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March 18, 2016 6:48 am

A Request for a Favor From Some of My Fellow Rabbis

avatar by Harry Zeitlin

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Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur, Gottlieb. Photo: Wikipedia.

Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur, Gottlieb. Photo: Wikipedia.

I’d like to ask some of my colleagues a favor.

I teach Torah for a living, often to people who don’t have a lot of background. Many of them are wary of halacha (Jewish law) in the first place and inexperienced in the beauty of Talmud. As you know, Jewish living and Jewish tradition are far removed from literal readings of “scripture,” but, rather, depend for any kind of real understanding on our Oral Torah. I’m sure that you know, as I do, that we hold the Oral Torah in just as high regard and legitimacy as we do the physical words written in the book of Torah. We consider them both, literally, the Torah that Moses received at Sinai. Many of my students, though, who live so far removed from Jewish tradition, are completely unaware of this. You, as well as I, depend on both the honest transmission of Torah from generation to generation through our great rabbis and sages as well as on the Jewish People’s reliance on the honesty and faithfulness of this transmission.

Of course, almost all of you are very fine people, idealistic, moral, ethical and careful in both your private and professional lives. That’s part of the responsibility we all take on when we become rabbis. We rely on the knowledge that each person who has been part of that tradition, while obviously not a perfect human being (as even the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not to mention Moses himself, no matter how highly revered, are not considered “perfect humans”), has strived to be yashar, upright and honest.

Of course, as there are in any group, we do have a few of our fellows we’re all ashamed of because of their scandalous personal behavior. In our love for Torah, we’re always the first to condemn that behavior in public, so these aren’t the folks from whom I’m asking this favor.

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Rather, it’s you, just a tiny number of rabbis, always in awe of heaven, in your love and enthusiasm, but perhaps because of your isolation from the larger community of Jews in the world and inability to engage with them, who try to push an overly strict, (but not necessarily any more correct) Judaism on us all. All too often you conflate a minhag (custom) with a middah-chassidut (an extra measure, “beyond the call of duty), with an actual obligation. You are so lovingly engaged in your own path that you feel obligated to delegitimize any other style of observance and to attack all other approaches and opinions. Too many of you blame state of Israel, and Jews who live in our homeland (even though many of your own leaders fled to Israel to escape the Holocaust). I need your help.

No, the problem isn’t that you push away a lot of Jews who are “on the fence” — they just haven’t yet encountered the teacher who will speak their language and inspire them. The problem is that when too many people observe your behavior, your middot (underlying personality traits) and your intolerance, they lose respect for the institution and concept of rabbis. And then, without sufficient exposure and experience to more humble, they project their impressions backwards in time, to the eras of our great sages who developed the Talmud and the Zohar, to later generations who faithfully further developed our traditions and teachings, keeping them always alive, always relevant, always true, which continue to develop as our living Torah.

Because, you see, if you make people lose respect for contemporary rabbis, they lose respect for all our rabbis and they can no longer accept that our Torah is, indeed, from The Creator, but rather from highly flawed humans. When that chain of trust is broken, it becomes impossible for me to teach my students that the entirety of our Torah is interconnected, woven together in a complexity and beauty which transcends the abilities of “a bunch of smart men in the past.” I need your help to show that halacha is not random and arbitrary and thus, at best optional, but rather that it is a real and effective road-map to connect ourselves and our world with the hyper-real, living, life-sustaining Holy One Himself.

So please, reach out to all of Israel. Lead our people under Kanfei haShechinah (the Wings of the Divine Presence). Find your inner courage to rely on our authorities, like Maimonides (the Rambam), when you devise standards for accepting converts. Discover 21st– century, rather than 18th-century, ways we can all comply with authentic halacha. Emulate Shamai, who taught to accept every Jew, even those who don’t yet know the first thing about Torah, even those whom, because of their bad experiences, mock and reject our Torah (which is also theirs), please remember to receive each of us, and them, with love and welcome in your eyes.

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  • JP

    Beautifully expressed. Hatzlacha on your mission.

  • JP

    I think you meant emulate Hillel?

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