The teachings of Rabbi Israel Salanter vs the Deri law - opinion

The Deri law dramatizes the corruption of Torah Judaism, which has spread from the Haredi sector to the modern Orthodox sector in recent decades.

 SHAS PARTY head Arye Deri speaks to supporters as projected results from the Knesset election are announced, in Jerusalem, on November 1. (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)
SHAS PARTY head Arye Deri speaks to supporters as projected results from the Knesset election are announced, in Jerusalem, on November 1.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)

The Deri law declares that committing crimes of bribery and financial cheating is not a disqualification for serving in the highest political positions. Passing this law amounts to an attack and dismissal of the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the greatest rabbis of the nineteenth century and of modern Jewish history.

The unanimous support of these bills by Haredi and Religious Zionist parties means that they are repeating a religious abuse of Torah by the Orthodox that Salanter deeply criticized. We need to learn from Salanter’s Torah teachings and reverse the distortion of Torah values now going on in Israel.

Salanter sought to launch a renewal movement within Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe was trying to perpetuate itself by keeping modern culture and influence out of the Jewish community. Salanter believed that modernity was coming to Eastern Europe and would eventually become dominant there, as it had become in Western Europe. Orthodoxy needed renewal because it was not properly educated to deal with a world in which there would be alternative value systems and religious influences.

Salanter saw two grave weaknesses in the Orthodox community. Operating in a closed society, it had slipped into a culture emphasizing ritual behavioral habits while neglecting the meaning and purposes behind its actions. It failed to focus on the Torah’s goal of training people to be ethical in worldly behavior and to be of good character, such as honest, kind, patient and caring. As he put it, “The Torah came to make a mensch.”

Secondly, having a monopoly of influence inside the Jewish community, the religion was propagated by stressing uniform observance and instilling behavioral conformity. Orthodoxy should be getting people to internalize the meaning and values of Judaism so they would choose to remain faithful to Torah and observance.

 THE GOVERNMENT is planning on changing Basic Law: The Government, to permit Arye Deri to be a minister. (credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90) THE GOVERNMENT is planning on changing Basic Law: The Government, to permit Arye Deri to be a minister. (credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)

Instead, they were being conditioned to conform to every detail of formal religious and informal social behavior. They were kept in line by social exclusion if they deviated. This system worked but would be highly vulnerable in a modern cultural setting where many ways of living were available and the dignity of personal choice was emphasized.

Salanter taught that one of the most pernicious effects of these weaknesses was the development of a situation where a few rituals were instilled at the highest level of commitment while important ethical commandments were neglected or downplayed. In his Iggeret Mussar (Letter on Mussar) published in 1858, he wrote: “...in our areas [Lithuania], praise God, the prohibition of non-Kosher foods is deeply imprinted in people’s souls... so [eating them] is repellent. But... in matters of business, the situation is the opposite. On their own initiative, people will not check on the danger of stealing or exploitation.”

Salanter asked: how can this be? “In the Torah, these commandments [ethical and ritual] are equal... By the Torah’s laws this is prohibited and this is a prohibition...” “do not eat dead [non-Kosher slaughtered] meat” [Deuteronomy 14:21] or “do not exploit your neighbor” and “do not steal” [Leviticus 19:19] [are both prohibited].”

Yet, he concluded: “Sadly, we see that even the [Torah] learned, and almost all the God-fearing, are not properly careful to observe these prohibitions.” Salanter considered that violating the ethical laws of the Torah is a graver sin than violating the ritual laws – as proven by the prescribed punishments in the Halacha. After all, “neither Yom Kippur nor even the individual’s death brings forgiveness for these [ethical] sins” whereas they do bring atonement for ritual sins [if the individual repents].

Passing of the Deri law

Passage of the Deri law, in essence, says that being convicted twice of stealing is of no religious significance and that Deri is living up to Orthodox standards. Therefore, he is qualified to represent Orthodoxy and serve in the highest ministerial position and political leadership roles in Israel. It is obvious that had Deri been convicted of eating non-Kosher food or violating the Shabbat, he would have been forced out of his leadership of Shas and barred from playing a major role in creating ruling coalitions or serving as minister.

HOW CAN this be? The Torah equally states the prohibition “you shall not take bribes” [Deuteronomy 16:19] and “you shall not steal” [Leviticus 19:13] and “you shall not eat dead [non-kosher slaughtered] meat” (Deuteronomy 14:21). Salanter must be turning over in his grave.

The Deri law dramatizes the corruption of Torah Judaism, which has spread from the Haredi sector to the modern Orthodox sector in recent decades. Observing a handful of rituals (Kashrut, Shabbat and family purity) has become the defining criterion of being an Orthodox Jew. Observing the ethical commandments laws regulating behaviors between people has been downgraded and violation is not considered repellent in the religious community.

This corruption of Torah has further negative consequences, especially in the modern Orthodox/national religious community. Instead of feeling obligated to and working with the secular or partially observant Jews who keep the laws between man and man – and who serve in the army and offer their lives in defense of the Jewish state – the Haredi and national religious parties look out for themselves and for each other’s constituencies at the expense of the greater Israeli population.

Instead of treating all groups on the spectrum as partial, flawed keepers of the covenant of the Jewish people and seeking to improve all groups’ performance, the Torah has been turned into a sectarian weapon to get special privileges for a narrow group of observers of specific laws. Children of religious families who observe the Torah’s ethical laws and who serve in the IDF but depart from rituals or diminish these observances are often excluded, called datlashim – a Hebrew acronym for “religious in the past”.

People who observe rituals but contribute little or nothing to the building of Israeli society or defense of the state are upheld as an elite and supported at the expense of the general public. The legitimacy of Liberal religious denominations (which are less observant of the rituals) is denied and their Rabbis are discriminated against. The Torah’s demand to treat the stranger/outsider/immigrant/asylum seeker with compassion and love is overridden in the name of keeping Israel Jewish in a narrow demographic sense.

Had the early religious Zionists not understood the centrality of the commandments between people and the need to coalesce with the ritually non-observant to build a state, we would not have the state of Israel, a Jewish and democratic state today. It is long past time to launch a 21st-century renewal movement within Judaism to restore the observance of the whole Torah and to place building a just society, making room for the dignity of non-Jewish people and partners, at the center of Israel’s life.

The writer is co-author with Rabbi Justin Pines of a new translation and commentary of Ohr Yisrael and other writings of Salanter (Koren Publishing, forthcoming).