By Donniel Hartman
There are many factors and causes which joined together to create the disturbing case of Rabbi Mordechai Elon and the events surrounding it. Besides the questions of sexual harassment and emotional manipulation in the rabbi-follower relationship, the near hysterical "end of days" response of certain sectors of the Orthodox community, especially amongst the youth, reveals a deep problem in the way the parameters of a rabbi’s power and authority role have evolved in the Israeli Orthodox world.
A rabbi is fundamentally a teacher of Torah to a community in which each and every individual is obligated both to understand this Torah and make its study a regular and ongoing part of his or her life. This commandment, coupled with the notion that we were all standing at Sinai and that the Torah was given to every Jew, both empowers and requires that each and every one of us utilize our independent cognitive abilities to understand and engage in the intellectual pursuit of Torah. In this, there can be no mediators or emissaries. Teachers can serve as guides, but they cannot replace an individual’s responsibility to understand, for otherwise Torah would have been given to the rabbis alone and the obligation to study relegated to the elite few. The rabbi-teacher must see himself as nothing more than an experienced and knowledgeable guide in the pathways of Torah. The ownership of the process, as well as its direction, can never be relegated to them.
The profound anguish and often cataclysmic language emanating out of the devotees of Rabbi Elon is an indication that something was fundamentally wrong in their understanding of the role of the rabbi and of the role he chose to play in their community. We are living in a time when Jewish tradition is being seriously challenged. Can the ideas and practices of a more than 3,000-year-old tradition continue to be relevant and inspiring to individuals who are living in an era where it seems that every given is questioned and where moral and value transformation are regular occurrences?
There are three fundamental options on how to confront this challenge. The ultra-Orthodox have chosen to create a community as insulated as possible from the voice of modernity and thus inoculate its followers from its influences. For the assimilated Jew, the choice has been to accept all of modernity and its ideas and values and to reject the claims and authority of tradition in their lives. The committed liberal Jew, amongst whom we can count the centrist or modern Orthodox and the religious Zionist communities, have chosen a third path, a path which lives in the modern world, learns from it and tries to engage in a dialogue between the world and our ancient tradition. The nature of what the synthesis entails varies amongst rabbis, not to speak amongst denominations, but what all have in common is a search for a new synthesis which will allow the best of modernity to participate in the shaping of the content, direction, and meaning of Jewish halakhah, thought, and life.
Achieving this synthesis, however, requires tremendous effort and learning. It requires the development of categories and religious ideology that both make sense of the modern world and learn how to prioritize and assimilate the two. It requires training people to live with an open mind in an open beit midrash in which multiple ideas both claim you and have authority over you. It requires that one not be frightened of questions, doubts, and uncertainties, as one engages in a form of conflict resolution essential to forging a new synthesis.
But, alas, while religious Zionists and even the modern and centrist Orthodox have chosen clearly to delineate themselves from the ultra-Orthodox, they have failed to create the ideological foundation to justify this distinction. While science and technology have found their place within and alongside Torah, the values and morality of modernity have remained an "X" factor – a tempting factor that cannot be ignored, but which at the same time has not been given its rightful place at the table. It’s the elephant in the room whose place has not yet been religiously and conceptually worked out.
Religious Zionists have constantly fooled themselves into believing that they have sufficiently integrated modernity because they have secular education and serve in the IDF. The ones who give constant testimony to this failure are the students who are still being taught ideas and curricula that are insufficient and often irrelevant to the intellectual and spiritual challenges they face daily. They are told that they are part of a new elite, and are the leaders of Judaism and Zionism, but they sense the vacuousness of this language. They are constantly placed in a battlefield for which they are profoundly unprepared. They are not being taught a Torah which can empower them and are not being trained to develop independent minds that can thrive in the midst of the intellectual conflict that defines the modern world. They are being left with no other recourse but to relinquish their individual responsibility for the knowledge of Torah and to grant it to those individuals, who with the right balance of charisma and knowledge give them the feeling that everything will be OK. The rabbi – instead of serving as a guide in Torah – himself becomes Torah, and if sufficiently talented can help to assuage the students’ fears and tell them that everything is OK. "Though you walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I the rabbi am with thee. I am the model of the synthesis and through your closeness to me, you can vicariously achieve the strength that you need to overcome your questions and doubts."
This should not be the path of Torah or the role of the rabbi. It elevates the human being to a role fundamentally susceptible to corruption. The student needs to be blind in order to be saved, and the rabbi must convince himself that he is the savior and that nobody can survive without him. When we reach this level of discourse we lose our checks and balances, our judgment, and begin to anoint false messiahs and idols.
The tragedies surrounding the Rabbi Elon affair are too numerous to count. It is incumbent upon us that we learn everything we can and grow from this experience. Let us make sure that our rabbis are neither viewed nor view themselves as prophets who own the word of God, and who are the sole communicators of this word to a disempowered people. Let our rabbis be rabbis – teachers – who engage thoughtful, intelligent individuals in a discourse of reason and meaning without the authority of being the sole conveyors of truth. Let us make sure that our institutions create checks and balances in which our students are constantly exposed to rabbis who disagree and who argue, but who respect one another.
We need great and charismatic teachers to help us navigate the challenges of modernity. Their greatness and charisma, however, must never be allowed to overshadow the individual responsibility for Torah or in fact overshadow Torah itself.