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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

Reform Reflections: The Rav was Right

Reform Reflections: The Rav was right
by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

The unchallenged leader of modern Orthodoxy in the second half of 20th century was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In 1959, it was proposed to the Rav that he be a candidate to succeed the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.  If he had agreed, his election was assured, but he declined the offer, and later explained his decision as follows:

“One of the reasons why I did not accept the post of Chief Rabbi of Israel – and the offer was made to me several times – was that I was afraid to be an officer of the State. A rabbinate linked up with a state cannot be completely free.” While expressing his admiration for Israeli rabbis, he nonetheless explained that “the mere fact that from time to time halakhic problems are discussed as political issues at cabinet meetings is an infringement on the sovereignty of the rabbinate.”

In a lecture delivered in 1972, the Rav was less complimentary about the Israeli rabbinate. “When I refused to accept the position of chief rabbi,” he said, “I explained that one of my reasons was that the rabbinate has been institutionalized there. Willy-nilly, such a rabbinate will disintegrate. I am sorry that my prophecy was correct. It is now in a stage of disintegration.”  (See The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, v. 1, p. 56, v. 2, p. 38.)

There is sometimes an assumption that only Reform and Conservative rabbis oppose the current unholy alliance in Israel that marries the Orthodox rabbinate to the apparatus of the state and makes each party the servant of the other. In fact, a significant stream of modern Orthodox thinking has expressed profound doubts about the advisability of relying on the coercion of the state to enforce halakhic precepts. The Rav, as we see from the quotations above, was always insistent that Mizrachi could best encourage observance of Torah through education rather than through legislation resulting from political influence.

There are ample sources in our rabbinic tradition that also question the use of coercive means to further Torah observance. For example, a critical Talmudic precept is that when the rabbis cannot get the Jewish people to willingly accept Torah law, they should not coerce them lest the people sin willingly rather than out of ignorance; in other words, imposing God’s law is more likely to lead to popular rejection of that law than to acceptance of it. (See Baba Bathra 60b:  “We do not lay a hardship on the community unless the majority can endure it…let Israel go their way:  it is better that they should err in ignorance than presumptuously.”)
Similarly, Maimonides notes that divine law must have a clear popular mandate before it can be legally valid; in the absence of such a mandate, the decree can be abolished, even if the Court abolishing it is lesser in wisdom than the Court that enacted it. (See Maimonides, Hil. Mam., 2,7.)

In short, political coercion on religious matters, of the sort that we have in Israel today, is not in fact religiously valid and does not advance the cause of Torah. Indeed, throughout history, for Jew and non-Jew alike, the use of the power of the state to advance a religious tradition always results in undermining that tradition instead.

Rabbi Soloveitchik was right.

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