Who counts in Judaism?

At a time when our people are meant to come together seeking forgiveness, it is distressing to hear rabbis who brand secular judges.

Rabbinical Court 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbinical Court 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Elul reaches its climax and the High Holidays beckon, Jews everywhere are enjoined to reach out to one another, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation on a mortal level, so that we might earn atonement on a divine scale. It is a time when our people are meant to come together, recognizing that, as a nation, we rise or fall as one.
And so it is particularly distressing to hear of rabbis who brand secular judges and others as being “disqualified as prayer leaders and even as being counted as members of a minyan,” as reportedly did the chief Rabbi of Holon. Noting that Jews are bidden by Jewish law to seek legal redress first and foremost in rabbinical courts the rabbi added that even if the secular courts were to formulate their decisions based solely on the Code of Jewish Law (the Shulchan Aruch), the very act of seeking civil redress would render plaintiffs and members of the court “evil” and require that they be “treated as air.”
From a strictly halachic point of view, these remarks are outrageous.
While it may be true that individual congregations have the right to decide who shall lead them in prayer ( i.e. act as a Shaliach Tzibur), only the most extreme viewpoints would exclude fullfledged Jews from counting in the quorum of 10.
We should follow the wisdom of the great decisor Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who urged rabbinic authorities to “draw others close with the strong right hand and push them away only with the left.”
Jewish tradition maintains that “there is no man who does not sin,” and so marginalizing someone on the basis of his compliance or non-compliance with halacha would effectively disqualify all Jews – including those who issue disparaging remarks about their co-religionists! AS RABBI of a congregation for many years, I followed the dictum that “you check your sins at the synagogue door.”
Outside the shul, you may, regrettably, violate laws of Shabbat or kashrut, you might cheat on your taxes or be lax in your Torah study. But when you walk into the synagogue, when you open your Siddur, you are no less holy than the fellow praying next to you. The very fact that you have chosen to come to shul to join in prayer is already evidence of your good Jewish character, and may even represent an act of teshuva, repentance, which atones for other sins you may have committed.
Indeed, my own sainted rabbi taught that virtually all Jews today are in the halachic category of a tinok sheh’nishba, a “captive infant” whose sins are not willful, but rather the result of a lack of knowledge, or unavoidable societal forces. As such, we cannot be held fully responsible for nonobservance, and are to be treated sympathetically in the eyes of halacha.
Yet going beyond the technical framework of halacha, the attitudes being expressed by many of late portray a much more serious problem in the Jewish world today.
It seems as if whole groups of Jews are actively, even desperately searching for ways to separate themselves and disassociate from Jews they deem “inferior” or not of their ilk. It could be the kind of kippa you wear – or don’t wear; it might be the school in which you studied, or perhaps the company your parents keep. You may be deemed an “outcast” in some circles and denied a shidduch because you served in the army – or did not serve. Believe it or not, there are several Jewish day schools which do not permit entrance to any student who owns – or whose parents own – a library card! Is the Jewish world today so extensive, so secure that we can afford to engage in such cynical self-fragmentation? Of course, we all tend to gravitate towards those individuals and groups with whom we find the most in common. There is no sin in that. And internal debate as to who holds the truth in spiritual matters is a time-honored Jewish ritual that bespeaks our intellectual integrity and defines our love of the divine. But while we may – nay, must – let our voice be heard and our opinions on the great issues of the day proclaimed, to completely delegitimize those who differ from our interpretation of the law, to write them out of the fold altogether and prevent them from even walking through the door is nothing less than suicidal.
Our spiritual obligation is to convince, not cut off, those with whom we disagree.
The title of this piece not only asks who is counted in the ranks of Judaism, but also who does the counting. Who determines which of us is worthy of membership in the group, who is a leader, who meets the standards embodied in the title, “Jew”? Is it not the Creator – as portrayed in the High Holidays most famous prayer of Un’taneh Tokef – the Sublime Shepherd who counts his flock and who, alone, judges each of us individually on the Day of Judgment? Perhaps the last great rabbinic leader in Jewish life who commanded respect from all the Jews of his era was Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who died in 1291.
Known as Me’or Ha’Golah, the “Light of the Exile,” he composed the short but vital passage which we solemnly recite just prior to the Kol Nidre of Yom Kippur eve: “By the authority of both the heavenly and earthly court, with the consent of both the Almighty and the community alike, we declare that it is permissible to pray with transgressors.”
That means us, you and me both.
For like it or not, our fortunes and fate are intertwined.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; jocmtv@netvision.net.il