Rethinking the Orthodox Embargo

A defensive embargo against other schools of Judaism is a strategy whose days are numbered, and one that will further marginalize the Orthodox message for many Israelis for whom Torah is alien.

In just a couple of weeks the High Holidays will be upon us. We will gather in our synagogues and recite the haunting tune of Kol Nidrei as Yom Kippur begins. This prayer is a communal invocation of the procedure for annulling vows, clearing our slate of the commitments we regret having accepted upon ourselves. Kol Nidrei reminds us that we live in a dynamic reality, with our expectations and commitments sometimes needing to be adjusted accordingly.

Now would be a fitting time for the Orthodox community in Israel to revisit its communal “vow” not to grant legitimacy to other modern movements in Judaism. I say this as a fully Halachic Yid (Jew) and Rabbi, and while I may be "out of the box", Orthodoxy is my box.

he Chief Rabbinate’s hubris, like that of a small yapping dog, is ensuring an irrevocable split between Israel and the Diaspora

The Israeli establishment's embargo against the Conservative and Reform movements has outlived is usefulness, as well as its relevance, and it is time to rethink this approach.

American Modern Orthodox Rabbis have been exploring the boundaries of dialogue with other movements since the 1950s. Rav Soloveitchik of blessed memory, "The Rav” to his students in Yeshiva University, suggested that even those who reject classical Halacha share in the Brit Goral, the covenant of fate. He therefore called for cooperation with the religious leadership in other movements, so long as it was restricted to shared concerns pertaining to societal issues.

Needless to say this ruling was rejected by the right-wing Orthodox establishment, and ultimately by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Working as a community leader in Israel over the last decade, I have observed a blurring of the historical social division between Dati – Religious, and Chiloni – Secular. I see more and more young people choosing to be connected to Torah in their own way, while maintaining an autonomous posture regarding Halachic observance.

This has been augmented by a number of non-Halachic houses of Torah study that have recently opened in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The rediscovery of tradition and Torah by the non-observant community is one of the most exciting things to happen in Israel for a long time. The Israeli Rabbinate's refusal to recognize this process will not deter it, and if we believe that an Orthodox perspective is a powerful and relevant approach, we should not be afraid to engage in an eye-level conversation with others who believe otherwise.

Make no mistake; the renaissance of non-observant engagement in Jewish identity is still a fringe phenomenon. In the big picture of restoring and strengthening Jewish identity in Israel, the new secular learning communities are our natural allies. Mutual respect and dialogue are the only way to assuage the common Chiloni fear that Orthodox leaders have an ulterior proselytizing agenda, and build the foundations for a community seeking Torah and God in its own, unique way.

Finally, the question of the Conservative and Reform movements must be addressed head on. Both movements, conceived and born outside the Land of Israel, may have difficulty engaging the Israeli public, with many in need of something new and home-grown.

However, regardless of the attractiveness of these movements to the greater Israeli Jewish populace, the Orthodox establishment has nothing to fear. A candid and respectful channel of communication would foster a better and more open understanding of one another, and force us to put our best foot forward in presenting our perspective.

A defensive embargo is a strategy whose days are numbered, and one that will further marginalize the Orthodox message for many Israelis for whom Torah is alien.

We introduce Kol Nidrei by saying the following sentence three times: “With the permission of God and with permission of the community, in the heavenly court and in the court bellow, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.”  Clearly when we say these words we are in fact granting permission to pray with ourselves, for who among us has not sinned. We accept that we are human and fallible; it is a moment of humility.

A humble posture is a noble one, and if we can summon permission to pray with those who have transgressed, we can surely bring ourselves to speak to them and respect them as fellow seekers of truth.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Founder and Dean of HaOhel Institutions (Sulam Yaakov, Ashrei, Shirat Devorah, and Threshold) in Nachlaot, Jerusalem.