There is no dispute that the disclosure of the complaints against Rabbi Mordechai Elon of sexual molestation through exploitation of spiritual authority provoked deep shock in the National Religious community. The allegations at the base of the matter, the circumstances that made them possible, how the issue was handled, the responses in the National Religious community, and the intense and sweeping upheaval caused by all these, raise a series of questions regarding the processes taking place in the National Religious community and regarding the impact of these processes on the lives of all Israelis. The most prominent and important of these is the ascent of the status of rabbis. Dr. Ariel Picard, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi and Dror Yinon offer some points for consideration.
The Elon affair vehemently reminded the entire Israeli public of the current status of religious Zionist rabbis and the extraordinary position of power this status affords them. Their unique authority, the admiration of them, and the unswerving totality in which their rulings are received, leave an imprint not only on their communities but on the entire religious Zionist public, not an obvious effect in a society that considers itself committed to democratic values, including the independence and freedom of the individual.
Moreover, the implications derived from the elevated status of rabbis today stretch far beyond the socio-religious sector they serve, and directly affect the entire Israeli society. The special status currently conferred by the religious Zionists on their rabbis produces political, defense, moral and legal implications affecting all Israeli residents: religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox and gentile. One example among many is the growing influence of these rabbis on how religious soldiers perceive the role of the IDF and its objectives, sometimes contrary to democratic values, Israeli law and international law.
The meaning of this power also transcends the concrete Israeli arena, and raises the discussion over the question of the role of the rabbi in the modern environment that sees the individual as an autonomous entity, an environment in which different streams of religious Jews coexist and in which many Jews do not view Jewish law (halakha) in particular and religion in general as a component of their Jewish identity.
The question of the rabbi’s status, therefore, does not relate only to the place of rabbis in the community, but also to the very nature of their role, to the limits that should be placed on that role and even to its validity.
Israel’s chief rabbis during a visit to the IDF base at Tel Shomer, during the early 1950s. On the right, Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel. To the left, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog. Photographer: Arthur (Abraham) Rosman
Dr. Ariel Picard sees the accumulation of the powers granted to rabbis as one of the factors establishing their status as a super-authority with mystical qualities. Dr. Picard: "In the existing perception, which needs replacing, too much power is concentrated in one person. The rabbi now serves as a teacher of Torah, a psychologist, a counselor, a social and political leader and a legal arbiter. Unlike the judges, for example, the rabbis are not required to explain their decisions and many of them do not do so."
The problem, Dr. Picard believes, already lies in the title. "It is necessary," he says, "to remove the title ‘rabbi’ from the lexicon of religious titles and replace it with the title ‘Torah scholar’." In the Hebrew of the sages, he reminds us, the word "rabbi" also meant ‘master.’ In the mishnah, for example, it is stated: "… Do not be like slaves serving the master in order to receive a reward, be like slaves serving the master not to receive a reward." (The Ethics of the Fathers, 1:3) This connotation of master, Dr. Picard hones, allows for the self-negating approach towards rabbis: "Of course, ‘master’ contradicts the modern approach that sees the individual as an autonomous entity not subject to the absolute authority of any human authority. In modern society there are no fixed and absolute authorities; roles with authority are subjected to constant review; officials are elected for defined periods; there is decentralization and separation of powers. These measures prevent the concentration of too much power in one person or in one institution because this may lead to corruption and the abuse of power. This is how the religious world also needs to be managed. We should see religious scholars as teachers who we can learn from and consult with. They should be part of the social, educational and religious leadership, but without any unique authority beyond that."
The processes of development in the Jewish tradition, continues Dr. Picard, actually corresponded with this approach in principle. Religious tradition believes that since Moses, and through many generations, the conveyance of rabbinical authority had a divine source. At some point (probably in the fourth century CE), the idea of divine ordination was canceled, and since then the authority of Torah scholars has been earned by their level of Torah learning and by the public’s selection of their leadership. "Religious tradition sees rabbinical ordination today as a kind of professional qualification, without any divine involvement, intent or effect," he stresses.
However, in practice and in contrast to this traditional view, "The rabbis are not perceived today as people with professional knowledge and human wisdom only, but rather as having religious-spiritual authority not present in regular people. This perception, according to which the rabbi has mystical perfection, causes the loss of personal autonomy and enormous social damage. When people believe not only that the rabbi knows more than them, but that his knowledge comes from another source, they lose the understanding that a rabbi’s authority is human, is conferred by a human and is limited, and that they must take personal responsibility for their actions and views."
Dr. Picard himself was ordained as a rabbi by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and served for seven years as the rabbi of Kibbutz Shluchot. Since leaving this position, he has refrained from using the title ‘rabbi’ to define himself. "One reason for this," he explains, "is in this context the word ‘rabbi’ indicates a role I have filled in the past but in which I no longer serve. The second reason is that I think that this is a term that no longer fits and needs to be replaced. I continue to use my academic title of "Dr." as it is perceived as what it really is: indicative of knowledge and without any other force attached to it."
In order to return to correctly defining the desired role of the rabbi – a man or woman whose Torah knowledge is the source of their authority – Picard suggests, as mentioned, "replacing the title ‘rabbi’ with another term, also from the tradition – ‘Torah scholar.’ This is one of the most beautiful concepts in Jewish tradition, according to which we continue to use the term ‘scholar’ to emphasize that the knowledge and understanding will never be perfect, even when the person becomes great in Torah learning. In manuscripts we find the term ‘student of Torah scholars,’ which is even more accurate, because it indicates that the authority is given to one who has learned from many teachers, gaining extensive and varied knowledge.
According to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, the Elon affair and the shock it caused attest to the importance of the component of leadership in the rabbi’s role. "The Elon affair has created a ‘call to order,’" she says, "where order does not imply the dismantling of the system, butrather its correction. The social weakness exposed by the affair indicates just how strong the thirst for spiritual leaders in our society is. The rabbi’s role is in meeting this thirst, in a response that can help us consolidate a morally healthier Jewish society."
As a rabbi, she continues, she believes that the leadership component is the most important of the rabbi’s roles, and it includes leading a religious, social and ethical vision. These things are true even for the broad Jewish public: "The rabbi can play a role in the lives of non-religious Jews or of those Jews who do not see in a rabbi an authority able to contribute to the moral issues that concern them. To me, the rabbi serves as a sacred tool. He – or she – can help individuals and communities to create sacred space and time in their lives, whether in ceremonies or in life in general. In a world in which it is difficult find place for sacred moments and tools to access it, I think the rabbi’s contribution can be very significant."
Rabbi Dr. Sabath Beit-Halachmi points out that in Israel and overseas there are models of the rabbinate that are very different to the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate so familiar in Israel. Their proliferation, she notes, can be used to inspire the Jewish-religious world in Israel.
"The modern rabbinate that presents these models," she explains, "is not an authority that reduces the autonomy of the individual, nor does it work against the modern values adopted by most of the Jewish world. This is a rabbinate that can, precisely from this perspective, point out the value-laden options and ideas offered by Judaism, and advise the individual seeking to implement these Jewish ideas in his or her life."
Rabbi Dr. Sabath Beit-Halachmi believes that the community and society can gain from the multiple functions of rabbis. "The rabbi’s leadership is expressed in the variety of tasks imposed on him," she says, "and at the same time, this leadership is also the result of the way he fulfills them. He must be a teacher, counselor, preacher; he must conduct weddings and direct ceremonies. These are roles relating to key events in the life of every person; Jewish society should not give them up."
Another mission imposed on the modern rabbi, continues Dr. Sabath Beit-Halachmi, is the mediation between the various circles of identity in which Jewish life is lived. "The rabbi," she says, "should serve as a kind of translator between the Jewish world and the universal surroundings. The rabbi can serve as an arbitrator between Jewish culture and world cultures. It is his, or her, role to enable the Jewish people to continue to develop their culture, values and ideas, and by doing so to also enrich the surrounding world.
The rabbi, she stresses, should fill a similar role vis-à-vis the circles of identity and the social structures in Israel itself, serving as a bridge between the many streams and sectors within. "It’s important to remember," she says, "that the rabbi represents all of Israel and not just the community or sector in which he or she serves."
Dr. Sabath Beit-Halachmi has no doubt that "ethical, even immaculate, behavior is required of the rabbi."But, she adds, "even the rabbi is a man, and, like any leader in society, he can make mistakes. This knowledge only sharpens the challenge and requires the establishment of appropriate systems of regulation. Regulation and checking are a norm in every profession, are legitimate and desirable, and certainly are necessary for the rabbinical world. Non-Orthodox religious Judaism in the Diaspora and in Israel has developed such systems, and so should the Orthodox society. One system is the community board, which turns to the community every six months and requests feedback. The second system is the Ethics Committee, which operates according to clear standards and is committed to transparency towards the community." The ethical code accepted already decades ago in liberal communities, Rabbi Dr. Sabath Beit-Halachmi goes on, places professional limits on the rabbis; if he violates them, speedy and severe consequences will be imposed on him. As part of the professional approach, the Rabbi’s involvement in politics, policy and military and medical decisions is limited, in order to ensure that he does not exceed his professional authority and does not use his authority in areas that are beyond his education, his role and the authority vested in him by his community. The community, in these rabbinic models, appoints its rabbi. "The rabbi," she concludes, "derives his or her authority from the tradition, from the community and from his or her capabilities as a person. That is what gives him – or her – threefold authority and responsibility."
Dror Yinon sees the very existence of the debate about the desired place of the rabbi in society as the heart of the problem. "In my opinion," he says, "the essential question is not the rabbi’s place in society, but how rabbis came to occupy so central a place."
In the first decades of the religious Zionist movement, he reminds us, "There was no real place for rabbis, because they were not needed. The question as to whether the rabbi’s authority derives from his charisma, from the attribution of divine inspiration to his decisions or from the depth of his knowledge did not bother anyone because it was irrelevant: this public did not believe that its communities needed rabbis, and thus did not think to give rabbis the authority to decide on the existential questions of the individual, the local community or national politics. Rabbis generally did not serve in religious Zionist synagogues, and when someone raised the option of having a rabbi, it was rejected because it was perceived as a threat to the very idea underlying the religious Zionist project. Members of this group saw in the heritage they founded a system allowing them to live and act within a normative framework of religious life, without requiring the type of authority represented by a rabbi. Decisions were made after discussion and debate in the community, without a sweeping consultation of rabbis and certainly without their rulings. When a technical issue arose, the community could always consult with the city rabbi or with the Chief Rabbinate, just as one consults with a lawyer, but with the knowledge that the ultimate decision remains in the hands of the individual and the community."
The power of religious Zionism in its early years, says Yinon, was that it really managed to produce a new model allowing religious Jews to live a religious and autonomous life, liberated from the authority of the rabbis. The central component in the religious Zionist identity and what set it apart from the ultra-Orthodox identity was its independence from rabbis, and this component was not less important than the commandments of full participation in the Zionist enterprise.
But this innovative model gradually unraveled, continues Yinon, and the processes that this stream has undergone since the ’70s, at their center becoming more and more like the ultra-Orthodox and the separatism and radicalization of the State-Religious education system, resulted not only in the growth of the religious Zionist rabbinical institution, but also its empowerment and its transformation – due to the deep involvement of the religious Zionists in every aspect of Israeli society – to a significant force beyond the individual and the religious community.
Yinon: "The general and religious populations in Israel are currently standing before the completion of two opposite trends. On the one hand, a project of the integration of religious Zionism in Israeli society has succeeded and prospered, and members of this community are found in every area in Israeli life and are accepted into it naturally. They fit in all the professions, operate in all areas of science and culture and are an integral part of Israeli life. On the other hand, in the religious-social areas there has been a regression of about a hundred years, and the public has returned to exactly the place that it sought to escape: a state of complete submission to rabbinic authority. Whether this authority is based on charisma or attributed to knowledge, the very idea of subordination to such authority is opposed to the idea of the autonomy of the individual, the idea that religious Zionism sought to realize."
"Perhaps, then," he concludes, "this experiment was doomed to failure from the start: perhaps the religious community is tired of autonomy, and maybe the model itself was too demanding, and people who want to remain religious are also interested in some authoritarian guidance. Either way, the result is that from a society in which rabbis did not hold all the power, religious Zionism became a society granting much more power to its rabbis. From the faith in the ability of the religious person to manage his own life and his community life, religious Zionism has come to champion "faith in Torah scholars," and to attribute to its rabbis intellectual and spiritual superiority. This is a process of counter-reform: it risks the freedom of the religious Zionist public and is a disaster for the entire Israeli public, which, without desiring it, now has within a systematized and powerful institution that organizes around it a growing community of people who lost their freedom of choice and are leaving their fate and our destiny in the hands of rabbis."
Dr. Ariel Picard is educational director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Be’eri program and a fellow at the Institute.
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is a research fellow and lecturer at the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the Department of Leadership Development.
Dror Yinon is chief editor of the publishing house of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a fellow at the Institute. He is completing his PhD in Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.