Thursday, December 17, 2015

Which is Worse? A Nonreligious or a Conservative Jew?

By Rabbi Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute

From the Communications Media

(1) Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education, visited the United States two weeks ago. In a school connected to the Conservative movement (of the "Shechter" variety) and gave the institution great praise. 

(2) Chief Rabbi David Lau wondered about this: "Did he ask a rabbi for an opinion?" The rabbi opposed any support given to them, because after all they are known to support mixed marriages (my wording – Y.R.). "Very few families have a grandfather who is a Conservative Jew." 
(3) "The Chareidi sector is very angry about the visit by the Education Minister and about his praise, which grants legitimacy to the Conservative movement." 
(4) Rabbi Benny Lau, of Jerusalem, attacked his cousin, the Chief Rabbi: "That's crazy! Why should we put the entire country in jeopardy? After all, they are our greatest supporters!" 
(5) Rabbis Yaacov Ariel and Shmuel Eliyahu (worded in not quite the same way – Y.R.): "This isn't Judaism, it is a spiritual holocaust."

And this controversy continues to expand, providing a wonderful topic to discuss and to feature in the media.

Four Amazing Points

Well, I stand on the sidelines, and I find several aspects of this to be quite remarkable. First, have we lost all sense of proportion? Is this really the right time to renew an old "brotherly war" which has been shunted out of the main headlines for a while? Will the stamp of approval of the Israeli Minister of Education give rise to a new flood of people demanding to be admitted to Conservative schools? On the other hand, if he chooses to ban the schools, will that influence even one solitary person to leave this movement? As far as I can tell, this entire media tumult has gotten way out of hand, especially since as far as I am concerned the word "legitimacy" does not mean very much anyway. For example, I do not agree with the following statement: "The fact that the Chareidim are part of the government grants legitimacy to the desecration of the Shabbat." And this is true no matter how many times it is repeated as a quote of a statement by a "Torah giant."

Second, and this is a major point: If, let's say, a rabbi serving in an official capacity, a rabbinical court judge, or a Rosh Yeshiva would visit and praise a Conservative institution, I would at least understand the reactions of those who so harshly criticize this visit by the Minister. This is true even though I would not automatically jump to the top of those who criticized in such high tones (as I noted above, "legitimacy" is not a very important value to me). But, I have a message for my readers: We are talking about a political figure, the Minister of Education of the entire country of Israel. If he felt, or if his advisors suggested to him, that he should go to a Jewish institution of learning in the United States, even if it is not Orthodox, there is no need for him to "consult a rabbi." If he would decide to visit the Satmar Yeshiva in Williamsburg (not a bad idea at all!), I would not rush to criticize him, even though to give them legitimacy is just as serious as visiting a Conservative school...

Third, and this is even more significant: I do not ask for, and I do not expect, that everybody who wears a kippa must at all times and wherever he goes and whatever he does, always raise the kippa high for all to see.Even when we are discussing a Jew who is proud of his Orthodox heritage, for many of those who fill a public or a government position the kippa is not a major symbol of their identity. This is a fact, whether I like it or not. In the same way, I can list a few more sentences with which I do not agree: "A religious or Chareidi person who serves as the Minister of Economics gives legitimacy to working on Shabbat... A religious or Chareidi person who serves as Minister of Tourism is giving legitimacy to forbidden types of festivals... A religious or Chareidi person who serves as Minster of Religions desecrates G-d's name by giving financial support to foreign gods... One who wears a kippa and is the Chief of Police of the country is responsible for unnecessary desecration of Shabbat that takes place in the ranks of the police..." – and many other similar declarations. I am very happy to see so many Jews who are proud to wear a kippa, and even more so for knitted kippot, but I do not demand of them to play the combined role of a rabbi and an ambassador.

And, fourth: This is the heart of the matter. What will happen when a religious/Chareidi Minister of Education visits a nonreligious institution? Is he also not allowed to praise the achievements of the school in the realms of Judaism? And this leads us to the question that appears in the title of this article: Which is to be preferred – a nonreligious Jew or one who is Conservative? I know very well that many of my faithful readers will tell me that the nonreligious Jew is to be preferred, because he or she is not involved in fraud or mimicry but rather has no claims at all. But I say that a nonreligious Jew who acts as he does intentionally is at a lower level, since he has no beliefs at all. If you prefer, we can also broaden the dilemmas with other pairs: What about Conservative as opposed to "light" religious? Nonreligious or Reform? A reform Jew or a Gentile? A strongly traditional person, or one who used to be religious? Well, I for one am willing to repeat what I wrote above: No more of these futile discussions! They have no real effect at all! They make good subjects for discussions by learned panels and for exchanges of ideas, without "slogans." However, they are certainly not suitable as the vehicle for rehashing ancient disputes which are no longer actively on our national agenda. Not now, not today!

Was Yosef Assimilated?

Fill the mouths of the promoters of "Straight-Talking Tanach" with dust for their suggestion that Yosef was the first assimilated Jew (see, for example, Prof. Yisrael Eldad, Hegyoniot Mikra). Yosef's name was changed, to TzofnatPa'aneyach. He married a non-Jew. He purposely forgets his roots ("G-d has caused me to forget... my father's house" [Bereishit 41:51]). His clothing serves as an expression of his assimilation – "And he shaved and changed his clothing" [41:14]. And, most important of all, he became prominent in the Egyptian economy. There is simply no room here to quote all the proofs that this approach is very far from the approach of the sages and from the "holy books" throughout the generations.

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