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Oz Veshalom - Netivot Shalom

An Interview with Prof. Avi Saguy

Avi Saguy is a Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Jewish History at Bar Ilan University. He also teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Netivoteha: It is painful to observe the rise of a certain conception of Judaism that divides our nation and that undermines the proper functioning of the government and democracy in Israel. How do you react when you see that there are rabbis keeping silent, and even supporting what happens, both with regards to public corruption and the subject of marriage? Is this not a Hilul HaShem (desecration of God’s name)?

Avi Saguy: If anyone expects that the rabbis will rise to the occasion and stop what is going on, they are mistaken. If a revolution will erupt, it will erupt only from within the religious community itself. During the very long history of the Jewish nation in exile, in which the Jews did not enjoy self-rule, the place of the rabbis was indeed very great. But we cannot create self-rule through rabbis. Where does this idea come from that every question or idea must be approved by the rabbis before it is deemed acceptable? The problem is not the rabbis. In general, a rabbi’s answers will conform to what he hears from his communities. Rabbis are dependent on the community and speak to the community. The problem is with the community itself, and the question that must be asked is not what to do when the rabbis are silent, but rather what to do when entire religious communities are silent.

I only have one simple thing to say: in many religious communities there is a sense of apathy with regard to certain matters. You mentioned some of them: the laws of marriage, public corruption, and conversion. The sense of apathy indicates that a portion of the religious community is entirely cut off from Israeli life, and they have made for themselves a closed and cut-off culture. Anyone who is not totally part of their world will not be interested in it.

The idea of hiliul hashem that you mentioned is somewhat paradoxical, because the one who determines what is hilul hashem is someone else. Hilul hashem is dependent on someone else--the one who sees it; and this doesn’t have to be a Jew like me, but it could be a non-Jew, a secular Jew, or anyone who watches the practices of a community that claims to follow God’s ways. The paradox is that what happens internally is conditioned by what the outside observer thinks. This forces us to care about what those outside of our community think of us. And when this concern for the other’s opinion is missing (and it doesn’t matter who the other is), in a place where there is a culture of extreme closedness--I used to say bordering on arrogance--I don’t expect that anyone will be influenced by what outsiders think of them. This is a critical problem in the religious community, which is an important part of Israel, that the religious Zionist and the haredi live with the sense that they are the most important, that there is nobody else, that they alone constitute the state of Israel--and thus hilul hashem begins to lose its relevance.

I don’t expect that in these groups, that live in absolute closedness, the idea of hilul hashem will function as it should function in the tradition of Judaism.

Netivoteha: Does this mean that things now are different from the past?

Avi Saguy: No, I didn’t say that it must work like it worked in the past. This you didn’t hear from me. It used to be that there was always the feeling that others where watching, someone who did not observe Torah and Mitzvot, someone who was not Jewish--there always had to be the sense of this. But today this has simply disappeared from significant portions of the community. A very clear process is taking place, that a significant portion of the religious-Zionist and haredi community is separating itself from the rest of Israel in a basic sense, from identifying itself with the rest of Israel. The interests of the rest of the nation do not interest them, and their opinion of them does not interest them. I am speaking here of a very strong group that has separated itself.

This changes the clearly-defined relationship between the rabbinate and the community. If today religious Zionism chooses Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu to be its spokesman and leader, this changes the relationship between Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu--his standing and his opinion--and the community. The one who changed the way was not Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu had a clear and known way to wield his authority within the community. The religious Zionist community changed this, because before they did not hold by the opinion and the ideology of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and his group, and now they accept its authority through their own initiative. So we must investigate the question: not “who are the rabbis?” but rather, “who is the community?”

Netivoteha: You are not angry that I say that it is easier to change the rabbis than the community?

Avi Saguy: I don’t agree, for a very simple reason: today the religious Zionist community is very much like the haredi community, in that it desires to have total, absolute authorities. In the past it was unthinkable that religious Zionists would collectively and absolutely submit to one authority, but now for every question big and small they turn to rabbis to guide them. Did the First or Second Mizrachi Congress solve its cardinal and critical questions by turning in the middle of the debate to rabbis? Did it occur to Rabbi Maimon that the difficult questions should be reserved for rabbis? He said unequivocally: “in the marketplace of life the rabbis don’t teach us.”

Today the situation is different. The community has changed, and we must examine and explore the question of what happened to this community to cause it to change. What happened to this community that in the past thirty years?

In the newspaper “Amudim,” after the article by Yoska Achituv, that presents the clear and enlightening voice of the religious kibbutz, there is a critical reply in the style of “you are not like us, you are not OK, you are withdrawing from the community of Israel, you are not obedient, etc.,” a style that is more fitting for other times and other communities. This is a real negation of alternative voices. All voices must bow to the right, to one understanding. The community must be obedient, modest, turning to the knowledge of the Torah. The idea of “knowledge of the Torah” that is the foundation of the haredi world -- “faith of the Sages and knowledge of the Torah” -- these ideas were sown by Agudat Yisrael, and religious Zionism found them and adopted them.

This is a profound revolution. Today, nothing remains of the ideological foundations of religious Zionism except for the “metaphorical holiness” of the land of Israel. We do not even have the idea of statehood of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda. Now, many religious Zionists do not accept the authority of the state and instead awards themselves legitimacy in the language of statehood. Religious Zionism has undergone a dramatic change. The way it dresses itself is moving closer to the haredim. Where is religious Zionism that for years and years struggled against separating boys and girls in education, where is “Bnai Akiva,” that did not hesitate to disagree even with the authority of the rabbis! You already open the newspaper “Zera’im,” (Bnei Akiva newspaper) and here is today’s dilemma: whether to go to a show including a female singer.

I don’t recall a situation as a teenager. Were we less religious then? That is not the question. It used to be clear that we were different from the haredim, that we participated in life, that men and women were partners, that we had a strong sense of identity, and that if there were halachik problems we had to carry out the difficult work of interpretation so that we would not distance halacha from the religious Zionist revolution, but neither would we give up on it. Today I say with heartache that religious Zionism is marching towards the haredi world. We have again segregated women, not to the kitchen, because this has not happened even in the haredi world, but to a separate community, to non-partnership.

HaRav Moshe Haderi, who calls himself a religious Zionist (and who is exempt from military service), recommends in his book “Mikraei Kodesh” that on the night of the Seder, women and men should not sit together because women’s voices are indecent (kol isha)! This is not a joke. There is a very clear change. This is not merely drawing closer to the haredi world; it is moving away from the tradition of “derech eretz,” of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. There are difficult ethical problems here beyond the idea of hiliul hashem that you mentioned, but that’s a little off the topic.

Netivoteha: Is Judaism moral?

Avi Saguy: You mean in principle? Certainly; I didn’t dedicate a portion of my work and my research for nothing, but I illustrated that Judaism is a religion of moral norms. Moreover, there are places where moral norms conflict with the halacha, and in these places we must do a great deal of interpretive work in order to match the norms of halacha with moral feeling.

For example, take the story of Amalek, a story of the annihilation of women and children, which is very difficult to understand. Yes, it is written in the Torah, but throughout all the generations the rabbis made all sorts of interpretations, that are conjured from thin air, in order to uproot, diminish and minimize, through their efforts, the immoral elements in this story. In many instances of conflict , we must truly try to fit the halacha to our moral feelings though such interpretations and others like them.

Judaism is perhaps the only culture that is built through such interpretations. The attempt to separate “pure and clean” Judaism is almost impossible. It is impossible to separate it from the interpretations. I also can’t say that all interpretations will always lead to the moralization of halacha. But there are very few writings that have something in them that is clearly immoral, and though it is not moral it is in the Jewish tradition, or sayings such as “this thing is immoral but that doesn’t interest us,” or “morality is not relevant here.” There will be all kinds of other explanations, other competitors, but there will not be a situation where we will eliminate the moral element, that it won’t be relevant.

Netivoteha: You spoke about the growing religiosity of the religious Zionist camp. What is your opinion on the relationship of this camp to the Reform and Conservative Jews?

Avi Saguy: The heart aches, the heart bleeds, because the Orthodox community relates to the Conservative and Reform Jews not as people but as demons. It doesn’t understand that it is impossible to gain from this battle that is being fought today in Judaism. Only one who dwells in his closed shell in the midst of the Jewish state with such serenity, to whom assimilation is of marginal concern, doesn’t understand the deep crisis in Judaism that is occurring today in the of Europe and the United States.

This battle is also a battle against this assimilation, and who stands against it is none other than the Conservatives and the Reform. I almost said the things that I said before, of the feeling that we are the community of Israel and we don’t care what happens to the rest. This is also what we find here: what do we care for this Jew who is on the edge of assimilation? The Orthodox will not budge to incorporate such a Jew into the Jewish collective, but the Reform and Conservative adjust more.

Let’s say that you have something in common with someone, that you have a common front, or that after you associate yourself with the community of Israel you will worry about what happens there. But anyone who is not in your camp can go to the dogs. I understand that this is the position of the haredim. The haredim from now and forever identify themselves as the remnant of Israel, as the community of Israel; they never see the other, the deviant, as if they are responsible to worry about him. This is the basis of the haredi seclusion.

I don’t at all understand the battle of religious Zionists against the non-Orthodox denominations. The religious Zionists, who cooperated with the secularists, who understood that in the critical moments of Jewish history there is a necessity to gird up one’s loins and to gather all of the nation’s strength in order to rehabilitate Jewish existence, now it finds itself at the head of a battle-front against a group that all over the world is aligned against assimilation. The Orthodox Jews are not required to agree with all that the Reform and Conservative are doing, but they must understand that they are a part of the army that is fighting the phenomenon of the disappearance of the Jewish nation.

This is the conduct of Bat Ya’ana, of those who don’t care about what happens to the Jewish world outside of their specific community. Religious Zionism fought against this lack of concern for many years, and adopted for itself a moderate and reasonable policy under the political conditions of the state of Israel. Today it has worn itself out even more than the haredim in this competition of negating the other, as if we must be the only Jews. This is very consistent with the fact that the religious Zionists are marching towards the warm bosom of the opinion of the haredi world; the one remaining difference between it and haredi-ism is the belief in the holiness of the Land of Israel. All of the other characteristics of religious Zionism--the rebellion, the openness, the thinking, and the renewal--these things left and dissolved, so now there is nothing that cannot be used to fight against Conservative and Reform Judaism.

Netivoteha: What do you have to say about the Conversion Bill?

Avi Saguy: There are many legal problems with the Conversion Bill, but let’s assume that the problem is not the specific law. In the first years of its founding, the State tried not to trample on social-religious questions. It tried to divide symbolic problems into practical questions from which they would bring forth solutions. The principle was not to attack the symbols. For example, there were those who wanted to mention God in the Declaration of Independence and others who didn’t want to, so they found the solution of using the phrase “Rock of Israel,” and everyone had a feeling that their opinion had been chosen, but they didn’t fight over the symbol in a decisive way. Today in the State of Israel we fight over the symbols. The Zionist, religious Zionist and haredi communities fight over the symbols most bitterly and create battle lines. In such wars there are no winners, only losers, because it is not clear whether the experience of giving the rabbis a total monopoly over conversion is halachikly permissible. Conversion is a halachic procedure, and any three people are capable of converting another. To give a certain group of rabbis a monopoly is a dramatic change.

There is no debate in the halachic tradition about the necessity of brit milah and ritual immersion for conversion. There is debate about the meaning of the idea of accepting the obligation to perform mitzvot. On this theme there are many different and diverse pages. Tzvi Zohar and I survey the major points in our book “Jewish Conversion and Identity.” If you reduce all of this to one authority, one institution, that authority will fix the law permanently and eliminate other possibilities. That is to say, when you solve the critical and difficult problems in an absent-minded manner, without really thinking, this indicates an effort to strengthen centralization.

I just spoke about the question of the Conservative and Reform. In the state of Israel itself the problem is not critical. In Israel less than 3% identify with these two movements. The synagogue that the secular Israeli does not go to is Orthodox, not Conservative. But the implications of this thing are immense: if this law will apply to Jews that come from outside of Israel, it is, beyond the legal difficult problems, a declaration of war against the large communities of the Diaspora, and this is a serious matter.

Regarding Israel, I am very concerned about any situation in which someone will have a monopoly over halachic matters. Such a situation eliminates the necessary challenge of wrestling with the problems. It is an historical fact that is impossible to ignore, that a large portion of the solutions, the dynamism, the very unique characteristics of Jewish halacha, at least until the 18th Century, are due to the fact that no single authority had a monopoly. In halacha there is not the situation of a monopoly, this is a new situation. In today’s situation of monopoly it is possible for all kinds of religious courts to delay converts, and they do this today also, but now they are trying to do this in a much stronger way. They do not have the problem of opposition or threats, since there is no alternative institution. In terms of judging the halachic validity of a conversion, the results will be serious. Already today there are important portions of the nation of Israel in types of marriages that are not “according to the law of Moshe and Israel,” and also significant portions of the olim who prefer to give up all options of conversion in order to have a civil marriage. The halachic results will be disastrous.

Netivoteha: Perhaps the result of having the option of civil marriage will be better than a halachic validation of all Jewish marriages, because if is not “according to the law of Moshe and Israel,” there is no problem of illegitimate children (mamzeirut)?

Avi Saguy: Rabbi Chaim David HeLevi suggested that a law be passed to make marriage not “according to the law of Moshe and Israel” an option in the State of Israel. He suggested that the secular community not marry “according to the law of Moshe and Israel” in order to prevent problems. But the issue of conversion is more complicated than the issue of marriage. The problems of conversion are much more serious.

Marriages open the door to the phenomenon of mamzeirut. Regarding mamzeirut we know that there are halachot that require us from the beginning not to seek out, to snoop for, or to do investigations to locate mamzerim. In contrast, if we don’t find a solution for olim who are not Jews, in the end they will live together with us and Jews and non-Jews will intermarry. I am not even speaking about the additional problems that in the citizenship test they will be a portion of the community and it will be on us to accept them. We will not go into the fact that if a non-Jew that serves in the army and, to our sadness, gives his life, he will not have a portion in the community and will not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Yes, I am saying that I have no doubt that we are standing before a great failure, and if we give a monopoly to a body whose orientation is not known from the start, it will be impossible to enforce and uphold it through law. We have created this difficult problem of the concentration of authority and strength, and it is guaranteed to prevent solution to our problems.

Netivoteha: How do you see the position of women today?

Avi Saguy: I see a great regression on one hand, and great progress on the other. There are areas of progress, such as women serving as prosecutors and defenders in a religious court (toneniyot rabbaniyot), a practice which is becoming more prevalent.

I see regression because we expect that by the end of the 20th century there will be awareness and we will stop using the old rhetoric of essential differences between women and men as a basis for discrimination. I suggest that we return and read the protocols of the Mizrachi Congress of 1919, when they were discussing the question of the election of women, passive and active. One of the rabbis, Rav Londik, went up on the stage, and in a wonderful speech he defended the rights of women to be full members of the collective: “Do not let it occur to you to negate her rights, this is not ethical, this is against the Torah.” Who would dare think this today?

Religious Zionism took it upon itself to fight for women’s equality in all areas. I don’t remember that Mafdal fought against the election of Leah Shakdiel as a member of the committee, and we are not speaking here of a Conservative or Reform woman. I see a regression: things that are obvious in the world at large are becoming less acceptable in the religious Zionist world. They become foreign, and now we are confronted with the same text of the rabbi from “Mercaz HaRav” who wrote that on the evening of the Seder it is preferable for women to sit by themselves because the voices of women are indecent (kol isha). This is a very deep regression.

I say this absolutely, as a human being I cannot tolerate another member of my gender discriminating in this fashion. The woman in the Jewish tradition is absolutely discriminated against, since in central areas of religious life she does not take part. This situation is bad for religious life at its core.

Netivoteha: But what can be done, the halacha says that women are exempt from time-bound commandments?

Avi Saguy: The answer is known and acknowledged. The sages of Israel for all generations did this. We already spoke about the process of different interpretations. For example, the case of toeniyot rabbaniyot seems to violate halacha, since Maimonides wrote, “anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he has taught her [foolishness].” But women are permitted to study Torah. This is a religious revolution. In the Middle Ages the wise ones of Israel were not prevented from making radical interpretations, that is, that human nature changes, in order to adapt halacha to reality. I don’t see another answer other than to attempt similar efforts with the subject of women. I am not saying that the solution of Rav Heinkin regarding the question of minyan and of women’s aliyot to the Torah is the ultimate solution. But you see here the attempts of the wise ones of Israel who were aware of the problems and tried to cope with them, each person according to their way. And if there will be such awareness, we will find solutions.

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