Who’s Afraid Of The Reform? – Rabbi Benny Lau
The first Reform Rabbi will now receive a salary from the State, it was decided last week. Rabbi Benny Lau, a modern orthodox leader, wrote this article in response. It first appeared in Hebrew in Makor Rishon, a newspaper closely identified with the National Orthodox public.
The decision of the Legal counsel to the government, to permit local councils to employ non-orthodox Rabbis on the payroll of the State, allows us to open up the subject of funding for religious services in Israel. It is no secret that the deep connection between politics and religion means that religious services arouse both concern and distaste. The issue of Rabbis’ salaries gives the public an ever-growing feeling that there is no correlation between those receiving salaries and the people who are supposed to receive their services. Too many times we find that someone can be sitting in the office of Community Rabbi, when no one in the neighborhood even knows his name.
Many national orthodox rabbis serve thousands of people without receiving any compensation from the State. This problem is multiplied since the general public is convinced that the Rabbi who is at their service night and day is compensated by someone. As far as the public is concerned, Rabbis are paid from the tax system out of the budget for religious services – and this is not always the case. Political arrangements allow the religious services system to be run in a way that encourages neither love of Torah nor respect for those that follow her.
The revolution that must take place here is in the definition of a community that is entitled to receive State funding for religious services. The key to defining these communities should be according to the amount of members of each community, the extent of their religious activities (prayer and Torah study), and charitable activities, as could be expected from a Jewish community. Religious services funds should be made available to those communities that are able to demonstrate their activities. Transparency and proper management would be the key to gaining access to funds.
There are those who maintain that Reform communities in Israel are a fiction. This new approach would enable us to establish or dismiss this assumption by checking the amount of members and the extent of the community’s activities. Reform communities, like every other community that forms itself for the purpose of religious activity, would receive treatment equal to that of any other religious community.
The war against the Reform movement has always acted as a unifying front for all fragments of the fractured Orthodox society
Sadly, at this point straightforward logic stops functioning, and fear arises at the threat imagined by the introduction of the Reform movement into the heart of Israeli society. The war against the Reform movement has always acted as a unifying front for all fragments of the fractured Orthodox society. All of a sudden a prominent Haredi website crowns Rabbi Shlomo Aviner “The Genius Rabbi Shlomo” – just because he called the decision “State suicide”. Comrades in sorrow find shelter with each other’s family.
The verbal violence directed at the Reform movement in general and its heads in particular does not add honor to us Rabbis or to our community. It would seem better to conduct the discourse about the meaning of this decision in a way that respects others. The threat that this move will “destroy the State of Israel” should concern the Orthodox community in particular.
Even socialist thinkers learned from the field of economics that monopolies tend to corrupt its holders. When the holder of a monopoly warns that opening up the market will damage the product – we don’t believe him. We fear that he wishes to hold on to the product by force so as not to lose it. The same applies in matters of the spirit: We cannot scare the public with monopolistic arguments, and say that opening up the market to competition will lead to the destruction of the Jewish People. We should manage this struggle over the nature of the State of Israel and the wellbeing of the Jewish People in a fair and constructive fashion.
Ever since we were children we would recite the words of Rabbi Abraham HaCohen Kook z”l that “pure saints do not complain but augment”; this threatening and violent tone will not lead the Israeli public to a love of Torah, nor will it raise National Orthodox Rabbis to its leadership. Thus we will just continue to pat ourselves on our own backs in our own sector, and continue to be surprised why the masses of the House of Israel are not drawn to our wagon.
Yet things can be different. We community rabbis who believe in the power of the Torah to enliven and heal every heart and soul, must stand in the open market and offer our wares: a Judaism committed to the Halachic tradition that was passed down to us through the generations, a Judaism committed to the Israeli and Jewish public in all its variety and needs. Through the power of faith and the love we imbibed from our study houses, and through the strength of mission and responsibility for the entire population – so we will act and succeed.
Rabbi Benjamin Lau is the Rabbi of Ramban Synagogue and one of the heads of the Bet Morasha Study House.