“My friends, this is where Judaism stands today. This is how the rabbinic establishment makes decisions regarding who is “acceptable” and who is “not”. This is how some opinions are championed, while others are not just rejected but are deemed entirely invalid. Whoever is more violent – prevails!” – Rabbi Yonatan Halevy, Rabbinic Violence Part 1
[The following thoughts follow my previous article, which can be found by clicking here]
Why though? We have established that rabbinic violence certainly does exist, but the question remains: why does it exist?
In the weeks since I published my last article, I have witnessed half a dozen more incidents of rabbinic violence. Allow me to share just two of them with you:
- A colleague of mine who manages one of the only honest Kashrut agencies I know, was recently slandered by someone who knew nothing about Judaism but who didn’t hesitate recording her summary of a conversation with a “leading Kashrut expert”. This colleague of mine, a Talmid Chacham whose Halachic knowledge is only shadowed by his exceptional Middot and outstanding humility, was labeled by this “expert” as: “not a rabbi, not a Talmid Chochom [sic], he’s just a guy!”. Just a guy, yes, with years of study and rabbinic ordination from none other than my own Rosh HaYeshiva, HaRav Yaakov Peretz shlit”a, scion of a prominent rabbinic dynasty of Dayanim and Poskim from Morocco in Israel. But in one voice note, a lady received the ruling from a self-proclaimed “expert” that he is merely “a guy”, and absolutely not a Torah scholar by any means.
- A Bet Din with whom I am very well acquainted recently helped a young lady finish her conversion process to Judaism. Putting aside this young lady’s righteousness and commitment to Judaism, the Bet Din was made up of three Talmide Chachamim, two of whom could be considered the greatest experts in the laws of conversion in the world. Upon this young lady’s return to her community, she was met with harsh attacks by the local rabbis – hers included – telling her that her conversion was invalid since the Bet Din she used was “not on the list of accepted conversions”. When questioned what a list had to do with Halachah, if all the Halachic requirements were satisfied, one of the rabbis responded: “I have never learned the laws of conversion in my whole life! But I will not accept a conversion that’s not on the list!”
What makes someone feel so threatened? What makes a rabbi who admits to not knowing Halachah, act so brazenly towards someone who does? Why does this rabbinic aggression feel like an injured animal defending itself from a perceived threat?
An Eye-Opening Experience
That’s when it hit me. I had seen this before! I know it is an unusual example, but please bear with me.
I took my children to a local bird adoption center, and they had the opportunity to interact with a variety of birds, large and small. One thing that fascinated me, was how skittish and nippy birds, turned so shy and timid when their wings were clipped and their nails trimmed. Something changed in their nature, though, aside from their timidness. Though they were now easier to hold, they were also much more aggressive when they perceived a threat. I contrasted this with the much larger birds, who were so confident that my children didn’t experience any issues with them despite being handled by immature hands.
You see, the nature of the world is that when one lacks confidence in their own abilities, they begin to perceive everyone around them as a threat. When one is truly confident with what they know and are able to do, they don’t constantly worry about those around them out-performing them. As one seasoned fundraiser once told me: “some people are so truly affluent, that they don’t care about impressing anyone by flaunting their wealth”.
The Torah Scholars of Israel
When I was in Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, studying under the tutelage of my Master and Teacher, HaRav Yaakov Peretz shlit”a, I was pushed to think, to challenge, but ultimately – to own my learning, so that I would be able to use it in the future.
“How will you rule if I am not there?” was a constant question Morenu HaRav would ask us.
“Do you think I am Moshe Rabbenu? My opinions don’t determine Halachah! You must find the truth and rule as you see it!” was the badgering we received whenever we dared try the easy way out and just follow Morenu HaRav’s lead.
Ultimately, we were taught to be self-sufficient in the areas of Halachah we studied, even though we knew we always had the ear of our much greater Teacher when we need his advice or Pesak Halachah. From our ranks came out rabbis who were Poskim (legal decisors) in areas of Halachah such as Shabbat, Niddah, Kashrut; Dayanim (Rabbinic judges) in areas like conversion or divorce; Shochatim (Kosher slaughterers); Mohalim (who perform circumcisions); Sofrim (scribes); Chazzanim (cantors), as well as a variety of other Jewish disciplines. We were empowered to own our Judaism and use our knowledge to serve our respective communities around the world.
I vividly recall that time around the Shabbat table when a Shabbat question arose and our friend who was also our cook – a former attorney and a righteous convert to Judaism whose parents had cut him off due to his religious choices, hence his employment as our cook – answered our dilemma by heart with a dozen sources. And that was all as he was washing dishes in the sink, with no books present! Or that time when twenty minutes before I was to read Megillat Esther for a large group of Americans, I found out that mine had a mistake in it. I knocked on the door next to mine in the dormitory, and my classmate pulled out his quill and fixed the word, sending me off on my way to do my job. Or that one time when I came home in the middle of the night, only to find someone with a samurai sword raised – quickly realizing it was the young man across the hall who was checking his Shechita knife before heading off to work in the dark of night. We each knew our area of expertise and completely relied on each other to fill our own voids.
The Torah Scholars of Babylon
Upon arriving in the States, I realized that not all rabbis were created equally. I don’t intend here to tackle the issue of ten, or twelve, or eighteen month Semicha programs that have spent the last decades pumping out myriads of leaders who deceptively don the rabbinic cloak. I also don’t intend to tackle the mockery that such rabbis make of our religion when they must fill the void of their inadequate Jewish abilities with other skills they are far better at, taking on titles like: “the hopping rabbi” or “the skiing rabbi”, and such. Instead, I wish to focus on the issue of how other rabbis were educated in their respective institutions and how it affects their interpersonal relationships.
I recall when I studied for Semicha in Baltimore – and other Yeshivot I observed – they had drilled into the students heads the following phrases:
“You’re not a Posek”
“Always call a Rav first”
“This area of Halachah is out of your jurisdiction”
“You can’t make such decisions on your own”
Unfortunately, the definition of emasculation[note]Anyone who knows me knows that I am not involved much in current, external politics, and that I would never use a word to intentionally offend men or women or anyone because of who they are. I do not know if this word has a politically incorrect use, but its use here is strictly in accordance with its meaning in the dictionary. Kindly judge me favorably.[/note] is exactly what we find to be true of most of these violent rabbis. It is not their greatness which pushes them to violence against those they deem beneath them, but rather their inadequacy. As the Merriam Webster Dictionary explains, the educators of these rabbis aimed to “to deprive of strength or vigor and the capacity for effective action.”. They could have instead chosen to empower them, which is defined as “to give official authority or legal power to or to promote the self-actualization or influence of”!
How many times have you asked a rabbi a question only for him to begin his answer with: “I’m not a Posek”. How do you expect a rabbi to function properly if his wings have effectively been clipped and instead he is confined to the world of theoretical “teaching” and Jewsish “outreach” alone? Most importantly, how do you expect an emasculated rabbi to not become aggressive and violent when he stumbles across someone who should be his colleague, but is perceived as a threat because he is actually a healthy, competent, and fully-functional rabbi?
- How will a community rabbi – who is a product of Semicha programs that never teach the laws of conversion, and who has always been instructed to send potential converts to those “higher up than him” – react when he meets a rabbi who was taught that he himself is capable of taking care of conversion on his own?
- How do you think the “Kashrut expert” – who was told by his rabbis that he will never know how to remove the forbidden nerve from the back cut of an animal – react when he meets a rabbi whose grandmother had taught him how to perform Nikkur and make such an animal Kosher?
Our Rabbis taught us in the Talmud[note]Bava Batra 21a[/note] that: “jealousy among scholars increases wisdom”. Healthy competition creates the will to learn more and be as competent as ones colleagues! This is true of most fields! But when there is a glass ceiling that one can never surpass, and instead he is forced to witness the humiliation of others flying right through it – the jealousy becomes rather unhealthy, and his emasculation creates the breed of violence we see today. It is perhaps for that reason that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is said to have taught that nowadays, there is no such thing as healthy competition between rabbis due to the unhealthy state of the rabbinic world, and therefore this teaching should no longer be considered applicable in our generation.
Though I must tell you, this is inevitable!
Nothing New Under The Sun
It is fitting for me to quote to you the words of our Master, the Rambam, who wrote the following words to his student Rabbi Yosef Ibn Vaknin:
That which it has been difficult for you to understand this man who spoke against you before the People of Israel – this should not be a challenge to you, for who can be hit and not scream? You should know that you have harmed him greatly, you have ruined his fame, and have broken his arrow, for if it was not for you the other[s] would be in his hands like a small bird in the hands of its prey…and he would devour it. Therefore do not expect from one whom you have harmed [in this way] to love you and praise you.
It is also not proper [that] which you ask: where is his Yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven)? Because this person…and many others before him… only consider stringencies to be considered fear of Heaven, as the masses similarly believe it to be. They do not consider the obligation to have good and upright character traits to be included in [the category of] fear of Heaven, nor will they be careful with their speech, unlike those of the purest levels of fear of Heaven [who] will be careful [with their speech].
Most people of religion that hold positions of power and authority, when a matter arises that will challenge their power – their fear of Heaven disappears. Do not expect every person to be [holy] like Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair…
What can I add after such sage words?
In my last article, I shared that I believe this violence stems from their feeling that they – and they alone have a monopoly on Judaism. In this article, I am not challenging that, but rather adding to it. In addition to their unimaginable arrogance, they suffer from tremendous ignorance. This combination has caused devastating damage in the Jewish community.
You may ask: Is it our fault though that incompetent teachers created inadequate rabbis? I do not know the answer to that, but sadly, I do know that it is most definitely our problem, as we are indeed the ones suffering from it.
I therefore feel compelled to provide some practical steps and call out to three groups of people:
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So just to clarify, are you of the opinion that any rabbi ought to be a posek, since he should have all the tools?
I found your two articles on “Stop the Violence” to be very articulate and personally touching.
As a non-halachic Jew who identifies deep in my soul with Judaism, I am tired of being judged by those who claim to be Orthodox. Jews come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. We are diverse in how what we believe and how we operate in the world. No one has a monopoly on Judaism. I stand with you, Rabbi Yoni, and I respect what you have written in these two articles.
I was President of a Jewish community during 14 years until 2016 which made me sceptic on all religions particularly on account of their spiritual leaders whom I compare to lawyers. They all have a different interpretation of the law.