Saturday, October 16, 2004

Does Israel Need (More) Rabbis?

Recently, my town's chat group has been all abuzz about the question of whether we need to have neighborhood rabbis, or even rabbis in our many synagogues. The responses have been fascinating and highlight a basic cleavage about the perception of the rabbi in Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox circles in Israel.

Most Israeli residents, along with a not insignificant number of Anglos, think that there is no need for neighborhood or synagogue rabbis. After all, there are plenty of congregants who can give short Divre Torah. There are not a few rabbis of whom shaylos can be asked. Who needs a rabbi? If you need someone at your simcha, the town rabbi tries to attend. Moreover, why should a community appoint someone to tell them how to think. The hallmark of Modern Orthdoxy is personal autonomy. Rabbis are for Haredim.

Others approach from a different perspective. They offer that rabbis are not just DT or Psaq machines. They are there to provide guidance, solace, and to give mussar when required. Even asking shaylos requires a degree of intimacy with a specific person. Even when it comes to shul itself, a rav is desireable. Israelis all too often treat shul like 'Jiffylube' (not my analogy), 'in and out in an hour.' A rav can (if he's talented) help to make tefillah an act of worship and not just another thing on one' list of 'Things to Do.'

Personally, I respond to both sides of the argument. However, when I consider some of the challenges facing Orthodoxy in contemporary Israel, I find myself coming down on the pro-rabbi side (despite, not because of, my own training). Whether we like it or not, Modern Orthodoxy is beset by serious crises (perhaps malaises) in Israel (if it ever really existed here). These crises are overlapping.

1) Spiritual- Our town has a very large number of young adults and youth who've 'doffed their kippah.' The establishment denies it, but all one has to do is walk around on Friday Night to see the evidence. Part of the problem is the lack of spirituality instilled in the schools and the shuls. Judaism without Halakhah is inauthentic. Without spirituality, however, it's a dead letter.

2) Cultural- Let's face it, the rabbis we do have don't have secular educations. They are absolutely incapable of addressing the kinds of challenges that any of us face in the world. So, yes, we need rabbis of a particular type (YU?) to respectfully help negotiate and intelligently guide communities through the eddies and whirlpools that threaten to engulf us (feminism?),.

3) Moral- In one of my last conversations with Rabbi Soloveitchik, zt"l (February, 1985), he mentioned to me that one of Orthodoxy's greatest failngs is triumphalist self-congratulation. I took him to mean that we're too happy with ourselves, individually and collectively. The function of a rav is to address that flaw (including the ways it expresses itself in himself). This will not make him popular. It will benefit the community and make him a rav.

The accuracy of these observations is reinforced by the rapid spread of a part-time rabbinate throughout Israel. There is clearly a need. The challenge is to find and train the people to fill that need. So far, on that score, Israeli Orthodoxy is not doing very well.

1 comment:

Moshe Feldman said...

I made aliyah last year, and must say that in the 15 years since I last spent a substantial amount of time in Israel, the religious situation has changed dramatically. When I was in Shaalvim from 84-86 and at Har Etzion from 89-90, the general feeling was that Hesder world was the future--that those who lived in communities of bogrei yeshivot hesder would find it relatively easy to raise children who are religious, perhaps even serious ovdei Hashem. Coming back after a 15 year time warp, I find everything has changed. Everyone is unsure as to what the magic recipe to avoid datlashiut is: Carlebach, Chasidus, more openness, less openness, etc.

Morever, olim are even more confused. We don't understand the new situation and find it difficult to choose communities, schools, etc. An example: I recently moved to Neve Daniel, where I have found many families which are seriously committed to Yahadus. At the same time, many of the daughters of these same families seem to dress in ways which I consider un-tzniusdik (tight blouses, etc.). I expressed surprise to an Israeli who proceeded to explain to me that this is quite common, and that in fact, many of these girls are quite frum but have this one foible.

I, for one, would like to hear more analyses of the religious situation in the dati leumi world, and receive guidance in how to avoid the "datlash" phenomenon.

Moshe Feldman