A morsel from Heschel

“The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events; others sense it in the ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook; day after day, hour after hour. To them things are bereft of triteness; to them being does not mate with nonsense. They hear the stillness that crowds the world in spite of our noise, in spite of our greed.”

– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, p.5.

Vayeshev: Serenity In This World?

וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ

“And Ya’akov settled in the land”.

Rashi comments:

ועוד נדרש בו וישב ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף. צדיקים מבקשים לישב בשלוה אומר הקב”ה לא דיין לצדיקים מה שמתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שמבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה:

It is further expounded upon: “And (Ya’akov) settled”.  Ya’akov sought to dwell in tranquility, and then the ordeal of Yosef sprung upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility:  said the Holy One, blessed be, “What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them, that they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world?”

Ya’akov has just survived intense and frightening conflicts with Lavan and then with Esav, and now wishes to settle in Canaan in tranquility. Instead he is met with the apparent death of his beloved son Yosef, who his other sons lead him to believe was torn apart and killed by a wild animal. According to Rashi elsewhere (see 37:35) Ya’akov subconsciously recognizes that he is not being told the truth and so cannot fully let go of Yosef and complete his grieving. As a consequence his spirit remains greatly unsettled and his desire for tranquility is painfully unfulfilled.

Rashi’s comment on our verse, which is based on Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 84:6, echoes the Rabbinic teaching that tzaddikim burn off all of the effects of their sins in this world so that they can enjoy the unalloyed bliss of the Divine presence in the world to come, whereas rasha’im (the wicked) are rewarded here with whatever they deserve, since after death they’re going to get bupkes (T. Bavli Rosh Hashanah). This in turn echoes an older teaching found in the Writings (Ketuvim) of the Tanakh that only the tzaddik who understands the ways of God and acts virtuously in a sense “builds” or “gains” an eternal soul and continues to exist after death (see Ethan Dor-Shav,  Job’s Path to Enlightenment http://azure.org.il/article.php?id=20)

In any case the message is the same: for the spiritual person this is the world of work not of tranquility. As difficult as this may be at times this is not a cause for sorrow, as R’ Ya’akov says: “A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world (Pirke Avot).” The essence of the Jewish mission is to turn darkness to light, to lift up fallen sparks, to make a dwelling for the most high in the lowest depths, to repair the world. This is a burden, yes, but traditional Jewish teachings claim that there is in fact nothing better than this.

Is it wrong, then, to desire tranquility in this world? Rashi’s comment, on the surface, seems to imply that it is. R’ Menachem Mendel Shneerson, zt”l, argues that Rashi’s comment does not mean this (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXX, pp. 176-179, as quoted by Sholom B. Wineberg in The Chassidic Dimension). He writes that the tranquility that a person should pursue is not the tranquility of rest from labour, but the tranquility of inner peace which allows for truly fruitful labour. It was this tranquility that Ya’akov desired, and this tranquility which was denied him for the years that Yosef was missing, in which his heart found no peace. In the final 17 years of his life after his reunion with Yosef Ya’akov did in fact dwell in utter peace.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe argues:  “when G-d says: “Does it not suffice that the World to Come is established for the righteous,” it does not mean that their request is improper. The implication is rather that serving G-d in a state of utter peace is similar to the reward that awaits the righteous in the World to Come (Ibid).”

In other words Ya’akov does not desire to settle into a state of worldly peace where he can divide his time between shloffing and fressing. Ya’akov wished to serve God in a state of peace. The loss of his Yosef filled him with grief and confusion. The Rebbe therefore explains that this grief and confusion was in fact neccessary to refine Ya’akov’s soul so that he would be worthy of experiencing the peace of the world to come in this world, which ultimately he did. The trial of Yosef’s apparent death, although horrible, was only meant to serve this purpose as far as the curriculum of Ya’akov’s neshama.

There is a lot to learn from this from a mussar perspective: 1) This world, olam ha-zeh, is the world of action and work. Although of course we need to do what’s neccessary to maintain our mental and physical health, our desire here should not be for resting and consuming (the desires of the nefesh behaima, the animal soul) but for productive spiritual work for the sake of ourselves and others;  2) We should not desire worldly tranquility; but spiritual tranquilty; and 3) when there are insurmountable obstacles to even our spiritual tranquility we should see this as a time of refinement of our neshama and carry on, confident that if we turn our tsuris to the benefit of our neshama we will ultimately warrant the peace of the world to come in this world.


The Angel of the Other (Parshat Vayishlach)

All real living is meeting.- Martin Buber

In last week’s parsha, Vayeitze Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva in the Holy Land and went north to Haran. The Sfas Emes points out that this symbolizes the soul leaving behind the well (be’er) of Shabbat (sheva) to go into the materiality of the world- from the place of p’nimiyut (internal spirit) to the place of gashmiyut (mundane concern). Now he is returning to the Holy Land and therefore to the place of p’nimiyut, which besides internality can also paradoxically mean the Face (panim). As we shall see Ya’akov will be tested on the way with a meeting with the face of the Other, the face of his brother Esav.
Ya’akov has sent messengers and gifts along before him to his estranged brother and sent his family along ahead of him. He has prepared for possible battle with him and the men that accompany him. Ya’akov will stay alone for the night.
“Vayivater Ya’akov levado- And Ya’akov was left alone (levado)”(Bereishit 32:25). The Midrash says, “Ya’akov was left alone (levado)”- this is like the aloneness of the Holy One who pervades all the universe (Bereishit Rabbah, 77:1)”. How is Ya’akov’s aloneness like the aloneness of Hashem?

The Holy One’s aloneness is described as ein od milvado -there is nothing besides Him alone (Devarim 4:35). On one level Ya’akov is in a place of great aloneness where he must rely on his own resources only (R’ Tzvi Elimelech of Dynov, Igre de-Kala, quoted by Rav Itamar Eldar). This is one way in which his aloneness is like the Holy One’s- it is an aloneness of self-sufficiency.

Further R’ Tzvi Elimelech and others connect this verse to another one from Yeshaya: “And human haughtiness will be humbled and people’s pride be brought low, YHWH alone ( levado) will be exalted on that day (Yashaya 2:17)” Here Ya’akov lets go of pride and self and is thus attains to an “aloneness with the alone”. Ya’akov’s aloneness is one where he comes into an unmediated meeting with the Divine presence, as taught by the Shem Mi-Shmuel (see Shem Mi-Shmuel Vayishlach 1878).  This last type of aloneness is a segregation- a hitbodedut- even from ideas of self and other, past and future. Ya’akov enters into a deep stillness where he transcends stories about himself and his brother. Ya’akov is alone, but not in the sense of isolation.

We see here that Ya’akov attains an aloneness of self-reliance, humility, divine presence, and seclusion from his usual way of looking at things, even to the extent of transcending ideas of himself and his brother. Lastly in this aloneness his consciousness becomes unrestricted, and it is in this sense that his awareness “pervades all the universe like the Holy One”.

It is from this ultimate place that the Other can be met completely, free from the cage of concepts based on the past. Here transformation of our attitude to the other can really occur, even if we only glimpse this state briefly. Without it, change tends to be more superficial.

V’ya’vak ish imo ad alot hashachar. The next thing that happens is that Ya’akov is met by a “man” (ish)- in my reading, his own personification of the Other, with which he wrestles ad alot hashachar- until the dawn (Bereishit 32:25). Ya’akov’s journey is not complete and he must integrate his experience. Ya’akov wrestles with the man triumphantly and the next day when he meets Esav he is greeted by Esav with a kiss. However first he bows to Esav sheva pa’amim- seven times (Bereishit 33:3). Seven symbolizes completion- Ya’akov bows completely.

Esav embraces Ya’akov and tells him Esav bears him no enmity any longer- a result the Rabbis explicitly connect to Ya’akov’s wrestling the night before with Esav’s guardian angel, or in our reading, with Ya’akov’s projection of Esav as threatening Other. And how telling in this respect is Ya’akov’s reponse to Esav “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God”. Ya’akov’s statement reveals that in his aloneness his vision has been reborn, remade, and now he recognizes that the unmediated face of reality, the unmediated face of his brother Esav, is the face of God.

The meeting of Ya’akov and Esav has been understood as having been potentially messianic. If Esav had been ready for union with Ya’akov, the messianic age would have dawned. But Esav was not ready, and so Ya’akov does not go with him but sends him on ahead, promising to catch up with him in Se’ir. The lesson here is spiritual and ethical.

Ya’akov, after his healing glimpse of Esav beyond objectification, falls again into self protection. He does not go with Esav out of fear. He has not emerged from his wrestling with his personification of the Other completely whole after all- rather he walks with a limp. Jews do not eat the gid hanasheh, the sciatic nerve, of an animal in remembrance of Ya’akov’s injured hip. The mitzvah not to eat the gid hanasheh is a remembrance of the hope of reconciliation between self and other. One day we hope Ya’akov will be completely reconciled to Esav, beyond fear, guilt, and anger, and thus a space will open for Esav to be reconciled to Ya’akov. The pyche will be beyond “what I have done to him or her, what I am doing to him or her, what I might do to him or her” and of course “what he or she has done to me, what he or she are doing to me, what he or she might do to me”. Ya’akov and Esav will embrace eachother and travel together without fear. Until then perhaps Ya’akov is right to not travel with Esav- he senses not that Esav is not ready but that he himself is not ready.

By the end of the parsha we read “Ya’akov arrived whole – and he encamped before the city (of Shechem) (Bereishit 33:18).” And Esav? “And Esav took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the persons of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his substance, which he had acquired in the land of Canaan; and went into another country away from his brother Yaakov (Bereishit 36:6).” The parsha then calls him “Esav, who is Edom (Bereishit 36:1).” He is now no longer identified with Avraham and his family; he is from now on identified as Edom. He has left the family and mission of Avraham. Even more ominously, Esav’s son Elifaz takes Timna, sister of a Horite chieftain, as a wife. Their son is Amalek, the archetypal anti-semite, ancestor of Haman of the Purim story (Bereishit 36:12)!

What would have happened if Ya’akov had gone with Esav and positively united their destinies? Yitzhak, certainly, did not desire Esav’s banishment from the family but rather favoured him.Traditional Jewish commentary has argued for Esav’s bad intentions at length: Esav was feining forgiveness, or his forgiveness was short-lived; Esav did not really kiss Ya’akov- he bit him. Is this protesting too much? Are we straining to cover for our own lack of love?

Chazal have said that reconciliation between Ya’akov and Esav will happen in the messianic future. Whoever is Israel, awake and struggling: let’s not wait for the future with whoever in our life is Esav. By letting go of our pride and our attempts to rely on others, and going into a place of aloneness, segregated even from our concepts of self and other, us and them, we can renew our eyes and see again the face of God in the face of the other. Everytime the face of the Other appears to us- by an act of grace beyond our imagining or conception- then the messianic age may dawn in that moment.

Ignatieff on Anti-Semitism

Speech to the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism

Michael Ignatieff, PC, MP

Leader of the Opposition

Ottawa, Ontario

November 8, 2010

Merci. Bienvenue à Ottawa.

As the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, I’m here to say that the cause that you are united around today does not know partisan division.

Our party is proud to endorse the London Declaration. In fact, as I read the London Declaration I thought to myself, had there been a London Declaration in 1936, the history of our would be different.

And so we are united today in the fervent hope and the determined belief that we want to make anti-Semitism nothing other than a terrible memory rather than a part of our lived present.

We’re here in Ottawa to identify a new phenomenon – the new anti- Semitism. One of the things that I never thought I would live to see as a person of proud Russian heritage, is to see the disgrace and vile Tsarist forgery: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, circulating in the 21st century, on the Internet.

That’s one way to describe this new and hateful phenomenon.

I never thought that I would live to see a world in which you could go into a UPS depot or a FedEx depot in Yemen and send a package loaded with explosives to blow up a synagogue in Chicago.

This is the reality that we have to stand together against.  This is what we have to fight.  And we have to say whatever our origin, whatever our politics, whatever our past, whatever our religions, whatever our faith – anti-Semitism is not just a threat to the Jews, it’s a threat to every single one of us and to all humanity.

And in Canada which thinks of itself as a place of tolerance and decency, a haven in a heartless world, a refuge for those who are tormented and have escaped persecution as my family did – from the persecution of Communist Russia – we have innocence in Canada that we need very urgently to shed.

Some of my innocence on the issue of anti-Semitism was shed in September of 2006 when I went to a religious school in Montreal and with my own eyes – as some of you did I’m sure as well – saw the sight of what a firebomb does to a religious school.  You see the stain of black smoke on the walls.  You realize how close this came to horror and disaster.  It was stopped, in fact, because compassionate neighbours phoned the police and fire department to make it stop, but we came very close to something terrible.

And then a year later, again in Canada, this time in Mississauga, I had the unfortunate experience of visiting a mosque whose windows had just been broken. Canada cannot be innocent. Canada cannot be naive. Canada cannot take its tolerance in multiculturalism, its respect for others for granted.

This is a fight that we have to win every day against the forces of intolerance and injustice.

We also have another obligation as citizens of a democracy and in this Parliament of Canada which we are proud to serve, we have an obligation as democratic citizens to defend democracy.

When we look at the Middle East, we see a democracy under siege as Israel defends itself against terrorism and the Palestinian people suffer under the shadow of extremism.

The Middle East conflict both fuels and is fuelled by this vicious, modern anti-Semitism. Too many people use the conflict in the Middle East as an excuse to fuel their hatreds. There is no justification. There is no excuse for this hatred. But it seems to me mere prudence to say that eliminating anti-Semitism does require a commitment to peace.

Two states for two peoples. Justice and security for the people of Israel.  Justice and security for the people of Palestine.

But let us also be very clear – a democratic state like Canada cannot be neutral as between a democratic state and terrorist organizations. There is no honest broker between those two.

Our position must be clear – democratic states have a right to be recognized, to live in peace, they have a right to defend themselves, they have a right to the recognition of their neighbours. They have a right to live in peace and security. Canada must never equivocate on that question.

There is another issue about which we need to be very clear – that is to understand the distinctions between legitimate criticisms of the policies of the government of Israel and those criticisms which de-legitimize the state itself. Not every criticism of the government of Israel is anti-Semitic.

But there is a form of criticism of the state of Israel which passes into active de-legitimatization of a recognized democratic state.  I refer, of course, in my own country to Israel Apartheid Week. Israel is Israel. Apartheid South Africa was a crime against humanity – to conflate the two is to de-legitimize a democratic state and Canadians must stand against it.

A democratic society like Canada must always create a space where it is possible to criticize any government – including our own – including the state of Israel, but not to de-legitimize those governments.

But that is what has happened on Canadian campuses. When a protest against Israeli government policies becomes a protest against Israel’s right to exist, it crosses the line.

When Israel Apartheid Week makes it impossible for Jewish students to stand up and affirm their point of view and identity, it also crosses the line.

Et en tant que parlementaires, en tant que députés démocratiques, nous avons le droit de nous lever et de dire haut et fort, c’est inacceptable dans les campus et les universités du Canada.

Let us also be clear what our obligations entail on the international stage. We should seek to end the parade of one-sided anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.

We should use whatever influence we have to restore balance to the work of the United Nations’ human rights bodies. We don’t claim that Israel is perfect, but singling out one country for repeated denunciation while ignoring the human right abuses of others is a flagrant misuse of the United Nations and its principles.

Nor is it acceptable for Canada to take any part in what Irwin Cotler so famously called the “festival of hate” at Durban.

We cannot be part of international organizations and international groups which single out one state, to the exclusion of all others, for unique and single condemnation. It’s unacceptable. This poisons the wells of democratic debate on the international stage.

We must also be very clear about Iran. We must be very clear that the anti-Israel Holocaust-denying rhetoric of the president of Iran and the government of Iran, is utterly unacceptable on the international stage. Canada cannot be in the room when this occurs.

If you will allow me to say one slightly less than partisan note: To claim a defeat as a moral victory seems to me to be a mistake.

To have lost the seat on the Security Council of the United Nations is a defeat, especially if you think and realize that it is at the Security Council of the United Nations that sanctions against Iran are going to be deployed.

If Canada wishes to defend Israel against Iran, as it should, it would have been nice to be on the Security Council of the United Nations and I don’t see how we as Canadians can avoid acknowledging that fact. ¸

But what is done is done. Now Canada must stand somewhat more on the sidelines to speak out against the strategic threat that Iran presents not just to Israel but to all the states in the region. And we must add our voice to those who think that the Republican Guard should be added to the list of terrorist organizations.

Ultimately, we must defend Canada as a proud defender of the tolerance, a proud defender of the fairness, a proud defender of the justice that we have always stood for on the international stage.

When I was at a meeting on Friday night in Peel, there were a thousand Canadians in the room, and as I went from table to table as a politician does I was struck by the number of Canadians who have come here and made a home escaping from horror overseas.

I talked to a Christian group from Iraq who just had their churches firebombed in Baghdad this very week.  I talked to Ahmadiyya- Muslims who just had their mosque firebombed in Pakistan.

I have just spoken to members of the Jewish community who could cite examples of desecration in their graveyards in countries around the world.

This is very close to us. This is very intimate to us. This is very important.

Canada must stand with all of you under any government – Liberal, Conservative, or whatever the people decide.  We must stand against this form of hatred which destroys everything that we love and fight for in our home and native land.

Thank you very much.

Parshat Vayeitze: Towards Haran

Vayeitze

י. וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה: So begins Parshat Vayietze. “And Ya’akov went out from Be’er Sheva towards Haran.” Rashi comments:

וילך חרנה: יצא ללכת לחרן:

Rashi is commenting on the end of the verse: “and he went towards Haran.” Rashi comments: He went specifically to Haran. In other words Ya’akov didn’t leave Be’er Sheva in a direction that just happened to be towards Haran: Ya’akov specifically intended to leave for Haran.

The Sfas Emes explains that Be’er Sheva represents Shabbat, the place of p’nimiyut (interiority, or spirit), and Haran represents the week, the place of gashmiyut (exteriority, materiality). We can see here a lesson about how to leave Shabbat: not mindlessly, not haphazardly, but with full awareness. This is the purpose, perhaps, of the Havdallah ritual. Why?

Shabbat is the place beyond the doing of the world. It is a healing immersion in reality, in the world created not as it is created by humans. When we leave behind the world of gashmiyut embodied in the affairs of the shavua (week) we are given a neshama yateira, an expanded soul. When we re-enter the shavua it should be as beings reborn and re-invigorated, ready to be “in the world but not of it.”

But this can only happen if we enter it mindfully and intentionally. In Chassidut it is said that we need to bring Shabbat into the Shavua. We need to bring the waters of be’er sheva into Haran.
But we cannot do this if we are blown back into gashmiyut like a leaf on the wind, with no firm intention, no awareness. We must not fool ourselves.

Bhagavan Das, an American born Hindu yogin once told me that it was only possible to live spiritually in the world after you had completely given it up. Otherwise you may only be fooling yourself. This is the spirit of entering Shabbat and then returning to the Shavua. Shabbat should serve as a weekly corrective, pulling us out of immersion in our own egoic and materialistic narratives and concerns.

The verse says, “Vayelech Haranah.” He went to Haran. In Hebrew “towards Haran” is written by adding a “heh” to Haran, something which is not neccessary in Rashi’s Hebrew. He writes “lalechet l’Haran” (in order to go towards Haran). Rashi’s comment thus draws our attention to the way the pasuk writes “towards Haran” by writing “Haran” with the addition of a “heh”. This mirrors the divine transformation of Avram into Avraham with a heh, and Sarai into Sarah again with a “heh”.
The “heh” here is the last “heh” of the Divine name, which represents Malchut, or the Shechinah immanent in the world. This gives us a clue as to how Ya’akov goes towards Haran, and maybe even “why”.

Ya’akov goes towards Haran understanding that it too is infused with the shechinah. But this also explains “why”. If Haran was not infused with the Shechinah, if gashmiyut was not a panim, a face, of God, then why would Ya’akov go there at all? He would stay in Be’er Sheva, ie. abandon mundane reality.

Rashi’s comment also illumines, as we said above, the pre-requisite for being able to use the things of this world for divine purposes. It must not only be lip service. It must be done intentionally and with full awareness.

Rabbi Angel on the Conversion Crisis

The Conversion Crisis Must Be Resolved Now!

(I wrote this article nearly a year ago (it appeared in The Forward, January 8, 2010), and the conversion crisis has only grown more serious in the ensuing months. It has been reported that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is now calling for a review of the validity of conversions performed in Israel under the auspices of Israel’s military rabbis–going back ten years and more! Thousands of lives are affected by this short sighted and extreme position.  The current Hareidi dominated Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is doing a vast disservice not only to converts, but to the State of Israel and the entire Jewish people everywhere.  It is well past time when the Hareidi stranglehold over conversions should be removed, and when the loving, inclusive and compassionate views of mainstream halakha once again are put in place.)

For centuries, rabbis steeped in Torah and Halacha have served as the gatekeepers of the Jewish people. They have determined which non-Jews may join the Jewish people as converts.
Halachic literature provides a wide array of opinions and attitudes relating to conversion. In recent years, however, the more extreme views espoused by the Haredi rabbinic establishment have gained predominance — and those Orthodox rabbis who do not share these views have been increasingly marginalized.

In 2006, Israel’s chief rabbinate announced that it would no longer accept conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, unless these rabbis were on a pre-approved list (i.e., they were deemed sufficiently Haredi in their approach). The mainstream Orthodox rabbinic group in the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, essentially went along with the dictates of the chief rabbinate. The RCA set up regional rabbinic courts to oversee conversions. The individual Orthodox rabbi — even if a member in good standing of the RCA — generally will not have his conversions accepted by the rabbinate in Israel, unless the convert has gone through the RCA’s conversion bureaucracy.

The result of this shift in authority has been profound. Good, talented and well-intentioned Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora have been eliminated as recognized gatekeepers to the Jewish people. Power has been concentrated in fewer hands. The more restrictive views on conversion have become universalized, leaving rabbis with little leeway in dealing with candidates for conversion who are not ready to become fully Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, who was the first chief Sephardic rabbi of the State of Israel, sought halachically valid ways to bring such individuals into Judaism and the Jewish people. The current rabbinic hierarchy shuts the door on them.

At a time when many thousands of people in Israel and the Diaspora want to become Jewish, the Orthodox rabbinic gatekeepers are becoming ever more restrictive. They adopt new stringencies not required by the Talmud, the Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch. There are women whose conversions have been denied because they wear pants — loose-fitting, modest pants. I know a woman whose conversion was rejected because the rabbinic court did not think her boyfriend was sufficiently Orthodox. A number of would-be converts have been told that they will not be accepted for conversion unless they first move to more religious neighborhoods — even though they currently attend an Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood where they presently reside. Meanwhile, rabbinic courts in Israel have annulled conversions when converts lapse from a stringent observance of mitzvot.

These restrictive policies are not mandated by Halacha. They reflect a deep xenophobia and a narrow view of Jewish peoplehood. These policies prevent and deter many people from converting to Judaism according to Halacha. They cause unspeakable pain and frustration to numerous individuals who want to cast their destiny with the Jewish people — but who are rejected, humiliated or threatened by the rabbinic bureaucracy.

In recent months, we have witnessed scandal after scandal involving Haredi rabbis. In a particularly notorious case, Rabbi Leib Tropper — who set himself up as the head of an influential Haredi conversion authority, the Eternal Jewish Family — has resigned his position due to allegations of particularly heinous and repulsive behavior, reportedly involving sexual coercion of a prospective convert.

These high-profile scandals should be cause for alarm. But we should also be concerned about the scandal of what is being foisted upon the public as “true Judaism.” At an Eternal Jewish Family conference, Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein stated that Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, one of the Haredi world’s leading authorities, holds that any rabbi who believes the world is more than approximately 6,000 years old should not serve on the rabbinic courts that perform conversions. (Elyashiv is not known to have disputed this characterization of his views.) Indeed, the Eternal Jewish Family includes a question on “the Torah view of the age of the universe” in its testing of would-be converts. Knowing that we have perfectly legitimate traditions in Torah Judaism that allow for belief in a universe billions of years old, should we allow the obscurantists to disqualify all rabbis who dare to accept the clear findings of science? Do we want such people as the gatekeepers of Jewish identity?

The Orthodox rabbinate has become narrower and more extreme, exactly at a time when world Jewry is very much in need of responsible, creative, sensitive and inclusive religious leadership. Can the State of Israel afford to have a bureaucracy of rabbinic gatekeepers who seem more interested in keeping people out than in letting them in? Can world Jewry afford to leave halachic conversion in the hands of a rabbinic hierarchy that refuses to draw on the inclusive opinions within Halacha, that insists on creating higher and higher barriers, that values restrictiveness as a sign of religiosity? Can we really trust a Haredi-dominated rabbinic establishment that does not inspire our respect as a model of morality, idealism and intellectual vitality?

The Jewish people needs and deserves an effective and inclusive halachic framework for accepting converts. The current gatekeepers have not served us well, and there is no sign that they will change their ways if left to their own devices. We would do much better by dismantling the current rabbinic bureaucracy and leaving conversion in the hands of local Orthodox rabbis — as had been the practice for centuries. Let each rabbi draw on the halachic sources that best apply to each situation and not have his hands tied by an inflexible and restrictive hierarchy. Let each halachic convert be fully accepted as a Jew in the State of Israel and throughout the Diaspora.

If some in the Haredi world will not accept the Jewishness of such converts, then that is a problem for the Haredim. The Jewish people as a whole should not be held hostage to the extreme views of the rejectionists.

Halachic conversions performed by local Orthodox rabbis will draw many more converts into the Jewish people more efficiently, more compassionately and with more halachic integrity. Every bona fide member of a reputable national or international Orthodox rabbinic body should be empowered to perform conversions. Each rabbinic organization must ensure that its members conduct conversions according to Halacha, with the highest ethical standards, and without financial remuneration.

The Torah describes the people of Israel as a wise people; let us, then, act wisely.

***Please comment on this article by going to the blog at jewishideas.org Please see other articles I’ve written on the issue of conversion to Judaism, by going to the Min haMuvhar section at jewishideas.org