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Confessions of an Orthodox pluralist

More freedom and not less is what guarantees the Torah's future, even when it seems to run counter to tradition

I support the legalization of secular marriage in Israel.

I support the legalization of secular burial in Israel.

I support the legalization of gay marriage.

I support legal access to birth control and abortion.

I support equal funding for non-Orthodox institutions in Israel (my home).


I support today’s decision by the (my) Israeli Government to Create Permanent Egalitarian Prayer Space at Western Wall.

I could start this post saying that “as an Orthodox rabbi I support ….”, but I won’t (h/t to Rabbi Elli Fischer). Living in Israel surrounded by so many incredible talmidei chachaimim (scholars), invoking the title in any context often seems downright silly. And truthfully, nothing special in my rabbinic training lends credence to these stances. My studies for ordination (semikha) consisted primarily of Talmud, Codes, and Responsum or in yeshiva parlance, Shas and Poskim. I am proud of that training, but it is not the motivation for maintaining the political positions listed above, and appealing to the title implies, fictitiously, some innate value to my opinion over that of others.

I write this, as in all my blog posts, simply as a concerned Israeli and Jew.

Indeed many teachers, colleagues, and friends disagree with me on some or all of these counts. Truthfully, they can find support for a more rigid legal approach, even in a post-biblical world, in the words of the greatest of Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides. In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam, loosely based on talmudic precedent, supports using police to enforce traditional Jewish norms: “it is incumbent on the religious court during holidays to station police that will walk around and search the gardens and orchards and rivers in order to prevent men and women from congregating there to eat and drink and coming to sin“ (Hil. Yom Tov 6:17 and the comments of Maggid Mishneh ad loc.).

Before being tarred and feathered as a not-Orthodox-enough reformer, let me point out that the same Maimonides who advocated for modesty police, had very different views on modesty than are accepted by almost any group of Jews today. Indeed, Rambam’s position advocating women wear what amounts to a veil or to refrain from leaving the house more than a couple of times a month is universally rejected (see Hil. Ishut 13:11 and 24:12.). So while it is true that Rambam felt comfortable using political power and police to force the public to keep his version of Judaism, many of his social rulings are simply rejected or ignored. Just as I do not advocate women wearing burqas, I don’t support modesty police on the Tel Aviv beaches.

And lest I am misquoted, let me state for the record that while I support these issues on a legal-democratic plane I do not support them on a Jewish-halachic one. As an Orthodox rabbi (and here I think it makes sense to invoke my clergy card), I would not perform a non-halachic wedding, participate in a non-traditional burial ceremony, attend a non-Orthodox prayer service, promote reproductive medicine not sanctioned by halachic authorities, or pray in an egalitarian space. But the Israeli citizen in me respect the rights of those who want to do so.

This brings me to the crux of the issue. Should Orthodox Jews use democratic agencies to enforce Jewish law and tradition? While I have friends who would respond in the affirmative, I believe the best course today is to reject such a political position.

No doubt, Orthodox tradition and democratic values can be seen as at odds with one another. Allowing others to express certain freedoms, such as of that of religious practice, seems to run counter to Orthodoxy; however, in the modern reality, I believe that more freedom and not less can guarantee the continuance of Torah.

The simplest argument is pragmatic, if not essentialist. By demanding adherence to traditional norms, Orthodox Jews run the risk of not only alienating fellow travelers but also antagonizing other citizens. And a negative response to this approach is readily apparent. Just today several Meretz supporters are organizing a boycott of a restaurant for closing on Shabbat. The owner did so on his own accord and should have the right to do so; however, some see even this as a violation of their freedoms. Forced legal closures by an Orthodox-controlled Knesset can only bring even more severe reactions in the future.

And what if those who disagree with tradition are in control of the political power structure. Can we in good conscience protests anti-religious legislation? In order for those who adhere to tradition to ensure that their rights will not be trampled, they themselves must not impinge on the rights of others. Joseph “Tommy” Lapid, father of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, a ferocious commentator and politician in his own right, argued that he had no problem with religious people as long as they didn’t try to force their religion upon him. The upheaval of the Shinui party in the elections of 2003 was driven by just such a rebellion against what was seen as religious coercion.

On a more profound and deeper level, supporting extended democracy and freedoms is the right course of action. No one is sure when it happened but with the advent of modernity, choice became the dominant form or religious discourse. People do not choose religion which is forced upon them. As the famous midrash has it, God lifted the mountain above the Jewish people and gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse: accept the Torah or be buried beneath Sinai. (TB Shabbat 88a) In the talmudic reading of the Bible and Jewish history, the people of Israel chose a life of servitude to the Almighty. I question if given that ultimatum today, would the response be the same or would people choose freedom even unto death over a version of Judaism forced upon them?

In discussing a more severe issue, R. Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, the famous patriarch of Israeli Haredi Judaism, remarked that sometimes restrictions originally designed to safeguard the Torah can, when times change, actually threaten Judaism’s continuity. Taking a stricter view on public policy issues only pushes others away when our task is to bring the world to Torah. (Chazon Ish, YD 2:16.)

On the deepest of levels, however, the life lived in democratic society demands flexibility and recognition of the rights of others. This is what it means to live together in a complex country. All members of Israeli society pay taxes, serve the country (at least in theory), and join together in running the state. We all share this space and we all pay in gold and blood for the ability to live here.

None other than the great Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled broadly in a similar case. When asked about allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions in the local ritual bath, he pointed out that sharing in the costs for building the mikveh prevented one group from having total power over the use of the facility (Iggerot Moshe HM vol. 2 #24). He goes on to say that, in addition, since the non-Orthodox rabbis will not be prevented from performing these conversions, there is no benefit in denying them access to the mikveh even in the case where such denial would be legitimate — which, again, due to the monetary reality, it is not.

Here in Israel, too, where we all participate in building the country, it is illegitimate, counter productive, and downright wrong to try to prevent other citizens from living their lives as they see fit and to try to prevent them from using public areas, built with everyone’s taxes, in a respectful yet non-traditional manner.

Everyone who holds Judaism dear and cherishes democracy should praise the compromise that has been reached in the Kotel plaza. I look forward to the day when freedoms can be extended beyond those of worship even as hope the light of the Torah will move society towards a greater embrace of tradition.

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.