A Time of Profound Change
By Yuval Sherlo | 18/03/2010
The challenges facing the rabbinic world in this generation requires people who have in-depth knowledge of all the treasures of the Torah world, and on the other hand, have expert knowledge and full understanding of the spiritual and cultural trends of the period. In all probability, we will have to recognize the fact that this is not at all possible, and therefore, the rabbi occupies a position different from that of previous generations. However, the option remains of a gradual filling in of the gaps by the Torah scholar who emerges blessed from the renewed encounter between the Torah and life
The Jewish rabbinic establishment has existed for over 3,000 years: from the revelation of the Torah until the present day. The most ancient mishnaic text, that which opens Tractate Aboth, states: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Joshua…" From then and until this day, the Torah continues to be handed down along a chain. Therefore, posing the question of what is required from a rabbi in our day assumes that despite this solid and fixed tradition, and despite the fact that over the generations the Torah passed through various cultures with no break in the rabbinic leadership, there have been new occurrences in the world, requiring a response on the part of the rabbinic establishment and a change in its structure. This does not entail calling into question the character of one rabbi or another, but rather raises the institutional question of the structure of the rabbinate.
On what is this assumption based? What are those very changes occurring in the Jewish world, as a result of which the rabbinate is called upon to examine itself as an institution, and to adjust itself to this reality? Why can it not continue to carry on as the rabbinate of the generations that preceded it?
One can identify three spheres of change that require a response by the rabbinic establishment: a change in people, a change in the reality of the Jews, and a change in the world at large.
The person with whom the rabbinate must deal, guide, mentor, and to whom he must present Hashem's word, is a person who believes himself to be important, in the shallow and non-condescending sense of the word. He is an autonomous person, free, egalitarian, usually liberal, educated and thinking. He attributes tremendous importance to the self-fashioning of his means of encountering the Holy One, has far less regard for the power of authority than his counterparts of previous generations, attributes great importance to his connection with himself and his principles, and adheres to natural morality and common intelligence, the values of culture, and many other additional foundations that for generations were external to the realm of a Jew's world. He is not a person who succumbs to authority, or who is impressed by demonstrations of knowledge. He studies and examines, is curious and suspicious, experienced and educated. One of the main changes relating to the shift in the status of man is the dramatic change in the status of women. This change illustrates to what point previous gender assumptions regarding the social structure, and acceptance of early assumptions regarding the nature of men and women, no longer exist, and this is part of the new image of man that the rabbinate must deal with and through which it must transmit the Torah from generation to generation. This change itself requires an examination of how much the traditional rabbinate, in its current institutional structure, which is authoritative in essence, is still able to serve as a guide and a mentor.
Changes in Framework and Content
In the second sphere – the national sphere – what has occurred can be described as no less than a total revolution. The Jews have regained national and political independence, after hundreds of years of being detached from this reality. The nation is poised almost entirely devoid of a halakhic-political tradition that can deal with this reality, since most of the written halakhic tradition took shape in the absence of any existing independent political Jewish entity, and therefore, it barely addressed these issues. If we compare the extent of the written halakhic literature regarding laws of the Sabbath, to the number of political laws, we find that the number of the former is at least one hundred times more numerous, if not more.
The challenges arise from the fact that the rabbi finds himself no longer at the top of the hierarchy, which in effect has no head at all. Alongside the rabbi are the state, the court, the media, and the executive authority, and he finds himself functioning in parallel to them rather than as the nearly lone ruler, as he was accustomed in the past. An additional difference is rooted in the kind of issues presented to the rabbi: they are systemic, relate to civil society, are multi-layered in meaning, bear international implications, and are not restricted to the limited bounds of the halakha in the limited sense of the word.
In the third, cultural-general sphere, Israeli society is increasingly adopting to a greater extent the foundations of post-modern society. The thrust of this culture is the recognition of different possibilities, and the deep penetration of interpretations that emphasize the position of the reader as part of the text, obviating the possibility of a "correct" reading of the sources. Post-modern culture fears the manipulation of knowledge, bolsters creativity and innovation, takes a subjective view of halakha and reality, and is rife with doubts arising from the recognition that everything is relative. This culture is absolutely contrary to the accepted halakhic structure, which is objective, general, arises from an external authoritative source, and is unequivocal and institutional.
To remove any doubts and in order to prevent the reader from having to wait until the end, I would like to emphasize that fundamentally, the role of the rabbi has not changed, and to this day he is responsible for bringing the word of Hashem to his congregation. "Bringing the word of Hashem" is not merely presenting halakha as a source of inspiration; halakha is a source of authority, and a rabbi in the name of halakha who cannot call out to his congregation or make demands of its members to change their ways, is not worthy of his role and title. Despite the institutional and binding changes, the role of the rabbi remains as it was, and he continues the tradition of halakha from Mt. Sinai. The institutional changes that we will address touch on framework and content, but not on the essence of the rabbi's role as a teacher of halakha.
In addition, one must remember that parallel to the community that lives the spheres of change to their full intensity, there is a very large population that is hostile to these processes and seeks to avoid their influence, or does not even recognize them. This population does seek the traditional image of the rabbi: the rabbi who is an absolute authority, who determines matters absolutely and makes decisive halakhic rulings, who comes with clear answers under his wing and explicit guidelines to guide the public that adheres to his leadership in a complex and entangled world. The more that the rabbi chooses a path of abstinence from the world and is learned in miracles and scrupulous regarding halakha, demanding obedience and acceptance of his authority, the more this community will feel tied to him, and the deeper that tie will be. This is also part of the multicultural milieu that we live in, and we must grow accustomed to that fact that it is no longer possible to speak of the "image of the rabbi" in an absolute sense, but rather to recognize the various shades of the rabbi today.
What kinds of necessary influences will be brought to bear by these spheres of change?
In a place where such a deep shift is occurring, the rabbi cannot devote all of his work and knowledge only to the continuing of tradition, since in most general and public halakhic questions, a complete answer cannot be found in the rabbinic rulings of previous generations. Therefore, he must know only know the Shulhan Arukh , the responsa literature and other halakhic writings published over time – he must also understand the foundations of halakha, its origins, the discourse of learning, the ways in which halakha took shape and was created, the ways in which previous generations handled new questions, the image of halakha in earlier times, and so much more. Additionally, classical Talmudic literature will not be sufficient to enable him to grapple with the topics of our generation; some of the questions require complete mastery of the treasures of aggada, Bible, halakhic midrash, and many other matters. As I write these words, I can see before me the complete mastery of the great Torah scholars of previous generations, learned in the riches of halakha, and I cannot conjure up a tremendous greatness that surpasses theirs. In all probability, if they were alive in our day, they would be bursting forth with an inconceivable spiritual and halakhic creativity. However, we are bereft of these leaders, and while the demands are only growing, constant Torah learning is not as it was in past generations, and therefore we lose on both counts. All of the attempts to establish "courses for rabbis" or to fashion them in academically limited educational setting are sentenced to dismal failure. It is precisely now that we need a figure who is a talmid hakham, a great student of a learned person, in the fullest sense of the term.
At Home in the World
Beyond unshakeable mastery of the world of learning, Torah and halakhic rulings, today's rabbis must be exceedingly knowledgeable regarding the world in which he is functioning as a halakhic authority. The rabbi is no longer able to rely only on his halakhic authority. In the new world, when the rabbi comes to require of his congregation to draw nearer to Hashem and exhibit loyalty to the halakhic covenant between God and man, he must wield great force in his efforts to plead and convince others regarding the truth of his words, employ aesthetics, and use other tools suitable for implementation in a world of choice. The image of the rabbi exists within his congregation, and does not hover above it and cry "follow me." The recognition that the source of the rabbi's authority is in the congregation that accepts his rulings, and not by force of authority, continues to gain increasing ground.
However, this is not just a matter of procedure, but also of content. The Hazon Ish has already written that a halakhic ruling originates in the recognition of reality. A mere technical recognition of reality, such as how electricity works, is not sufficient. A rabbi who seeks to be the leader of a congregation or the shepherd of a generation, cannot refrain from recognizing the cultural and overall trends in the nation, the causes of economic inequality, the manners of juridical oversight of the legislative authority, their advantages and disadvantages, the web of international relations, etc. Unless he is familiar with these, he is unable to approach the world of halakhic ruling and spiritual guidance. A rabbi who operates today without understanding the distress of modern man, his loneliness, his longing for internal empowerment, and his tendency towards the mystical or the new age, is unable to properly fulfill the additional component of the rabbi's job: working with the individual, upholding the emotional and familial support system, and intervention in time of crisis.
Until now we have related to the realm of knowledge. Faith, however, is not knowledge alone, but rather a deep system of connection between a person and God. A rabbi who seeks to guide his congregation must be a figure whose internal world is that of a man of faith in the modern world. A rabbi who himself does not live the dialectic between natural fulfillment of the self and subordination to halakha, who has no internal drive to explore ways to reconcile the autonomous voices in him with the demands of halakha, who is not a man of culture who connects with himself and his experience rather than hold them in contempt or relate to them with hostility, cannot be a guide and make demands on a generation for which these experiences are intrinsic. He himself must recognize the Torah of doubt, recognize the depth of the importance of allowing the space for a person's choice and self-navigation within the world of halakha. He must be at home in the world, and not a guest.
Have we set our sights too high, and in so doing, are we bringing about the collapse of the rabbinic world? Who could fulfill all of these requirements: to be a Torah great at a level that enables creativity and internal recognition of the halakhic discourse, together with expert knowledge and deep understanding of the spiritual and cultural trends of the reality in which he lives, and in addition, to be a person with deep experiences of authenticity and independent life?
We should probably recognize that this is entirely impossible. This is why the rabbi does not occupy the same place that he did in previous generations. He will be appointed over a very narrow realm of life: religious ritual (though there too he will encounter new questions, such as questions that pertain to changes in the status of women), while other people will seek the 'big answers.' It seems that this in a way describes current reality, in which the rabbi is fenced into the realm of the individual and serves as a guide for religious-halakhic ritual, while refraining from engaging in the truly tremendous questions. It is difficult to accept this position, since it is counter to the all-embracing view of Torah, which occupies every area of life.
An additional possibility, which is also the result of the claim that such a high bar cannot be set, is to split the image of the rabbis into sub-roles, which means institutionally that there will be not a single "great of the generation," but rather experts in different realms. This has already been recognized in halakha, and even in very ancient halakha (such as in the division between the Babylonian amoraim Rav and Shmuel, where one was an authority on prohibitions and the other on monetary issues respectively), and in today's reality, it is also widespread.
There is, however, a third possibility, which is recognition of the new reality, as a result of which the rabbi will study all of the necessary realms. He need not be a an Übermensch, but rather a rabbi who is familiar with the different worlds that exist outside of his own, and who slowly progresses towards filling in the gaps necessary in an ongoing manner, alongside his rabbinic studies. He must conduct a dialogue with the world that is external to the world of Torah, and strike a balance through exquisite attentiveness to additional foundations. Such a rabbi uses as his core foundation the study of Torah and expansion of his knowledge and understanding in this world to a tremendous extent that does not fall below that of the previous generations, but he expands his attention also to the additional realms that we discussed above. This is the image of the rabbi who will stand up to the challenges of the hour, and not just get through them in one peace, but rather emerge blessed from the encounter between Torah and life.
Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, a leader of "Tzohar - A Window Between Worlds," is Head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petah-Tikvah