Tradition Today: Open-minded rabbis

Rabbi Herschensohn believed Judaism couldn't and shouldn't be cut off, isolated from all available knowledge, should contribute to all humanity.

Rabbis 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbis 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The announcement that Bar-Ilan University has started a rabbinical training program that combines ordination with a full academic program of secular studies to produce a rabbi who, in the words of university president Moshe Kaveh, will have “open hearts and minds” is good news for this country and for all Jews.
This is not the first such rabbinical program here, since the Masorti Movement pioneered this by opening a rabbinical school requiring an academic degree more than 20 years ago, the Schechter Rabbinical School. To the best of my knowledge, however, it is the first time that an Orthodox institution has done this here. For far too long, Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate has looked down upon secular learning as a waste of time and worse. The result has been a retreat from the modern world into a kind of Judaism that cannot meet the needs of the time and has turned its back on an enlightened approach to Jewish thought and observance, making Judaism irrelevant to the majority of Israelis and setting Orthodoxy here apart from the enlightened Orthodox world that exists elsewhere.
It is to be hoped that the Bar-Ilan program will be truly open minded and will expose its students to the best of modern Jewish thought regardless of what stream originated it, so that the ideas of Heschel, Buber, Schechter, Muffs, Baeck, Fackenheim and others will be taught along with those of such leading Orthodox authorities as Soloveitchik, Rackman and Berkowitz.
One of the greatest such thinkers who should be studied at Bar-Ilan and by anyone seeking to be a rabbi here was Rabbi Haim Herschensohn (1856-1930). Prof. Eliezer Schweid has published an extensive study of this largely forgotten rabbi’s writings and philosophy in a book entitled Democracy and Halacha. Herschensohn, while devoutly Orthodox and opposed to reformist movements, was radical in his approach. He attempted to create a halachic foundation for a democratic, theological and political regime in the new Jewish state that he believed would be formed soon. He recognized that the new state would require many changes to be able to deal with the needs of sovereignty in a new age with its economic, social, political, scientific and philosophical problems.
Herschensohn was concerned that everything should be done beforehand to make certain that the Jewish religion and Jewish law would be capable of accommodating the needs of such a state. This was a tremendous challenge, since there had never been a secular Jewish state before, and there had never been the need for Jewish law to deal with the problems that such a state would present.
Solutions such as the Shabbos goy may have been fine for ghetto communities, but it was not good enough for a modern state.
Judaism appropriate for a modern state had to find a way in which both Jewish nationalism and the Jewish religion could work together rather than conflict.
Born in Safed, Herschensohn eventually left then Palestine for the US because of the opposition of the haredim to his ideas. He did not view the modern world as a threat but as a challenge. The new secular accomplishments must be incorporated into Judaism’s Torah so that they would all come together in the new state. He was concerned that proper halachic tools would have to be prepared to deal with such questions as the use of electricity on Shabbat, the role of women and the equality of Jews and non-Jews.
He was confident that ancient halachic decrees that were no longer relevant could be canceled and that once the spirit and attitude of Jewish law was properly discerned, ways would be found to make it relevant, to lighten its burdens and to create a democracy that would be based on Torah.
Herschensohn believed that Judaism could not and should not be cut off and isolated from all available knowledge and should contribute to all humanity. In this he agreed with his contemporary, Rabbi Abraham Kook.
Unfortunately, his attitude did not prevail among religious authorities and remained largely unknown among the secular.
Indeed, the greatest conflict in religious Judaism here today is not between Orthodoxy and Masorti or Reform Judaism, or even between religion and secularism, but between two contrasting views of Judaism: the one that seeks to cut it off from the world and create here an isolated ghetto in which the only criteria of Jewishness is the scrupulous observance of every detail ever added to Jewish law, a Judaism concerned only with itself, and the other view that sees in Judaism as a constantly evolving way of life, keeping its own identity but incorporating the best of human knowledge with the intent of bringing all humanity to a higher stage of moral and ethical living. Only if the second point of view prevails will the founding of the Jewish state have succeeded in carrying out the purpose for which it and indeed the Jewish people were created.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.