Israel should learn from diaspora rabbis

For years it’s been Israeli figures leading the way, but our rabbis have much to teach them


LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaks at a National Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre on January 26, 2017 in London, England. The commemorative event, attended by religious leaders, heard testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust, in which millions of predominantly Jewish people were killed. National Holocaust Day on February 27 marks the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet troops. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

February 02, 2023 10:49

Last month, the Knesset elected Amir Ohana as its first openly gay speaker, leading to a storm of homophobic comments from leading Israeli rabbis and politicians. But one rabbi stood out. Speaking to Israeli television, UK Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis insisted that every human was created in the image of God and that it was forbidden to hate anyone because of their sexual orientation.

The TV anchor Amnon Levy was taken back by this tolerant approach, telling Rabbi Mirvis that he should be Israel’s chief rabbi because of his “liberal” positions. “I don’t think this is a liberal position, this is the Torah’s position,” Rabbi Mirvis replied.

His intervention was just a one-off, but it shows a huge opportunity for inclusive diaspora rabbis to fill a vacuum in Israel’s religious life.

To date, most of the influence has flowed in the other direction. Broadly speaking, diaspora Jews have sent money and political support to Israel, while Israel sent us a stream of shlichim, or emissaries, to teach Judaism, Israeli culture and Hebrew, and “strengthen” what they perceived as weak communities.

In addition, we’ve imported numerous rabbis, scholars-in-residence, lecturers and teachers. The gap was only natural. Israeli Jewish education — from schools to yeshivahs and the hesder army programme — is far more intensive and sophisticated than anything the diaspora could possibly produce. As the epicentre of Jewish learning, Israel needed no imports of its own. But now we in the diaspora have something Israel lacks and needs. Brought up and educated in the West, in societies that value human rights, pluralism and equality, our Orthodox rabbis are relatively moderate and tolerant compared to their Israeli counterparts. These community rabbis are used to interacting both with secular Jews and a non-Jewish majority and operate in a context devoid of the political and nationalistic pressures shaping much of Israeli religious discourse. And in many of the United Synagogue-type communities in which they work, the values of the surrounding society are respected and internalised.

That’s not to say our local rabbis are all beacons of moderation. Nor is it to say that there are no moderate rabbis in Israel; of course there are. One notable example is the Tzohar movement, whose rabbis try to show a softer, more welcoming version of Judaism to secular Israelis. But their remit is mostly limited to a narrow set of issues concerning the role of religion in the public sphere.

In any case, they are being drowned out by a government dominated by far-right religious extremists, who are openly homophobic, racist, misogynistic and culturally chauvinistic. Secular Israelis — and even many national-religious Israelis — are repulsed by their narrow, hateful world view. Unfortunately, this coalition threatens to poison Israelis’ attitudes to religion for a generation.

For once, we in the diaspora have an attractive alternate vision to offer this troubled society. And there is demand for it; just look at the skyrocketing popularity of the late Rabbi Lord Sacks’ writings in Israel since his death in 2020.

It is not just his openness and tolerance that seems to appeal, but his vision of a Judaism which has a universal message and can engage with other cultural and spiritual traditions. While many Israeli rabbis are caught up in petty political squabbles and hatreds, he deals with key contemporary issues from multiculturalism to the impact of digital communication on society. He is relevant.

Sadly, there is no cadre of diaspora educators of the same calibre, able to continue his work seamlessly. Rabbi Sacks’ talent was unique (and even within his own lifetime he was not well known in Israel).

Still, there are other Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora with a broad, tolerant outlook and the ability to communicate to Israelis hungry for a more engaging Judaism. Rabbi Mirvis rose to the occasion admirably in January and may find a receptive audience — and a legacy — if he persists. There will be others elsewhere. (There are many progressive rabbis who could do the same, but it will be harder for them to be heard.)

In recent years, there have been attempts by some diaspora leaders to discuss their values with Israelis, but this has usually concerned the treatment of the Palestinians and the two-state solution.

Since their lives are not at stake, their input was often unwelcome. Now there is a chance to have a genuine impact by showing Israelis a model of Jewish leadership which is tolerant, loving and engaged with the world.

Who else will pick up the mantle?

February 02, 2023 10:49

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