While a Rabbi Focuses on Hate, Other Israelis Move Judaism Forward

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein abhors gay people, but many religious people are striving to build a bridge between Jewish law and the changes time has wrought.

American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall, February 25, 2016.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

Culture Minister Miri Regev has momentary outbursts and makes comments that anger some people. But her statement about starting a culture war is meaningless because a culture war can only break out when each side has a solid and sweeping ideological agenda, and with Regev that’s not the case. She can change the public climate for a moment, but no more.

When it comes to Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, it’s a different story. Most Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox nationalist politicians espouse their opinions in dribs and drabs, fearing for their reputations. But Levinstein, a leader of the premilitary academy at Eli, stands and delivers a clear, amazing and anachronistic doctrine, keeping closely to the ancient sources.

I’m not convinced that the problem of Levinstein and his friends is an immoral reading of the Torah, as Tzvia Greenfield has stated in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition. It seems to me their problem is that they have no practical way of fighting reality except by pulling out verses from the “holy Torah.”

Levinstein knows that the values he wants to export are problematic, not only for the liberal camp, but for the other camp as well. What rabbi who protects the dignity of the faith would call Reform Jews “Christians” when millions of Jews are maintaining the remnants of their identity via the Reform Movement’s synagogues in the United States?

It hasn’t been easy for the Reform Movement to make inroads in Israel, but it attracts Jews who want to respect religion and tradition as they see it. And it’s worthy of support because it dares to do what the leaders of the Orthodox rabbinate haven’t found the strength to do – try to build a bridge between Jewish law and the changes time has wrought. Those who remain behind can achieve partial victories but can’t win the real battle for Judaism’s future.

Levinstein is educating future soldiers to distinguish sharply between laws for non-Jews and laws for Jews. Protecting the lives of innocent people is against his religious logic. And of course, he mocks any attempt to criticize what’s going on in the West Bank.

His assault on the LGBT community, calling it a “perverted community,” stems from deep despair over the contradiction between the Torah’s commandments and today’s reality. Every Jew cherishes the universal values in some of the Ten Commandments, but it’s clear the Torah contains values and commandments that aren’t relevant. All the laws of sacrifice, the attitude toward women, the sweeping prohibition against homosexuality, laws on building the Temple – none of these have a place in a pluralistic and open society.

Premilitary academy head Yigal Levinstein at a conference in Jerusalem in July 2016.

Members of the traditional Jewish community, which sanctifies the Sabbath and celebrates the holidays in a religious way, don’t conduct themselves based on the Shulhan Aruch. They make allowances that circumvent the irrelevant parts. It’s amazing that Rabbi Levinstein doesn’t notice the trend of  weddings and funerals being held outside the rabbinate, a trend that reflects the alienation and rift.

What should be done, many people ask, amid such challenges and the increased religiosity that has become so fashionable? I think the issue of people leaving a rigid religious lifestyle should be central and not marginal, and a serious campaign should be conducted to highlight its importance.

Many people are abandoning religion, and many more find themselves forced to stay in an Orthodox framework against their beliefs. They’re leaving a world that has no answers to their questions, challenging norms and laws that are unsuitable today.