Rav Yoni Rosensweig is the rabbi of the Netzach Menashe community in Beit Shemesh and the founder of Maaglei Nefesh, an institute addressing mental health in Jewish law. He served as a scholar-in-residence in our community a few weeks ago and one of his talks was titled, “How do we balance our orthodoxy with the moral sensitivities of Western culture.” A central part of his approach was that we must balance two equally important values. First, if we have feelings that certain mitzvot or halachot go against our moral sensitivities, then those feelings are real and legitimate and should not be discounted. Second, having those feelings does not necessarily translate into having an answer to address those feelings. The advantage of this approach is that when we are dealing with halachically delicate topics of the day, such as spiritual opportunities for women, the LGBTQ community, conversion and agunot, we do not discount feelings of extreme discomfort with certain halachic positions, while at the same time we recognize that we cannot always find a systemic solution to every problem.
I wonder how helpful this approach truly is to the sophisticated members of our community. Is that all that they want? Empathic rabbis who legitimize their congregants’ concerns but at the end of the day cannot find solutions that will satisfy them? I love you, I feel your pain, but I cannot accept women rabbis, I cannot officiate at a same gender wedding ceremony, I cannot convert this person because I don’t feel he will observe enough halacha as a Jew, and I cannot free this woman from being an aguna. To be clear, each of the issues is different and some people feel that we may be able to create systemic solutions for some of these challenges but not for others. But I wonder, how helpful is this approach of empathy without having an adequate answer to these problems?
But then I think about someone like Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon. Rav Rimon is the Rav of Gush Etzion. He is a rather conservative halachic thinker in that I don’t think that he is someone who is rushing to create systemic solutions to some of the current challenges that I listed above. But he is someone that exudes positivity, warmth and empathy to everyone that he meets.
Rav Rimon’s picture and interaction with Noa Kirel went viral this past week. Noa Kirel is an Israeli musical superstar who finished third in the most recent Eurovision competition. Noa introduced herself to Rav Rimon who had never heard of her. She and her mother told Rav Rimon that her grandfather was a rabbi and a great scholar and Noa said that at Eurovision, she recited birchot ha-shachar and did not use a mobile phone on Shabbat. When Noa found out that Rav Rimon was a rabbi and that any time that she had a question she can call him, she got excited and asked for his number. When reflecting on this encounter, Rav Rimon wrote, “Our aim is to be nice to everyone, to people and especially to the people of Israel, and this way we will get to connect with the people of Israel with great love.”
Rav Yoni Rosensweig told our community that our embracing attitude to everyone is important even if it does not necessarily result in creative solutions to challenging problems. Rav Rimon has emerged as a gadol ba-Torah, a Torah scholar of first rank, who truly embraces this approach. Yes, halachic minds of first rank should continue to try to find solutions to deal with our modern-day challenges. Yes, many sophisticated thinkers in the orthodox community will remain unsatisfied with the apparent slowness by which halachic leaders contend with these challenges. However, the love and warmth with which the media and the social media community have showered Rav Rimon gives me hope that this approach resonates with many in our community. Additionally, this approach builds trust between both sides in any given issue. When both sides of a halachically delicate issue feel threatened by those on the other side of the issue, there is little motivation to try to compromise. There is only fear that the other side will try to tear down that which I have built. When there is trust, there is more opportunity find solutions. Both Rav Yoni Rosensweig and Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon have shown us a path forward.