Ha’aretz’s opinion page says religion is bad. The recent furor over a declaration issued by several Israeli rabbis, headed by the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, urging Jewish residents not to rent apartments to Arabs, has been heated in all quarters. The primary angle taken by the Ha’aretz opinion page is that this shows why religion is bad. I want to talk about the response of some of the most prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbis who came out against the declaration.
Three in particular: The Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the Religious-Zionist Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, and (the also Religious Zionist) Rabbi Yehuda Gilad.
All three of these rabbis are Orthodox, and all command great respect in their own milieus. All three vehemently oppose the ban. But they do so in different ways.
Let’s start with Rabbi Gilad, one of the heads of the Maale Gilboa Yeshiva, near Beit She’an. His response, published in the New York Jewish Week, takes a tone that will be familiar to most American Jewish opponents of the ban: He cites as the opinion of early rabbis in Israel’s history that
the prohibition ‘you shall not show them favor’ (Deut. 7:2) written in the Torah and part of the cannon of Halakhah, is not relevant to the reality of a Jewish democratic state — a member of the family of nations, which promised before the entire world to grant equality to its citizens regardless of religion, race or sex … We should remember the country’s Jewish character is measured first and foremost through moral parameters. Dozens of times the Torah abjures us to love the stranger.
The point is clear. There is a fundamental moral value of equality that Judaism understands, and that formal halakhic rulings must submit to. If Jewish Law has not lived up to morality, it has failed.
Next, we move to Rabbi Lichtenstein, semi-retired head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shevut. His letter speaks, not in the impassioned tone of universal moral values, but rather as a jurist whose sole concern is to decide the Jewish law properly: “The prohibition of selling homes to gentiles is presented as the exclusive halakhic position in the manner at hand. … Is that indeed so?” Rabbi Lichtenstein proceeds to cite the positions of prominent medieval sages who held positions contrary to that of Maimonides, on which the ban was based. So we see that while the outcome is the same, opposition to the ban, Rabbi Lichtenstein is allowing only the Jewish law itself manifested in different opinions, not universal mores, to enter into the picture as first principles. Indeed, the measured, legalistic tone of the response caused Haaretz columnist Israel Harel to complain that “his comprehensive response downplayed [the] humanistic aspect of the problem.” Humanism, it emerges, seems to be a more important category in Rabbi Gilad’s thought than in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s.
Now I turn to Rabbi Elyashiv (pictured), widely considered to be the final word for Ultra-Orthodox religious decision-making in our generation. It is treacherous even trying to quote him, because he spends most of his time at home, allowing others louder and presumably less honest to speak in his name. The quote, however, that appears to stand out in most of the media is, “I’ve said for some time that there are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them.” I’m not sure what ideological commitments I should read into that. But I can’t help but be impressed by the tone of cool authority it exudes.
Orthodoxy: not exactly a monolith.