The bad rap on rabbis

So rather than dismiss out of hand the stubborn refusal by some rabbis to sign on to what they consider radical changes, let us understand where they are coming from.

Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau_150 (photo credit: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau_150
(photo credit: Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
Recently, I gave a lecture on the classic Talmudic tale of "Kamtza and Bar Kamtza," which highlighted the disunity and intra-Jewish fighting that presaged the destruction of the Second Temple. After recounting the events of that sordid saga, I asked the participants who they thought was the main villain of the story. Though there are no less than seven possible culprits, several of the assembled immediately yelled out, "The Rabbis were to blame!" Indeed, the Talmud itself, after a lengthy discussion, points its own accusing finger at the clergy.
Well, times sure haven't changed much. It seems that everywhere I turn - including the pages of this very paper - it's open season on the rabbinate, who are lambasted on an almost daily basis for a variety of ills: Members of the Chief Rabbinate are alienating the public; they are holding young people back from marrying; they are suppressing democratic freedoms; corrupting society; monopolizing virtue and on and on and on. It's a feeding frenzy - but far from a completely kosher one.
Are rabbis really so unredeemably horrible?
Now, don't get me wrong; as a practicing rabbi, I - as much if not more than the average citizen - fully recognize that the rabbinate is far from perfect, with no shortage of "issues" surrounding them. The national kashrut supervision system needs major overhauling; a gentler, more flexible attitude needs to be adopted regarding conversion; a moral, no less than Halachic voice needs to be heard from our religious leaders; and serious outreach to the secular community must become a priority. Judaism cannot be the exclusive domain of just the Orthodox; every Jew must be respected as an equal partner and treated with dignity.
But while there are certainly abuses of power - that is almost guaranteed whenever any group has a monopoly - it is absolutely wrong to paint every rabbi with the same, denigrating brush.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of wise, dedicated, principled rabbis throughout Israel. You will find them in the official rabbinate, in schools, yeshivot, kollelim, seminaries and synagogues; in Chabad and Tzohar and Beit Hillel and countless other rabbinic organizations. Some are under the employ of the state; many others volunteer their time due to their selfless commitment to a cause. They are working hard every day to disseminate knowledge, to train young people, to assist others in crisis, to promote Torah values and to maintain the chain of Jewish tradition. As in any population, be it doctors, bus drivers, lawyers - and yes, even politicians! - you will always find a certain percentage that abuse their positions and succumb to baser temptations. But the vast majority, I am absolutely convinced, are good and decent people who benefit society.
I cringe when I read about Jewish couples - the latest numbers suggest it is almost 50%! - who choose to go overseas to marry rather than have a local rabbi officiate here in Israel. These couples are making a terrible mistake in denying themselves an authentically Jewish, exciting and meaningful, once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully!) experience. There are a multitude of gifted, caring rabbis who make this magnificent ceremony come alive in unforgettable fashion, who work, share and bond with the couple to forge an ongoing connection. I am proud to say that over the last dozen years, the rabbis in my community have performed thousands of weddings, with overwhelming satisfaction and success.
And let us not be overly critical of rabbinic stalwarts who are slow to change. They take the preservation of Jewish practice very seriously, and do not want it to become the victim of every passing trend. It's infinitely easier - and certainly more politically correct - to say "Yes" to each new innovation, to every concession to changing reality. But will this, ultimately further Jewish life, or will it erode the foundation that keeps us alive as a People? Inclusivity sounds universally appealing, but if it promotes intermarriage and assimilation - which is rapidly decimating the non-Orthodox Jewish population of America - is it really what is best for us as a nation?
Remaining firm on Halachic principles is, at the very least, no less acceptable a position than "if it feels good, do it." And while compromise is generally the path of peace, it is not a universal fix-it. Can Jewish traditionalists agree to suddenly change the rules in the middle of the game? Must they accept ­ as the Reform movement does outside Israel - that the child of a Christian mother and a Jewish father is regarded as Jewish, with no conversion required? Or that any child ­ even one with two non-Jewish biological parents ­ becomes automatically Jewish when adopted by Jews? Does this create greater unity, or does it serve to fragment our nation?
And which Biblical commandments, steadfastly kept for millennia, can be summarily severed from the list? Laws of kashrut? Brit Mila? Sexual unions? Halachic divorce? They say that in war, one knows where it starts but cannot predict where it will end. But in religion, we know where dismantling the structure will end: In two - or more - Jewish Peoples.
The liberal community finds a way to be tolerant of everything ­ except intolerance. But rather than dismiss out of hand the stubborn refusal by some rabbis to sign on to what they consider radical changes, let us try to understand where they are coming from.
There is a famous phrase in Jewish liturgy, "Chadesh Yamenu k'Kedem - Renew our present days as of old." The ability to modernize and bring the contemporary world into line with ongoing Jewish tradition is one of the great challenges we all face today.
(The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana,