Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Night of Heterodoxy on Shavuos?

Rabbi David Stav, head of Tzohar
*UpdateRabbi Stav has apparently denied the report (published in both Arutz Sheva and Ha'aretz) upon which this post is based. If that's true, I apologize for contributing to the spread this false rumor. Instead of taking down the post, I am going to leave it up in slightly modified form because the controversy surrounding Tzohar still exists and because the point I am making about the propriety of such actions is still valid.

My feelings about Tzohar are mixed. Tzohar is an organization in Israel that was formed to reach out to - and serve the secular world. They see the current Israeli Rabbinate as failing miserably in that mission. Instead of serving them, they are seen by Tzohar as alienating them. As such Tzohar has embarked on a number of controversial projects. Among them trying to restore conversion rights to independent rabbinic courts in Israel. A right that was removed relatively recently by the Rabbinate.

That was done in response to the controversy over converting masses of Russian immigrants that came to Israel under the ‘Law of Return’ but who are not Halachicly Jewish. (Either because of their mothers were not Jewish or their conversions weren’t valid.) The Israeli government felt it needed to convert these people as painlessly as possible since they not only thought of themselves as Jews, but were serving in the military and risking their lives.

Special conversion courts were set up for this purpose. And great numbers of them were converted through them – despite most of them having no sincere intent to follow Halacha. Following Halacha is a key component of conversion, without which one cannot convert to Judaism. Which meant invalidating all of those conversions.  (I am not going to go into the Halachic discourse about the application of the ‘observance’ component. There are differing opinions about that. Suffice it to say that the majority opinion on the matter today is that without a sincere declaration that one will follow Halacha (lip service does not count) a conversion will be invalid.

Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar’s founder and head is an honorable man with good intentions. He wishes to interpret conversion laws more liberally for purpose of the national welfare. He also feels (with some justification) that the rabbinate commandeered for itself a monopoly over all conversions. They have thus been precipitously unfair in how it has been adjudicating the legitimacy of various conversions.

Just to be clear, I support the standardization the Rabbinate seeks. But I am reluctant to fully endorse the way they have put it into practice. This is however, really a digression from the point of this post. I just wanted to give some background about the controversy surrounding Tzohar. And to address a new controversy* surrounding Them.

In its attempt to reach out to secular Jews, (a most laudable goal and enterprise) one of the things Tzohar does is have an all night Torah study session on Leil (night of) Shavuos . There is a custom to stay up all night studying Torah on this night. Tzohar invited all segments of Israeli to attend.  Last year there were 1500 people there. I’m sure it was a most inspiriting experience for many.

This year they are doing it again. Only they have had tremendous pressure from Reform and Conservative rabbis (who have involved the Kenesset to push for them) to teach Torah as part of that event. Rabbi Stav had resisted. Tzohar does not recognize the legitimacy of the Reform and Conservative movements. But it has been reported (since denied) that he had recently given in to pressure and was to actually allow them to give sessions under their auspices. Although Tzohar rabbis will not be present.

I understand the pressure. But one does not give up one’s principles for expediency. Even in the great cause of outreach. While one might say that the greater good is served by looking the other way that is not the only concern here. When you allow rabbis of movements that consider heretical beliefs to be legitimate;  and rabbis that say that Mitzvah observance is at best optional to teach your students, what are you really promoting in the end?

One thing you are not promoting is Judaism as Orthodoxy defines it. If you are going to call yourself Orthodox, you have to stand on the principles of Orthodoxy. Just because no Tzohar rabbis would have attended those session does not wipe away the fact that they would have been teaching under their auspices. And that grants them a legitimacy that they do not have.

Even if they were to promise to teach only the Orthodox viewpoint, that legitimacy would still be inferred.  Besides, what would be added by Reform and Conservative rabbis if they were limited to teaching the Orthodox viewpoint?

If the report were true, I think it would have been a huge mistake for Tzohar to have been involved in any official way with the Conservative and Reform Movements. 

The Reform and Conservative movements want to gain a foothold in Israel. Something that they have not yet been able to do. I think the reason may be because of their diminishing numbers (at least for the Conservative Movement) in America. They believe that secular Israelis might better identify with them and their movement can grow there. Those of us that are Orthodox do not want the religious character of Israel to change. Something that would happen if Reform and Conservative rabbis are recognized as legitimate by the State of Israel. That would change the status quo that balances secular and religious interests preserving the rights both segments enjoy today without encroaching too much on each other. It is compromise that has been working since the founding of the State.

That said, I happen to know some Conservative rabbis that could pass for Orthodox. In fact one Conservative rabbi (ordained by the flagship institution of Conservative Judism, JTS) I can think of is observant and has children that are Orthodox. The many columns by him I have read in a Jewish newspaper here in Chicago do not contain anything that would be incompatible with Orthodoxy. (Admittedly I have not read them all.) But even so, that doesn’t mean I can endorse the core values he received from  JTS. Even if I were to accept him, there are so many others to his left that are not even observant. And this doesn’t even speak to Reform rabbis who have no pretensions at all about the need to follow Halacha.

I actually believe that there are some Conservative and Reform rabbis can be reached – if only given the opportunity to learn from some of our best and brightest minds. That’s why Rav Ahron Soloveichik permitted teaching Conservative and Reform Rabbis Torah. Many years ago there a class of these rabbis that met once a week to study Torah based on this permit. If I recall correctly, it was well attended and taught by Rav Ahron’s son Rav Moshe.

What I would have liked Tzohar tohave done is the same. Invite these heterodox rabbis for study sessions with them. That I would have supported whole heatedly. But allowing them to teach Torah under your auspices on Shavuos night is a horse of an entirely different color. That should be vigorously protested. And I do.