Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin: Israel and US Jewry must help each other

“We must be unified in order to survive and thrive,” Golinkin says in an interview with The Jerusalem Report.

“We must be unified in order to survive and thrive,” Golinkin says in an interview with The Jerusalem Report.  (photo credit: MAROM OLAMI)
“We must be unified in order to survive and thrive,” Golinkin says in an interview with The Jerusalem Report.
(photo credit: MAROM OLAMI)
For Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, the relationship between Israel and North American Jewry is crucial. One of the leading thinkers in the Masorti/Conservative Movement, and a prolific author who seeks to advance Jewish attitude in the modern era within the parameters of Halacha, he believes this close connection must be carefully preserved, and for the past two years, he has personally conducted a seminar at the highly acclaimed Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem on Israeli relations and North American Jewry.
“We must be unified in order to survive and thrive,” Golinkin says in an interview with The Jerusalem Report. “Neo-Nazis on the Right and BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement] on the Left do not discriminate; those who hate Jews hate Israelis and vice versa. We must help each other because we are all part of the same 4,000-year-old people which has survived longer than almost every other people in the world.”
Golinkin is president of The Schechter Institutes Inc., which is tasked with the role of funding the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, as well as TALI and Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv. He also holds the title of president emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies itself, where he is a professor of Talmud and Jewish law. For 20 years, he served as chair of the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, which gives halachic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halacha at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law.
Born in Arlington, Virginia in 1955, Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a bachelor’s degree in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received a master’s degree in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as a rabbi.
Golinkin began to teach Talmud at JTS in New York in 1980 and Talmud and Jewish law at Neve Schechter, the Israeli branch of JTS, in 1982. In 1987, he began to teach Talmud and Jewish law at The Seminary of Judaic Studies (later renamed: The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies) in Jerusalem. Since 1990, he has worked full-time as one of the leaders of the Schechter Institutes. From 1990 until 2000, he served as assistant dean and later as dean of the Schechter Institute and Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.
He served as president of The Schechter Institute from 2000-2015, in which capacity he served as chief academic officer as well as chief fundraiser for all the Schechter non-profits, including TALI, Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv, and Midreshet Yerushalayim in Ukraine. In 2015, he was appointed the president of the Schechter Institutes, Inc. in which capacity he continues to serve as chief fundraiser, while teaching and serving as editor of all Schechter academic publications.
During Golinkin’s years at Schechter, its academic programs grew from 35 students to 700 students with 1,750 graduates; the TALI school system grew from 3,000 children to 65,000 children; and Midreshet Yerushalayim grew from one school to a network of camps, schools and synagogues throughout Ukraine. During his tenure as president, the Schechter Institute received accreditation from Israel’s Council for Higher Education, its full-time faculty doubled and its library stacks more than tripled. Golinkin led the building campaign which built the new campus of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, as well as the Neve Schechter campus in Tel Aviv. Neve Schechter opened in 2012 as a synagogue and center for Jewish culture and now serves 19,000 people every year.
Golinkin also founded the Institute for Halakhic Research and its implementation alongside the Schechter Institute, with a view to publishing books on applied Jewish law. He is the director of the Center for the Study of Women in Halacha, also next to the Schechter Institute, which aims to publish answers and books on the status of women in Halacha  and answers and Halacha  books written by women.
Thanks to his uninterrupted practice in the field of Jewish law, he has become one of the most influential figures in the Masorti Movement, respected by Orthodox scholars as well. In June 2014, Golinkin was selected by The Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world. He is one of the pioneers of the Jewish educational revolution in Israel, and for the past five decades has done extensive work on strengthening the relationship between Israel and US Jewry.
At every opportunity, he emphasizes his desire for unity and tolerance between the various parts of the Jewish people – in Israel, in the Diaspora and between Israel and the Diaspora – and travels back and forth between the two most important centers of contemporary Judaism. On High Holy Days, he serves as a public envoy in North American communities. Golinkin is the author or editor of 58 books, 38 of which are devoted to Halacha, his primary field of study. Twenty are devoted to other areas of Jewish studies, such as Talmud, midrash and liturgy, including Ginzei Rosh Hashanah, Legends of the Jews, The Midrash Project, The Schechter Haggadah and The Shoah Scroll. His most recent books are Responsa in a Moment, Volume 4, and Aseh Lekha Rav: Responsa (Hebrew).
AS A posek, halachic authority, for Conservative/Masorti Jews throughout the world, you have published almost 40  books of responsa and guides to Jewish religious practice. How do your responsa differ from Orthodox responsa?
As I have explained elsewhere, I think that there are six characteristics of Conservative responsa. On the one hand, we frequently rule according to tradition without changing anything. On the other hand, we are more willing to change practices within the tradition on the basis of the sources and halachic precedents, for example, regarding the greater participation of women in prayer services and to prevent women from becoming agunot, chained women who cannot obtain a get from their husbands. When we are faced with stringent vs lenient options in Jewish law, we tend to favor the lenient approach regarding conversion and many other major issues. We study every halachic issue historically and we use both the modern tools of the academic study of Judaism as well as other sciences such as medicine and archaeology to help us write responsa. We have great respect for the Shulhan Aruch, written in the 16th century, but we examine each paragraph on its own merits and are willing to rule according to other poskim (halachic authorities) who disagreed with the Shulhan Aruch. We believe in halachic pluralism, which means that sometimes there is more than one correct answer to a halachic question. And, finally, we believe that the ethical component in Jewish law is just as important as the ritual component.
You have gone on record as wanting to abolish the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Why?
As I explained in an op-ed in The Jerusalem Report a number of years ago (“Abolish the Chief Rabbinate of Israel,” November 28, 2013), the problem is that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is no longer a religious-Zionist institution serving the state and drawing people closer to Judaism, but rather a haredi institution that erects a wall between the state and the Jewish people by adding more and more stringencies. In the past, they rejected all conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, now they reject the conversions of most Orthodox rabbis performed overseas. In May 2008, the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate retroactively annulled many thousands of conversions performed by Rabbi Haim Drukman and Israel’s National Conversion Court from 1999-2008. Although this unprecedented ruling was overturned four years later by Israel’s Supreme Court and the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, it serves as a deterrent to many thousands of Russian immigrants who are considering conversion. 25% of young couples are now voting with their feet; they get married civilly every year in Cyprus, Burgas and Prague. Finally, kashrut supervision is hopelessly corrupt; a pizzeria pays thousands of shekels per month to a mashgiah who drops by once a month for five minutes.
But isn’t the Chief Rabbinate of Israel part of a long tradition of Chief Rabbinates wherever Jews lived?
No, it is not. With a few exceptions, the Jewish people never had one centralized halachic authority. In the late second Temple Period, there were Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes and among the Pharisees, there were Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel. In the Talmudic period, there were Palestinian and Babylonian Jews, rabbis and customs. In the Geonic period, the Geonim of Babylon vied with the Geonim of Eretz Yisrael. In medieval Europe, there were Ashkenazim, Sefaradim, and Italians and they frequently co-existed in the same city with separate synagogues and rabbinic courts. Beginning in the 18th century, there were hassidim vs mitnagdim. More recently, there are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews. Since the Sanhedrin was abolished in 425 CE, there has never been a central religious authority for the entire Jewish people, nor should there be.
But if there is no Chief Rabbinate, how should religious life in Israel be organized?
I do not have all the answers, but here are a few general guidelines:
Civil marriage and divorce must be legalized, not because they are ideal, but because a democracy must provide these options for some 350,000 Russian immigrants who are not halachically Jewish.
There are a few areas where the state must provide religious services. For example, there must be kosher food in the IDF so that all soldiers can serve in the army.
But most other forms of Judaism should be privatized or partially funded. Three rabbis from any religious movement in Judaism should be able to perform conversions recognized by the state. Any rabbi should be able to perform a marriage or give kashrut supervision, as long as the consumer knows exactly who the rabbi is. Any synagogue that has more than a certain number of members should be able to get a subsidy for the rabbi’s salary as in many European countries. In short, it is not the State’s job to decide who is a “real” rabbi or which form of Judaism is more authentic. Let the public decide just as they do in the Diaspora. Let the rabbis compete in the free marketplace of ideas. The result will be that more and more Jews will love Judaism and respect rabbis.
It is no secret that there is a lot of tension between the State of Israel and many Jews in North America. Why is it important to maintain good relations and what can we do to maintain good relations?
Yes there is and [writer and intellectual] Daniel Gordis has explained the origin of many of these tensions in his recent book, We Stand Divided. We must maintain good relations for two reasons. The first is historical. We read in the Chronicles I (17:21) and it is quoted in the Shabbat Mincha service every week: “And who is like Your people Israel, one united nation in the world!” Similarly, the Talmud says, perhaps tongue in cheek (Berachot 6a), God puts on Tefillin every morning. And what does it say in “His Tefillin?” The verse we just quoted. Furthermore, we are told twice in the Talmud that “kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh,” that all Jews are responsible for one another. That is why throughout Jewish history, Jews would redeem Jewish captives whom they had never met. That is why the Jews of North America “saved Soviet Jewry” and that is why the State of Israel sent Israeli soldiers 3,500 km. to Entebbe in order to save Israelis and Jews from being murdered. The same holds true today. Organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee work to protect the physical safety of the State of Israel, while Israel sends thousands of shlichim to Diaspora Jewish communities in order to teach them about Israel and Judaism.
The second reason is practical: we must be unified in order to survive and thrive. Neo-Nazis on the Right and BDS on the Left do not discriminate; those who hate Jews hate Israelis and vice versa. We must help each other because we are all part of the same 4,000-year-old people which has survived longer than almost every other people in the world. One of the ways to reduce the current tension is to increase religious pluralism in the State of Israel. Non-Orthodox Jews and converts must be welcomed by the State of Israel and Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel should have the same religious rights and freedoms as Orthodox Jews.
You have spent decades raising money for Jewish education in Israel. Why is this so important to you?
It says in Pirkei Avot (3:1): “know from whence you came and where you are going.” In order for the Jewish people and the State of Israel to have a successful future, we need to know our past. Most Israelis – whether Sabras or immigrants – know precious little about Jewish history, culture and tradition, as evidenced by every poll taken on the subject. This is because 70% of Israeli children attend the secular public schools where, until recently, the only required Jewish subject was Tanakh, the Bible. As many have pointed out, the Israeli school system skips from the Tanakh to the Palmach. The Tanakh is certainly important, but most of what we call Judaism occurred between the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and 1948.
In recent years, education ministers Gidon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett have introduced a new required subject called Tarbut Yehudit-Yisraelit, Jewish-Israeli Culture into grades three-to-eight. This is a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient. That is why the TALI Education Fund founded by Schechter has spent almost 35 years providing serious Jewish education to so-called secular Israeli children. In the current year, TALI serves over 65,000 children in 80 elementary schools, 6 high schools and 222 pre-schools. In addition, TALI provides textbooks to teach the Jewish-Israeli Culture program in non-TALI schools, teaches Jewish identity to tenth graders all over the country, and trains principals in the Halelli in-service training program.
It is my dream that, in the future, every Israeli Jewish child will receive a Jewish education.
You have been teaching at the Schechter Institutes since 1987, full-time since 1990. What is that like? What is special about your students and programs?
At the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, we have 700 students in our various programs. In addition to the ordination program and the programs for overseas rabbinical students, The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary runs the Torah Lishmah programs in Jerusalem and at our Neve Schechter campus in Tel Aviv, where forty adults come to study Torah every Wednesday for its own sake, no papers, no grades, no degrees. It also runs the Ashira program, where adults come to learn the Nusah, how to chant the services, in the Ashkenazic, Sephardi and Contemporary Jewish music tracks.
In the Schechter Institute graduate school, we have 400 MA students and 1750 graduates who are mostly teachers, principals and communal workers. They come to Schechter in mid-career and study in 12 tracks, including unique MA tracks such as Jewish Music, Jewish Women’s Studies, Judaism and the Arts, and the Jews of Spain and Islamic Lands. They then bring all of that knowledge back to their respective schools, community centers and other organizations. Finally, we have 130 adults taking courses every semester taught in English or Hebrew where they study Bible, Jewish Literature, and even Ladino for its own sake.
I have had the privilege of teaching Talmud, Midrash and Jewish Law to our rabbinical and MA students since 1987. They come from every place in Israel and abroad and every religious background, and I always learn a tremendous amount from teaching such a pluralistic student body.