Kenneth Cohen
Kenneth Cohen

Orthodox Rabbis Should know Better

One of the great tragedies in the Jewish world, is the incredible ignorance of a great number of Jews. Rav Yakov Kuli, also known as the Meam Loez, claimed that there was a period of 850 years in our history, where every Jew knew all Five Books of Moses by heart. Today, we would be surprised if most could even name what the Five Books are. Yet, the assumption is that the ones who continued to study Judaism most intensely, were the Orthodox Jews, with their numerous Yeshivot, houses of study. A further assumption would be that the Orthodox rabbis represent the highest level of Torah scholarship.

I realize this to be a generalization and there are exceptions, but the demands for rabbinic ordination in a recognized Orthodox institution, are very great. An ordained Orthodox rabbi is supposed to have a good grasp on all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life. Somehow I fear that some of the most fundamental teachings of Jewish History and Judaism for that matter, are not being taught by these esteemed rabbis to their congregations and constituents. This may be because of ignorance, fear, or complacency. Regardless of the reason, a Jewish tragedy is emerging.

One of the most basic facts of Jewish History is that there is a concept called, “Galut”, or exile. It represents a punishment for not having obeyed the commandments. On every festival, this is recited in the Mussaf service. “Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” While in Galut, we were guests in a country that did not belong to us. And wherever we traveled, our stay ended in either, expulsion, assimilation, or annihilation. The only home for the Jewish people was Israel. Once we returned in mass, as we are witnessing today, we will never leave our beloved homeland again. A good rabbi would remind his congregation of this fact on a regular basis.

Another fact that is basic to Judaism, is the longing to return to Israel. Thrice daily in our Amidah prayer, we ask G-d to, “allow our eyes to see the return to Zion in mercy.” Today this great longing can be fulfilled by simply making a plane reservation. Many Torah scholars list living in Israel as one of the 613 commandments. It is also clear that even today, more Mitzvot can be observed in Israel than anywhere else in the world. Shouldn’t this be taught by our learned spiritual leaders of today?

The Talmud teaches that one of the most grievous sins in the Torah is “Chillul Hashem”, desecrating the Name of G-d. It is the most difficult sin to atone for, as one is guilty of making the Al-mighty look weak, and His laws foolish. As an Orthodox rabbi, and founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Century City of Los Angeles, I was tormented by a verse in the Book of Ezekiel. In Chapter thirty six, the prophet rebukes Israel by telling them that their very presence outside of Israel, is a desecration of the Name of G-d. The prophet explains why; “When they (the Gentiles) will say to you, ‘You are G-d’s chosen people, but you are sent out of His Land.'”

The prophet was teaching that even if one lives a pious life in the Exile, G-d is made to look weak as if He did not have the strength to bring his children home. It was this verse that motivated me thirty-six years ago, to end my personal desecration and move to Israel. Today, Israel’s achievements and the fulfillment of numerous prophecies, are remarkable. The gift of the Land of Israel, that eluded our ancestors, is available to every Jew. For those of us who live here, walking in the streets of Jerusalem and marveling at the beauty of this G-d given country, fills us with an intense feeling of joy and pride.

Rejecting this gift of Israel, and turning life in Galut as acceptable, seems so wrong. I have heard all of the explanations and justifications, but they do not make any sense. I cannot think of a greater insult to the G-d who helped us through this long and bitter exile, than to reject His kindness and mercy, and not partaking of the home He has given us. In Israel,Jews feel safe and content to be living among their brothers in the only place where they are welcome and wanted. I know that we are taught not to judge, but I just cannot see any justification why rabbis do not scream out the truths that I have outlined.

If the Orthodox rabbis don’t have the courage to speak out and lead by example, who will teach right and wrong? Can it be that they, too, do not have the courage to disconnect from the comforts and easier life, rather than leading by example? The latest act of anti Semitism in Monsey, New York, motivated me to write this article. It is Chanukah and we need our Orthodox rabbis to stand in a Matityahu like manner, and shout out, “Whoever is for the L-rd, come with me. It is time to go home.” Such rabbis will bring great honor to our people and lead as they were ordained to do. And they not only will be saving numerous Jewish lives, but they will bring a great sanctification to the Name of G-d.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for more than twenty years. He has been teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach, Old Katamon, Jerusalem, for the nearly seventeen years. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles.