Recently I’ve come back from a four-month sabbatical in Israel. In Israel there were many highlights, too numerous to list, not least of which was time family especially my 104-year-old grandmother who still cooks schnitzel in lachuch with chilbeh, and schug for her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
But there were some low points. The one most relevant to us right now, and the impetus for my writing is the alienation felt by Diaspora Jewry towards Israel.
We saw this heightened some time ago when the government rescinded on its commitment to the non-orthodox prayer space at the Wall and exacerbated a few months ago when it was revealed that there was a ‘blacklist’ of respected Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora who are banned by the Chief Rabbinate.
Many I spoke to felt things were at an all-time low when the new “nation-state” law, which whilst its aim may have some commendable aspects, was voted in without appropriate discussion, consultation and thought about how to explain it throughout the world, Jewish and non-Jewish. Then came the news that a Conservative rabbi in Haifa was hoisted into questioning at 5.30am. Despite a swift response from Israel’s Attorney General to halt the proceedings, many found the event profoundly troubling. The Israeli government’s decision not to extend surrogacy rights to same-sex couples has also profoundly upset many.
Let’s be clear about what all this means. It’s not about denying Halachik authorities the right to decide for themselves what is and isn’t Halachikly acceptable. It is simply and solely about repudiating, in the strongest terms, the right for those authorities to impose their decisions on the rest of society even on those who don’t subscribe to Halacha. After millennia of horror, Western Civilisation has come to the basic conclusion that the best way to avoid such horror is to allow everyone maximum freedom to do whatever they will so long as they cause no harm to others. ‘Live and let live’ is the foundation of modernity. A modernity, we can all agree, in which Jews are the greatest beneficiaries.
Whilst all this worry-inducing fracas was going on in Israel, there have been some very positive developments in Melbourne where we, as a community, are seeking to address one of the greatest challenges for Jewish life in the Diaspora today – ‘marrying out’.
Until very recently the approach was the stick. Those who ‘marry out’ are punished. A Jewish man can’t be called to the Torah if he marries a non-Jewish woman. A non-Jewish parent would be excluded from standing under the Chuppah or on the Bimah during family smachot. And, most ludicrously, when they came before the Beit Din to try and convert they faced very high, almost insurmountable walls.
Now we get to the positive part.
Over the past year or so there has been a real change in the attitude of the local establishment religious leadership. They have arrived at the same core conclusion that a number in the community have been espousing for a long time. Given we are in such dire straits with regard to younger generations forfeiting their Jewish connection in the absence of an appropriate way to convert and in so doing develop/maintain an Orthodox Jewish life, should we not, when approached by someone with a genuine desire to become a religious Jew, have the greatest imperative to do what we can to assist rather than alienate them?!
To effect positive change, you need to know facts which is why a review of the Melbourne Beit Din process was undertaken. And this is the positive development I was referring to.
A few weeks ago we read Parshat Shoftim, one of my favourites. It unlocks the mystery of Jewish continuity and the power of the Torah in a way that guides our attitudes today in a most profound way. The Torah says that when you have a query concerning the application of the law or need for arbitration you should go to the judges of the cities who will be in those days. (Devarim 17:9)
Rashi explains that the last, seemingly redundant, words suggest that even though your contemporary judge pales in comparison with the judges that have been before him, you must obey him — you have none else but the judge that lives in your days (Rosh Hashanah 25b).
This almost innocuous little bit of interpretation is an absolute revelation and when actually applied today in the Jewish world, which I truly believe it must be, will have ramifications of epic proportions. The revelation is that the Torah in its infinite wisdom not just identifies, but highlights, the need for a judge to be contemporary even if at the expense of historic wisdom and righteousness.
Why should being contemporary take precedence over wisdom and righteousness? Whilst the wise and righteous have a lot to say that is worthwhile for our ears, and is not to be disregarded, only a contemporary knows how to apply them appropriately to the given day. Not because he is so clever but because they are necessarily privy to the particular circumstances of the age.
Of course, not all contemporary rabbis, judges and Batei Din, need to be followed. The Torah clearly stipulates what qualities judges of the day need to have. Wisdom and righteousness are a given but by no means enough. The central requirement is, in fact, the strength and integrity to judge without bias. ‘You shall show no partiality nor take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise’. (Devarim 16:19)
Once you’ve found a saintly wise person who is incorruptible you then have one more requirement that is an absolute deal-breaker. Do they take seriously the charge to ensure that the Torah is being interpreted appropriately for their time?
It must be applauded that rabbis have found ways to make changes over the centuries. They have found a way for us not to have to kill all men, women, and children belonging to Hamas and Hezbollah even though they are surely no better than the Amalekites or the seven other nations whom we are explicitly instructed not to show mercy and to annihilate when we enter the land. (Devarim 25:17, 20:16) They found a way and we are supremely thankful for that.
And now they, indeed all of us who are Orthodox rabbis, must focus on dealing with a crisis facing the Jewish world today – the crisis of ‘The Vanishing American Jew’ (Alan Dershowitz), really the vanishing Diaspora Jew?
We live in the age of social media which means we are exposed to more information and introduced to more people than ever before. Practically, this translates to more and more Jewish men and women are finding non-Jewish partners.
Remarkably, and testament to all who have come before us, many care so deeply about their Jewish identity, culture and religion that when the partner comes into the Jewish orbit he/she feels drawn in and wants to adopt Judaism as their own. But until now, they were met with harsh, negligent, and deeply suspicious responses to their request. So many turned away. And many were led away by the Jewish partner no longer wanting to be part of a community that could treat them like this.
It is to the credit of the Melbourne Bet Din that last year it undertook a comprehensive review of its conversion program.
And what they found was something I have been advocating from the day I decided to work through an esteemed, independent Orthodox Beit Din in Israel led by Dayanim who were themselves responsible for penning the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s conversion program. Conversion candidates yearn for warmth, a sense of inclusion, transparency, to have a sense of what to expect (to the extent that is possible), readily available assistance, and generally not be forced to complete a doctorate on top of a master’s degree.
It is an exciting new development in the Jewish Life of Melbourne Australia. There is real hope now that the recommendations will have the desired effect that will help curb the tide of oblivion whilst immensely enriching our community with the diversity, intelligence, and sensitivity that converts bring to the table. We will have a situation where our sons and daughters who wish to create a Jewish family and no longer turned off or turned away but are taught, guided, inspired and embraced for their genuine desire to lead an Orthodox Jewish life.