The Jewish Bridegroom Who Wouldn’t Wear a Kippa

Rabbinic voices of decency and integrity are too often drowned out in Israel by the shrill, wicked cries of the religious and ultra-nationalist fanatics. The result: secular Israelis repel Jewish law.

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The young bridegroom sitting opposite me is handsome, intelligent, sensitive and charming. He is also secular and strong willed. "I do not want to wear a kippa, or a hat, or a cap under my chuppah", he declares.

His bride blushes and I gulp. I don't believe in religious coercion, but it's not done for an Orthodox rabbi to officiate at a religious service where the principals are bareheaded.

"Where I come from," I explain, "when the non-Jewish prime minister or members of the royal family visit a synagogue, they always don appropriate head-covering, it's their way of showing respect.”

The bridegroom nods approvingly. He too respects other faiths. "When I visit a temple, I too remove my shoes, take off my hat or do whatever that religion dictates. But I am a Jew, it's my religion, so I should do as I please," he says.

His attitude reflects a uniquely Israeli phenomenon; pride in being Jewish, a heroic willingness to lay down one's life for the Jewish state, accompanied by anger at religious coercion, and disgust at the behavior of fanatical religious communities. The result is disdain for the religious establishment and its beliefs.

The wounds and the anger felt by non-Orthodox Jews are vividly paralleled in a midrash about Rabbi Yannai who invited a guest to his home. Engaging his visitor in conversation, he discovered that the man knew neither Talmud nor Jewish Law and that he was not even capable of leading Grace after Meals. The exasperated rabbi insulted and humiliated his visitor, until, unable to control his rage anymore, the guest lunged forward, grabbed the rabbi by the lapels and yelled, "You have stolen my inheritance." He then quoted the Bible, declaring that Judaism is the inheritance of the entire Jewish people - not of a religious or intellectual elite.

As the guest explained himself, Rabbi Yannai realized that he had hosted a man whose knowledge of Torah and Jewish ritual was poor, but whose integrity, decency and care for humanity were rich. Rabbi Yannai was contrite. (Vayikra Rabbah 9: 3)

The death of Margaret Thatcher was a poignant reminder of how the Anglo-Jewish rabbinate has won respect not only from within the religious Jewish community, but beyond it as well. If only our Israeli rabbinate commanded that esteem.

Although she was a believing Christian leading a Christian country, Margaret Thatcher held the British chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, in the highest regard. She recognized in him a religious integrity which she felt was lacking in her church, so she consulted with him regularly and recommended him to become a peer – Lord Jakobovits. Eventually he became known as her "favorite man of God."

This pattern continued with his successor, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, whose brilliance and commitment to moral values earned him a seat in the House of Lords and the admiration of successive prime ministers. The head of Britain's Sephardi community, my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Levy, was also honored by the queen for his outstanding work in interfaith relations. It’s a pattern which has echoed around the world with Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, of blessed memory (also from Britain) building a deep friendship with Nelson Mandela, as he steered the South African Jewish community through the post-partheid era.

Such religious leaders share not only a deep devotion to God and Torah, but a profound commitment to humanity. Their religion is intelligent and passionate, but also caring and compassionate. They understand that they have no power to force their beliefs on others, nor do they wish to. Instead, they gain profound respect and influence by speaking with a clear ethical voice; expressing concern for the lives of Jews and Gentiles alike.

Their nobility and statesmanship makes them national and, in some cases international, religious leaders, bringing kudos to Judaism and the Jewish community.

While the Israeli rabbinate is full of excellent scholars and fine individuals, rabbinic voices of decency and integrity are too often drowned out by the shrill, wicked cries of the religious and ultra-nationalist fanatics.

Our Israeli religious leaders must be associated not only with a strong Israel, but also with ethical, caring and compassionate leadership. They must speak out for Israel's majority, and also for its minorities, for those who are learned in the law and those who are not. Then, I imagine that wearing a kippa under the chuppah will be far less of an issue for our many of our fellow Jews.

If Israeli religious leaders spoke out for all Jews, far less secular Israelis would be repelled by what they call religious coercion.Credit: Dreamstime

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