By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (Sherlo) is the kind of Orthodox rabbi secular Israelis appreciate. He was born in Israel almost a decade after the establishment of the state, served in the army and later founded a hesder yeshiva that combines the study of Torah with army service. He’s considered to be a great halachic authority.
He’s also one of the founders of Tzohar, an association of rabbis who, unlike their colleagues who follow Lithuanian, Hasidic or Oriental ways of the Diaspora, are trying to remain faithful to Orthodox Judaism yet sensitive to contemporary Israeli realities.
As his parents hailed from the United States (which may account for his allegedly more moderate views) he’s likely to have American connections and knowledge of the Jewish communities there. After a recent visit to the US he wrote to his students that the time may have come to recognize non-Orthodox religious streams in Judaism to prevent the Diaspora from being lost to Israel. He concluded that most Jews who live abroad feel unwanted here for a number of reasons, one of them being religious discrimination. His message has a whiff of an Orthodox version of a Peter Beinart approach.
After the publication of his views on the website of his yeshiva all hell broke lose in Israeli Orthodoxy. One of its establishment’s spokesmen responded by denouncing Tsohar as being “worse than Reform,” Cherlow’s colleagues in Tsohar have distanced themselves from his statement, and he himself has issued a “clarification” trying to tone down (or perhaps retract) the gist of his original communication.
As soon as Cherlow’s message appeared, Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel seem to have been understandably, albeit prematurely, very happy to receive such a nod from a leading Orthodox authority. Though indeed his stance may indicate that some thoughtful Orthodox leaders are prepared to face realities for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people, the cold facts suggest the very opposite: Orthodoxy remains intransigent. Even the slightest deviation leads to recriminations and retractions.
The outgoing “chief rabbi” of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, knows all about it. His office has turned even this brilliant exponent of Judaism into a timid tool in the hands of “his” ultra-Orthodox Beth Din. We can rest assured that his successor will be selected on the basis of towing the line rather than qualities of leadership needed for the task.
And Israeli Orthodoxy will remain politicized. Though it may not represent much more than ten percent of the population, the political parties it spawned carry enough clout to make sure that they remain in the next government. Current pre-election polls indicate that Netanyahu & Co. will get about a third of the Knesset seats, but they’ll still need another two-dozen-plus mandates to form a government. As usual, the Orthodox parties are likely to partner with anybody that takes them – as longs as they’re paid off handsomely with privileges and massive financial support for their institutions.
After first hearing of Cherlow’s message I too had hoped to write an enthusiastic report about Israel turning an important corner. However, the reactions to his words suggest the opposite: the struggle for pluralism continues to be an uphill battle; relations with the Diaspora remain problematic. What Orthodox exponents usually mean by unity is uniformity as per their specification; pluralism, on the other hand, is unity in diversity.
P.S. Another former Labor leader, Amram Mitzna, has also left the party.