Orthodox Judaism must embrace change… or wither

I am on leave this week but sharing with you an article I wrote several months ago. I did provide an abbreviated version of it in a previous newsletter. It’s a reflection on how the times are a changing and challenging Orthodoxy especially in an online and Covid (and post-Covid) era. It’s particularly relevant at Chanukah time which is about how Judaism responded to a tectonic change when confronting the Greek empire and civilisation. 

Chag Chanukah Sameach! 

There is a danger that if Orthodoxy doesn’t respond to the dramatic changes of Covid, it will become, if not obsolete, just a remnant of a great superstructure.

IT WAS A TIME OF DARKNESS and anxiety. It was, to adapt Dickens, the worst of times for the Jewish people. It was the year 70CE. The Temple was smouldering, Jerusalem was lost, Jewish sovereignty ravaged, Jewish survival in the balance.

Into this bleak landscape steps Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, student of the great Hillel, brilliant scholar and leader in Jerusalem. He quits Jerusalem shortly before the conflagration to plead with the Romans and secures Yavneh as a new centre for Jewish learning. In this audacious act he also secures the Jewish future; he preserves Jewish learning and establishes the authority of the rabbis and the Talmudic enterprise.

It is a bold and brave move, born out of despair and desperation, but it is, as Rav Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel) points out, ultimately a defensive one designed to keep Judaism strictly within the secure space of the Halacha, the Yeshiva, the Beit Ha-Midrash.

In his recently published book, Israeli rabbi Ronen Neuwirth argues that in line with the thinking of Rabbi Kook, the times they are a changing. There has been a profound shift in the post-modern era that challenges the traditional authority of the rabbinate and indeed the tradition itself. In an age of extreme individualism and an anarchic and free-wheeling social media, a new way of relating to Halacha is urgently called for.

Rabbi Ronen wouldn’t have known that the publication of his book would coincide with a global pandemic. Just as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would never have imagined his latest book, Morality, would be born just as Covid-19 announced itself to the world. Yet both these books reveal (in different ways) the paradigm shift that is being demanded of traditional Orthodox Judaism.

The Halachic process must move from the defensive to the proactive, from retreat to revision, from ‘supervision to super vision’. 

There is a real danger that if Orthodoxy doesn’t respond to the dramatic changes of a Covid Age, and a post-pandemic new normal, it will become, if not obsolete, just a remnant of a great and proud superstructure; that the Halacha itself will be reduced to a tiny coterie of ultra conservative followers.

We must, opines Rabbi Neurwirth, a fierce defender of the Halachic system, reverse the process that Rabbi Yochanan be Zakkai introduced. The Halachic process must move from the defensive to the proactive, from retreat to revision. In Neuwirth’s words, “from supervision to super vision”.

There are promising signs that this process has begun. Rabbinic leaders and poskim (deciders of Jewish law) across the globe have called on their followers not to attend minyanim, shule services, study in yeshivot or gather together for Shabbat.

To be sure, this can be seen as an enactment of the established Halachic principle of Pikuah Nefesh, the notion that preservation of life is paramount (and one seemingly resisted by a small number of “true believers”). Yet this willingness to exercise flexibility is not one that the rabbinic establishment, especially the Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, is known for. After all, even in the midst of the pandemic, one of Israel’s chief rabbis has derided the appointment of religious women as leaders.

In the face of these determined women who have studied the same syllabus as their male counterparts and achieved parity with them, he has scoffed that women can’t possibly grasp the intricacies of the Halacha. It’s a stupendous kind of denial that still plagues parts of the Charedi world.

Notwithstanding this, the cat may well be out of the bag. The changes, even if seen as timid by those outside the Halachic camp, are in my mind a significant indicator of things to come.

Religion is, by its very nature, a slow-moving conservative force. It is fearful of change because it is mindful that change can undermine the very system you are seeking to develop; it can easily destroy centuries of carefully calibrated scholarship as well as a beautiful way of living.

Too much change, too fast, can destroy the most superb system. Yet too little change, too slowly, can often be equally damaging. You can’t, however, stop the clock, you can’t hold back the inexorable movement of time and progress. Even the Charedi world is beginning to acknowledge this – a community without access to the internet at a time of crisis is endangering the lives of its members and its own future.

Already there are signs of rabbis relaxing the rules for Rosh Hashana under pandemic – multiple services of reduced length pared down to the critical essentials, the number of shofar blasts limited to a minimum. 

Not only are they not getting the information they need to fight the virus, they are holding back their community from communicating – from learning online, from providing essential mutual support. They are, in short, eroding the very qualities that they so value: study and chesed (acts of kindness).

A few brave rabbis in Israel who boldly ruled that Zoom could be used, albeit in a limited way, to bring families together at their Seders were, it seems, pressured into withdrawing and qualifying their visionary ruling.

Yet already there are signs of rabbis relaxing the rules for Rosh Hashana under pandemic – multiple services of reduced length pared down to the critical essentials, the number of shofar blasts limited to a minimum.

In my mind these courageous new moves carry the potential to radically change the face of Orthodoxy. Yes, they can be seen as hora-at Sha’ah, rules relaxed because of the exigencies of the hour, but they can also be seen as carrying the seeds of a more open, flexible and tolerant flowering of the Halacha. The future is already here.

However, it’s not a one-way street – and this is the argument of Rabbi Sacks. It’s not just case of Halacha adopting to a changing world, it’s also about what tradition has to offer to western civilisation in divided and dark times.

Traditional Judaism has a lot to say about the fundamentals of a good and just society. It offers a path of moral clarity for a perplexed and confused age. It’s a reminder of what makes and shapes resilient societies. It’s an exemplar of the balance between “I” and “We”.

And it is this which perhaps provides the strongest argument as to why tradition should embrace change – not as a supplicant but as a partner. Together they can craft a better, stronger world for us all.

Out of the ruins of the Temple, (which we mark during this period on the Jewish calendar), the phoenix of a Jewish intellectual tradition rose. Out of the coven of Covid may a renewed and innovative temple of Jewish learning and practice rise.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, Rabbi Ralph Genende is a well-known and popular Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Ralph was Senior Rabbi to the Auckland, New Zealand Jewish community for ten years. He then became College Rabbi at Mount Scopus College, member of its Executive Team and Rabbi of Beit Aharon congregation. Currently Rabbi Genende is Senior Rabbi of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, one of Melbourne’s largest congregations. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist and they have three children – Eyal (who is married to Carly), Daniella and Yonatan and a grandson Ezra.
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