The Great Rabbis in Political Orthodoxy

Recently, a large modern Orthodox synagogue hosted the eleventh in a monthly lecture series called “Great Rabbis of the Twentieth Century.”

It was not unexpected that an Orthodox synagogue would limit the series to Orthodox rabbis. It was surprising, however, that ten of the eleven rabbis featured so far had no connection to American Modern Orthodoxy. These ten all were important and influential yeshiva heads, chasidic rebbes, chief rabbis, or halachic authorities, but they all were born and educated outside of the United States and did not lead modern Orthodox lifestyles. None were products of modern Orthodox schooling. Not a one was associated with modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, Yeshiva University.

The eleventh was the exception. Born in Brooklyn in 1932, the eleventh was raised in a fiercely Zionist home, influenced by the secular revisionist thought of Zev Jabotinsky. He became the mazkir (director) of Bnei Akiva (the religious Zionist youth group) for greater New York. He attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush (a renowned modern Orthodox day school) and Yeshiva University high school. He graduated from secular universities, where he obtained an undergraduate degree in political science, a law degree, and a masters’ degree in international relations.

Like many American modern Orthodox rabbis of his time, the eleventh accepted a position at a Conservative synagogue, with the understanding that a mechitzah (wall partition) be installed in the sanctuary. Ultimately, he would create an activist — if sometime violent — Jewish organization, initiate the battle for Soviet Jewry, and coin the phrase “Never Again.” He fulfilled the modern Orthodox dream of making aliyah, devoting the rest of his life to rebuilding a confident and assertive Jewish homeland in biblical Israel.

The eleventh rabbi was none other than Meir Kahane, who most revile as an extremist and racist toward Arabs in Israel and few would categorize as a “great rabbi.”

While Kahane was a product of 20th century American modern Orthodoxy, he was far from its representative voice. During the 20th century, modern Orthodoxy developed inspirational thinkers and visionaries, none of whom have been featured in the “Great Rabbis” series. There were, of course, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and his disciples, Walter Wurtzberger(the editor of the Tradition journal of Jewish thought) and Norman Lamm (the president of Yeshiva University), who stressed ethical responsibilities toward other Jews and non-Jews alike. There were the challenging thinkers who promoted change from within Orthodoxy, such as Emanuel Rackman (the chancellor of Bar Ilan University) and Eliezer Berkowitz (from the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago). And there were the students of these great men, who led many OU- and Young Israel-affiliated synagogues, taught in modern Orthodox schools, and spread its vision and ideals throughout the Jewish community.

Today, though, it may not be too shocking for a politically active modern Orthodox synagogue to feature an extremist, like Kahane, as a 20th-century “Great Rabbi.” Now is an intensely polarized time, when denominational Judaism often is demarcated by political philosophy and affiliation. Just as more liberal Jewish denominations frequently promote a progressive, social-justice Jewish identity, it has become almost routine for Orthodox synagogues, institutions, organizations, and periodicals to preach conservative, nationalist, even nativist political beliefs. It is not unusual in today’s heated political milieu to praise the most passionate political advocates with the same fervor one extends toward inspirational religious leaders.

Politics now dictates religious purity. Demagogues are favored over thinkers.

A telling example of this occurred after the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) politicized the terrible tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue by publicly declaring that “The NCYI thanks President Donald J. Trump for his constant unwavering voice in defense of the Jewish people and against anti-Semitism. The Jewish people in the US & Israel have never had such great a champion in the White House.” In response, more than 600 people signed an open letter of disagreement with the NCYI. The letter pointed out that the killer was motivated by anti-immigrant hate at the very same time that the president was campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform, including the use of anti-Semitic innuendo and conspiracy theories.

Those who signed the letter identified themselves as products of modern Orthodoxy by writing:

“Many of us were raised and educated in Young Israel shuls and communities. We were inspired by rabbis, teachers and spiritual leaders who shared with us our rich tradition of caring for the stranger, the poor, the mistreated and the vulnerable. They taught us that at the core of Judaism was the ethic of Abrahamic responsibility to our people, our country, our world and to mankind in general. They supported their messages through age old sources and teachings. These made us understand that Jewish values and ethics, not political self-interest irrespective of fundamental Jewish beliefs, must always be our lodestar.”

The NCYI did not respond to the open letter, but on November 20, the Jewish Press newspaper published an article in response to it that sought to delegitimize the letter writers. The article was titled “Fake Orthodox Jews Against Trump.” The article attacked the organizations that circulated the open letter as not genuinely Orthodox (even going so far as to make specious ad hominem attacks against the organizations’ leaders), largely on political grounds. The article’s author did not respond to the substantive arguments made in the open letter. He chose instead to disparage people associated with the letter as “leftists,” arguing that their political views deemed them religiously unacceptable.

This political litmus test perhaps explains, albeit rather distressingly, why the synagogue’s Great Rabbi series has featured only Meir Kahane, the architect of an ultra-nationalist ideology with racist overtones, as the sole American-born modern Orthodox great rabbi of the 20th century. It is nearly impossible to try and square fervent nationalist and anti-immigrant positions with the teachings and ideas expressed by the actual great 20th-century modern Orthodox rabbis. Take, for example, the many times Rabbi Soloveitchik charged his audiences to care for the poor and the immigrant, irrespective of their religious or ethnic identity.

As the open letter to the NCYI quoted Rabbi Soloveitchik:

“The central experience in Abraham’s life was galut — homelessness, wandering without knowing the destination…. This passional experience taught Abraham and his descendants the art of involvement, of sharing in distress, of feeling for the stranger, of having compassion for the other. It trained Abraham to react quickly to suffering, to try to lighten the other’s burden as much as possible. No matter who the stranger was, what he stood for, and how primitive he was, the stranger had suffered…. We have mercy on all uprooted and defenseless human beings in exile…. We are burdened with an ethical norm to help because we remember how we felt when we were in distress.” (“Abraham’s Journey,” pp. 196-97.)

Are we really doing our children a service by rewriting history to forge today’s political battles?

About the Author
Daniel D. Edelman resides in Teaneck and works as an attorney in New York City.
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