Racism, Sexism and Settler Messianism Rule Orthodoxy. We Need to Change It, Now

Israel's Orthodox rabbis are failing Judaism and Israel. We need men and women rabbis who will push back from extremism and segregation, and who will uphold universal human rights.

Settlers clash with security forces in Beit El, July 27, 2015.
Emil Salman

The last shortage that one might claim in Israel is that of Orthodox rabbis.

We seem to have an abundant supply in all sizes (including: oversized) and colors – well, usually black and white, with a little grey for spice.

The theological variations within such a strictly defined spectrum are nonetheless at first sight impressive: From mystical and introspective forms to Talmudic modes of analysis reworked within a narrow framework. All approaches that appear good for spiritual insight and personal satisfaction.

Indeed, they clearly serve a useful purpose for the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) population as a distraction from any "unkosher" entanglement with the rest of the world, and their insularity allows for a lack of moral accountability.

Where are the Hasidic rabbis who school their followers in these approaches who can lift their followers through education out of poverty so they can feed their own children as well as their leaders? Where are the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic) rabbis ready to produce at least some students who can soar to the top of scientific and humanistic research alike, soaring as high as they do in Talmud? And which rabbis will make the radical changes so that the abuse of women and children will end in their communities?

I am also not sanguine about the young contemporary rabbinic leadership in the national religious world. They are raised and educated and go to youth groups in solely Orthodox environments, usually without girls and women, and then to heavily ideological hesder yeshiva and segregated army units. Then they are off to a kollel (Bible college) to continue their impermeably Jewish education, or (much better, but same crowd) an Orthodox university, such as Bar-Ilan, marriage within the pack, and then back to the settlement to repeat the cycle.

These rabbis are often suffused with an overt messianism and along with their isolated lives are susceptible to racist elements still existing and re-energized within our tradition, all producing a dangerous volatile brew. Those with a quieter messianic vision engage in endless talk of a perfectionist nature –anticipating what a "real" Judaism would look like in a holy-in-homogeneity Jewish state where everyone goes to the same minyan. It is no wonder that the national religious camp continuously loses many of its very best, highly educated young people – those who are alternatively alarmed or bored by their rabbis.

What Israel’s Orthodox rabbis have in common is a complete dissatisfaction with modernity. If the Haredi rabbi prefers not to live in this era, the national religious rabbi is increasingly ready to demolish it. The contemporary interest shown by national religious rabbis in exploring ultra-Orthodox forms of mystical introspection and their adoption of quasi Haredi-style dress for themselves and their families are manifestations of an obscurantism which retreats from the world.

We desperately need a new type of young Orthodox rabbis. The good news is: there are processes in train to develop an alternative to the rabbis of the insular or vociferously messianic Orthodoxies that dominate Israel.

Who are these new rabbis? They, like much of their generation, are familiar with and operate within postmodernity; they are utterly disaffected by dead denominational battles and they disdain obsessive ideological idiocies. They are pious but have genuine appreciation for others’ expressions of spirituality of other Jews and indeed other religions.  They live intellectually and geographically unsegregated lives, with first-class secular education, while still being most at home in the beit midrash (study hall).

They adhere to a Rav Kook-inspired notion that sees the "Good" as God’s defining attribute: “God is good to all, His mercy is upon all the creatures” (Ps. 145:9). The spirituality and life work for those who walk this path is to act with unbounded "good" to all. They are practitioners of a holy humanistic halakha, which of course isn’t free of its own contradictions. The goal is to struggle and resolve these oppositions in the here and now in our society, rife with argumentativeness and divisions.

This approach is legitimately Orthodox. It takes from the ultra-Orthodox their trembling before the creative momentum of the Talmud. It is to the voices of that text alone that the Haredi supreme rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman says we owe emunat chachamim (trust in the sages) and, by implication, not to contemporary Haredi obstructionists.

It understands the "modern" of Modern Orthodoxy to be the bottom line of human dignity. This means the critical need for women as rabbis with full rabbinic titles who in their work will fully protect the vulnerable in synagogues, beitei din, and the home, in alliance with male rabbis also confident in their own gender.  

It understands the descriptive term "national religious" as crucial adjectives, but adds the equally necessary "universal and moral" musari universali; it opens up "open orthodoxy" to provide leadership for all streams of Judaism and to allow all into its educational structures; it transcends evangelical or kiruv Orthodoxy with hitkarvut (bring each other closer) as true respectful engagement. Its disassociation from settler messianism could allow for a critical, constructive discussion with both right and left in allying the resolution of Jewish needs and aspirations with universal human rights.

Imagine Orthodox rabbis replacing messianism, racism, sexism, and isolation with the ideals of the repair of the world in the here and now, with human rights and dignity and universalism, through a commitment to halakhic practice and rabbinic learning. Some of these rabbis we already have amongst us; more are in the making.

 Rabbi Daniel Landes will preside over a semikhah ceremony for 19 rabbinical students on the evening of June 7 in Jerusalem at the Yedidya Synagogue.