Thanks, President Katzav

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Kudos are due to President Moshe Katsav for refusing to address Eric Yoffie, head of the American Reform movement, by the title “Rav.”

Katsav’s refusal can only be explained as an act of conscience. There was absolutely no practical upside for him.

As president, Katsav’s job description is confined to smiling amiably, looking distinguished, showing good table manners, and delivering speeches filled with fine-sounding, empty phrases.

Above all, make no one angry. Yet if there was one thing that the president’s public stance on honorifics for heterodox clergy was guaranteed to do, it was to make people furious.

When an amendment to the Law of Return defining conversion as “conversion according to halacha” was introduced in the early days of the Netanyahu government, the prime minister was subjected to a torrent of visits by enraged American Jewish “leaders.” That furor was almost entirely driven by the heterodox clergy, who felt dissed by the implication that their “conversions” are not conversions.

Katsav’s snub last week was guaranteed to raise the same kind of ruckus – the last thing that a figurehead president wants to do.

It’s not even as if Katsav could count on picking up brownie points with the Orthodox. No one in the Orthodox community pays much attention to what the president says or would have any clue as to how he addresses heterodox clergymen.

So the bottom line is that President Katsav simply could not bring himself to address a clergyman, whose movement explicitly trumpets its rejection of halacha, by a title that he learned in his father’s house is to be used only for Torah scholars.

(Katsav apparently had no similar difficulty with the English term rabbi. In that the president would find much company in the Israeli Torah world, in which “Rabbi” is often used derisively. Every time a certain rosh yeshiva with whom I am friendly greets me, “What’s new R-a-b-b-i,” I feel like he meant to say, “What’s new among the amei ha’aretz?”)

By taking the stand he did, President Katsav actually made an important statement about the uses and misuses of language: Just because an individual or group appropriates a word, with a long accepted meaning, and attempts to give it a wholly new definition does not obligate me to acquiesce to the new definition. The fact that somebody claims that his hands have extraordinary curative power and advertises himself as Dr. Feel-Good, does not require me to treat him as a doctor. Nor need I feign awe at the erudition of a possessor of one of those Ph.D.’s offered over the internet for a nominal sum only.

Semichah, in modern times, has always denoted mastery, at the very least, of the laws of issur v’heter, as attested to by a recognized authority in the field. President Katsav is perfectly justified in asking how the same term can apply to those who not only have no expertise in this (or any other) area of halacha, but who do not even feel bound to observe these laws. Surely something more than attending an institution with access to a printing press must be required.

One can obtain ordination from any heterodox institution in the world knowing fewer daf Gemara than my eleven-year-old. What claim do those who have taken as many semester hours of Pastoral Counseling as they have of Talmud 101 have to honorifics previously reserved for Torah scholars?

Many years ago, we had over for the leil Shabbos meal a group of young American Jews whom Rabbi Meir Schuster had picked up at the Kotel. In the course of the meal, one young woman accused me of describing my rabbis as if they were supermen. Then she proceeded to fill us in on the escapades of her temple’s “rabbi.”

The problem, I told her, was a confusion of language. We were both using the same term to describe two completely unrelated types of people.

Of course, issues over “Who is a rav?” are only the tip of the iceberg – a stand-in for the far more weighty issues of “Who is a Jew?” and “What is Judaism?” Today’s Jerusalem Post carries Yossi Beilin’s umpteenth op-ed calling for secular “conversion,” for those who want to be part of the Jewish people but have no interest in practicing the Jewish religion. One can only ask: Of what does the Jewish people consist stripped of Jewish religion and a connection to Sinai? A set of genes? How does one convert to a gene pool?

Yossi Beilin might have one set of criteria of his new “secular converts” – completion of a Hebrew ulpan, a contribution of $100 to the UJA, and/or three months in the Israeli army – and someone else will have another. At the end of the day, none of them will be logically distinguishable from allowing anyone who wakes up one fine morning feeling Jewish to simply declare, “Hallelukah, I’m a Jew.”

The heterodox like to talk about the different so-called “streams” of Judaism. But the chasm between these different “streams” is too great to give any coherent meaning to the word “Judaism.” Just placing different adjectives in front of Judaism – e.g., “Reform,” “Conservative,” “Reconstructionist,” “Orthodox” – will not do the trick.

It is impossible to identify one element of belief shared by Torah Judaism and all the other so-called “streams,” but found in no other religion. Despite the proliferation of Christian sects, it would be an easy matter to identify at least one principle of faith common to all the sects, but found in no other religion.

For Torah Jews, the giving of the Torah at Sinai was the central event in human history, and those who stood at Sinai and their descendants became bound by the laws given there. The heterodox, afra l’pumei, deny that Mattan Torah ever took place, and the very concept of a binding mitzvah. We believe that Hashem is the source of eternal life, and that our lives have meaning only to the extent that we attach ourselves to Him by exercising our free will to submit to His will. They, on the other hand, insist that only uncommanded, morally autonomous acts, have any value. In what meaningful way can these two poles be describes as one religion?

Thanks to President Katsav for insisting that words cannot mean whatever one wants.

Published in Mishpacha, July 5.

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21 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Ori asked,
    \”Bob Miller, are you sure? I thought that Torah study was one Mitzvah that is beneficial for everybody, that even if you do it for your own reasons, it brings you closer to G-d.\”

    If someone has already bought into Reform ideology or the like, it\’s not the same as studying with an open mind. There is an agenda and viewpoint that will color what is learned and how it is understood.

    At any rate, whatever Eric Yoffie has learned has somehow not turned him around. Maybe he played hooky too much. Maybe his teachers were clueless, too, so he is a true \”tinok shenishba\”.

  2. Nachum says:

    And then there was the series of lectures on the history of Jerusalem I attended at the HUC in New York. (The speaker was Dr. Jodi Magness, a well-known, and quite impressive, archaeologist.) Before she spoke, however, the rabbi who ran the Kollel (their name) under whose auspices the lectures were held introduced her. Each time, for three lectures, she began her introduction with the words “Layla Tov.”

  3. Calev says:

    In the spirit of experimentation I once spent a day learning at Yakar in Jerusalem. One of the people attending the shiurim that day was a Reform rabbi. When it was his turn to read from Chumash he was stumbling over the words like a three-year-old. Even with the help of vowels he just could not read basic Torah text. It was embarrassing. He told us that he sat on the board of various Christian organisations in America in order to provide a Jewish view on various matters. That\’s more than embarrassing, that\’s dangerous.

  4. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Aryeh, I suspect that Israel does not need a president. However, Israeli politicians find it useful to have an impressive but meaningless job for their colleagues.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller, are you sure? I thought that Torah study was one Mitzvah that is beneficial for everybody, that even if you do it for your own reasons, it brings you closer to G-d.

  6. mycroft says:

    \”Joseph, my bet is that Rabbi Yoffe could NOT learn a few Orthodox Rabbis under the table.\”

    Most Reform and Conservative Rabbis could not learn close to what an intelligent Yeshiva HS student could–reason–obvious they don\’t believe in Halacha so why in their minds waste their time. The same way most Orthodox Rabbis are not fluent inLatin and Greek–it is not relevant to what we believe in.

  7. YM says:

    Joseph, my bet is that Rabbi Yoffe could NOT learn a few Orthodox Rabbis under the table.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Without a sincere belief in Torah MiSinai, the learning is wasted on him.

  9. joseph says:

    Bob, my bet is Eric Yoffe could learn quite a few Orthodox Rabbis under the table.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    A Conservative rabbi I knew in NJ said he frequently sent shailos to Rav Moshe Feinstein, and he was not put off by the fact that the Rav addressed him in the teshuvos as “Mr.” He knew he was getting straight answers.

    However, Eric Yoffie and his crybaby friends want all the trappings of rabbinic legitimacy without having to pay their dues.

  11. Aryeh says:

    Ori, that begs the question (i’m sure asked before), why is there a need the job of the president at all? What was the original justfiictiona for this office and what is the justification to it today?

  12. joseph says:

    “Rav” is just an honorific, which means next to nothing. Every man who lives in lakewood is called Rav. It would have hurt nothing – and meant nothing, too – if Katzav had called Yaffe by that title.

    Also, I agree with Ori: The president of Israel has no authority to insult other Jews in the name of the state.

  13. S. says:

    There are literally dozens of instances in Iggerot Moshe where Conservative and/ or Reform rabbis are referred to as ראביי.

  14. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Aryeh, I know it sounds strange, but I think somebody with strong controversial convictions would be wrong for the job of Israeli president. The job is a nominal head of state, which is a fancy term for pretend.

    It would be highly inappropriate for Katzav to voice anti-charedi or anti-mitnachel (settler in the west bank) sentiments, even if there are Israelis with those sentiments. Similarly, as long as Israel considers the diaspora Jews part of its constituency in some way (a prerequisitve for getting them to donate money to Israel and Israeli causes), it is inappropriate for the president of Israel to voice anti-reform sentiments.

  15. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    David N. Friedman writes: “It seems to me that there is a significant distinction between the “who is a Jew?” debate and an assessment of who is a kosher rabbi.Judaism has taken a lenient approach to Jews since at any moment, the most wayward Jew can embark on a path of Torah Judaism.”

    Both “Jew” and “rabbi” are terms with long-accepted definitions, which have come for much of the world to mean exactly the opposite. Protesting the appropriation of words in this fashion is not a matter of leniency, or its opposite, but one of clarity.

    That has nothing to do with the attitude that we should adopt to our fellow Jews who affiliate with the heterodox movements or are entirely unaffiliated. Of course we must reach out to them with openness and love. That, in most cases, is no less true of heterodox clergy as individuals. Most of them are also in the category of tinokos she’nishba’u.

    Whether one can be a proper ger and affiliate with the Reform movement is a serious halachic shayla. If that affiliateion were soon after the conversion, or the affiliation was ongoing at the time of the conversion, it would almost certainly be construed as proof that there was never a proper kabolos mitzvos.

  16. David N. Friedman says:

    It seems to me that there is a significant distinction between the “who is a Jew?” debate and an assessment of who is a kosher rabbi.

    Judaism has taken a lenient approach to Jews since at any moment, the most wayward Jew can embark on a path of Torah Judaism. The designation of Rabbi, on the other hand, is a very different matter. To earn such a title of teacher must involve specific knowledge and accomplishments if the term is to have any meaning. In the same manner the judicial or medical system polices who can and cannot call themselves a lawyer or doctor, so must Judaism police who can rightly call themselves “Rav.”

    It is therefore no act of duplicity to give a cold shoulder to a non-kosher Rabbi while at the same time offering an open hand to a born Jew (or one who has undergone a kosher conversion)who affiliates in the Reform movement.

  17. Yisrael says:

    I should point out that according to JPost and Yediot Aharonot, Katzav does refer to Conservative/Masorti rabbis as ‘rav’ in Hebrew.

  18. Aryeh says:

    Ori, so what you’re saying is that only people with no consience/strongly-held beliefs that may be controversial should be figureheads? I’m not sure we want people like that to be our nominal heads of state. Although the Kadima membership probably qualifies for the most part.

  19. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Katzav took a principled stand on an issue important to him, knowing he’d raise a furor and without any expectation of reward. For a private person, that would be a commendable action. However, Katzav is not a private person. His job is similar to an ambassador’s. He speaks for the state of Israel, but has no authority to set policy.

    The government of Israel has the right to decide to act in a manner that some Jews in the diaspora will find insulting. However, potentially alienating a large percentage of US Jews is a major decision that should have been taken by the Prime Minister or the elected government, not a person elected as a figurehead.

    I personally couldn’t be a figurehead, since my conscience won’t let me represent views and policies I personally oppose. However, since I will not be a figurehead, I don’t try to get a job as an ambassador, Israeli president, or court room lawyer. If your conscience doesn’t let you do something, you shouldn’t take a job where it is a job requirement.

  20. Dov Kay says:

    I believe that “kudos” is singular. Therefore, “kudos is due”, not “are due”.

    Also, that should be “afra l’fumaihu”, as its antecedent is “heterodox”, which is used as a plural.

    Can’t fault you on the substance, though.

  21. Joshua says:

    Reb Jonathan,
    ” When an amendment to the Law of Return defining conversion as “conversion according to halacha” was introduced in the early days of the Netanyahu government, the prime minister was subjected to a torrent of visits by enraged American Jewish “leaders.” That furor was almost entirely driven by the heterodox clergy, who felt dissed by the implication that their “conversions” are not conversions.”

    This was a big blunder that this did not pass it was not only nonortodox rabbis that argued not to change it was modern orthodox rabbis that were not in favor of it as well. There however was a great Rov who flew in from the US to argue that the law should be changed and that was no other than the great Rav Ahron Soloveichik who realized how important this issue was.. We see what is happening now how many non jews walking around israel who are not really jewish. I think if the other Torah leaders at the time would have been more vocal about it would have passed. It is too bad we no longer have leaders of the like of Rav Ahron Soloveichik. Look what is happening now in Israel missiles constantly going into Sderot and now Asheklon. RAv Ahron also came to Israel to speak out against the OSlo accords but then again there were other Rabbis who came to support it. We see who was right. Secular zionism for most part is dead only Torah Jews appreciate that Eretz Yisroel is holy and therefore feel a strong attachment to it. Someone who does not see a difference between Uganada and Israel then of course he is willing to give it all away.