumscribes the ruling but presents several cases, both Torah rules and rabbinic laws impacted by this notion. “Great is human dignity that it overrides a positive command in the Torah.” (Berachot 19b) Although the application of this rule is limited, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that it needs to be invoked more often. He recounted that his father-in-law, Rabbi Soloveitchik, once declared,

frequently when he [Rabbi Soloveitchik] came to rule on a legal matter, the fundamental issue which held the most weight to guide him in his ruling was human dignity. However, when he formulated his judgment and wrote it down, he relied upon other reasons. And it seems that this phenomenon wasn’t limited to him but also played a role for other rabbis.

How often is the concern for “human dignity” the primary driving force behind our decisions? Clearly, for many rabbis, it played a significant role.

This is the type of Orthodoxy I decided to join.

The wisest of all, King Solomon, describes the Torah, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness. All her paths are peace. “(Proverbs 3:17). All her paths are paths of peace! The rabbis included in the Mishnah an entire list of laws that depend on the Torah’s law being “pleasant and ways of peace.” One of the examples giving for a law dependent upon “paths of peace” is the rule that a Kohen is the first to be called to the Torah. The Talmud is surprised by this claim. “Abbaye asked Rav Yosef, ‘isn’t this rule [that a Kohen is called first] based on a Torah law?’ Rav Yosef replied, ‘yes, it is a Torah law.’ To which Abbaye retorts, ‘all the laws in the Torah are because of ‘ways of peace’ as it says, ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness. All her paths are peace.” (Gitin 59b). Let that sink in, “all the laws in the Torah are because of ‘ways of peace.'” Abbaye’s unchallenged claim seems to be as prescriptive as it is descriptive. The challenge is to choose “ways of peace.”

This, of course, leads us to questions directly linked to the candidates.

As important as the land of Israel is, the State is not the highest value.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, among many other well-known rabbinic figures, accepted giving up parts of the land of Israel to save Jewish lives. Life, for these rabbis, is the higher ideal. ‘Ways of peace’ is not only for ‘internal’ consumption – a quip used in a Saturday morning sermon for Jews about Jews. The concept has universal applications. Maimonides rules explicitly,

However, our Sages commanded us to visit the gentiles when ill, to bury their dead in addition to the Jewish dead, and support their poor in addition to the Jewish poor for the sake of peace. Behold, Psalms 145:9 states: ‘God is good to all and His mercies extend over all His works,’ and Proverbs 3:17 says: ‘The Torah’s ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are peace.’ (Laws of Kings 10:12)

But certainly, one might argue, the only option for Jews is to despise the Palestinians or at least the terrorists among them. Here too, one needs to be thoughtful. Are we supposed to hate our sworn enemies? Some of the most respected authorities say no. Before the State of Israel was founded, the only halachik solution to the necessity of milking cows on the Sabbath, argued Rabbi Avraham Yishaya Kareletz, was to use Arab labor. Many religious farmers of pre-state Israel considered the local Arabs to be enemies. Rabbi Kareletz argued that “the way of the Torah is to attempt to make peace with everyone and to go beyond the measure of the law.” He argued that anger and vengeance were not the way of the Torah. (Hazon Ish, Shabbat 56 #4 p. 82)

This is a challenging standard, yet for one of the most respected rabbinic decisors of the 20th century, hating others and seeking vengeance is never an option. When we need to defend ourselves and go to war, we will, but this is never the ideal. And in demonizing others, we run the risk of dehumanizing ourselves.

This is not a “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way” screed. I am claiming that we choose our rabbinic leaders, including the texts we give prominence in our search for the Divine will. This is rabbinic Judaism.

None of the issues mentioned demands that one sacrifice observance of Jewish tradition. It requires that we see others as God’s holy creations and act accordingly. We are commanded to be God-like, to try to walk in the Divine ways and be kind and merciful to all God’s creatures. (Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, #8) This entire list can be reduced to acting godly.

As Hillel said, “which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary.” (Shabbat 31a.)

Many issues confront us today: how to relate to LGBTQ+ folk, women’s role in Judaism, the rabbinical court system, kashruth, democracy, other Jewish groups, etc. the list seems almost endless. Observant Jews, especially their rabbis and leaders, are given various sources and mechanisms to guide them. We must choose what and whom to follow. The book of Proverbs declares, “The crucible for silver, and the furnace for gold; but man according to his praise.” (Proverbs 27:21) Rabbenu Yona comments that a person’s character is evaluated by whom he praises. In other words, we are judged by the choices we make and the leaders we choose to follow.

I believe that the Torah’s ways are pleasant, and its paths are peaceful. I choose this version of Judaism, and those leaders who espouse these ethics are the ones I choose to follow.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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