Who is a Jew in good standing? Who is in and who is out of the tribe?

With Shavuot approaching, with its stories of the Jews accepting the Torah and of Ruth joining the Jewish people, these seemed like timely topics for Rabbi Dov Linzer.

Rabbi Linzer is Rosh HaYeshiva — rabbinic head — at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, N.Y.

He is speaking at Davar in Teaneck next weekend, and his three talks will, like the story of Ruth, be related to questions of Jewish status. He will discuss the laws about conversion, and the laws of two other types of people whose status as Jews in halacha is unclear: Those who violate the Sabbath, and those who don’t properly believe in the articles of faith.

“The Gemara emphasizes that rejection of mitzvot puts someone outside the community,” Rabbi Linzer said. “It can disqualify someone who is born Jewish. The extreme example is rejecting all the mitzvot, which makes a person like a non-Jew. Then the Gemara says a Shabbat violator is like someone who rejects all the mitzvot.”

For the Gemara, “It means he’s disqualified from doing ritual actions that require a Jew. A lot of the examples are things for male Jews: counting for a minyan, leading davening, getting an aliyah, and so on.

“It goes so far that some people ask if wine he touches is as unkosher as if a non-Jew had touched it. Can you charge him interest on a loan, which you can’t do for Jews? While he’s not really non-Jewish, in many ways halacha gives him the same type of status,” Rabbi Linzer said.

The decline of traditional observance in the past two centuries has made the question more salient.

“With the advent of modernity and the haskala — the enlightenment — and 90 percent of Jews not being observant, do you continue to use the old model and say they’re outside the community? Or do you say it’s different now?

“There are poskim” — authorities in Jewish law — “who are not interested in seeing 90 percent of the Jewish people as being halachicly invalid,” he said. “They rule that even though someone is not Sabbath observant, they’re not disqualified.”

But Rabbi Linzer doesn’t like the approach most frequently used by Orthodox rabbis to keep contemporary Sabbath breakers from being ruled as being outside the community. That approach equates them to a “tinok shenishba” — a kidnapped child who was raised by non-Jews. Someone who never was raised Jewish, the Talmud understands, isn’t rejecting Judaism by non-observance, and therefore gets a special dispensation. Contemporary poskim who use this approach say that people can’t be held responsible for not being observant if they grow up in a non-observant context.

“That doesn’t work with people who grow up observant and leave,” Rabbi Linzer said.

He said that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, took a slightly different stance. “He says even if they grew up observant, they’re still considered to be ‘anusim,’ not willingly non-observant. They’re compelled by their yetzer hara” — their desires — “and the intellectual attractions” of non-Orthodox beliefs.

Both Rabbi Kook and the captive child approach keep the old definition of a mitzvah violator as being outside the community, but avoid the practical applications by not holding the violators responsible for their actions.

“While practically it’s very good, the problem with that is that it’s very patronizing and it’s literally infantalizing — you’re calling them an infant. It says people who have given a lot of serious thought to their decisions are not responsible for them. It’s saying only we, the observant, make responsible decisions and no one else does. It might be what you have to say to avoid treating people like non-Jews, but it’s obviously not ideal.

“What I propose is an opinion that was mentioned but not embraced by one of the poskim, the idea of ‘omer mutar,’ one who says something is permitted and therefore can’t be said to be knowingly violating the Torah,” he said.

In the Talmud’s examples, this would be someone “who is part of the communal structure, but no one ever told him that the action is forbidden.”

The contemporary non-observant typical Jew, Rabbi Linzer said, believes that desecrating the Sabbath is permissible “not because they think halacha says you can do X or Y or Z, but because they don’t believe in the whole system. They don’t believe they’re religiously bound not to do X or Y or Z.”

Categorizing non-observant Jews as people who think non-observance is acceptable “is descriptive. It’s not judgmental. That’s exactly what the reality is.

“It frames the question as, within my system, how much can I judge you if you don’t buy into the system?”

Rabbi Linzer said that Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, who was head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries proposed an even more radical solution.

Rabbi Hoffman distinguished between what public violation of the Sabbath meant when everyone was observant, and what it means now.

“He said that public violation of Shabbos used to be a way of practically positioning yourself outside the Jewish community, which was defined by the public observance of Shabbos,” Rabbi Linzer said. “That was the way the community expressed their identity.

“Nowadays, when 90 percent are not Shabbos observant, you can’t say they’re breaking away from the Jewish community even if they’re publicly sinning. Rabbi Hoffman says we have to define the Jewish community in different ways,” he said. “He has a couple of responsa about people who refused to circumcise their sons. That was his boundary issue.”

In another of his three scheduled talks, Rabbi Linzer will address the issue of dogma.

“How much is someone who is a fully observant Jew but doesn’t believe in certain principles of faith part of the community?” he said.

“Are we a community of faith or a community of action? How much are questions of belief central to personal status in halacha?

“Clearly there are mitzvot of belief. Beliefs are central to who we are. The Talmud never uses belief or lack of belief as a basis to disqualify someone’s status. It declares someone who doesn’t believe in the Torah from Mount Sinai doesn’t have a share in the world to come, but it doesn’t use that for halachic status.

“Maimonides introduces the idea of the apikores — the heretic — and basically says the apikores is someone who doesn’t believe in the core areas of faith, the 13 principles. He says the apikores is worse than a non-Jew, that he has all the disqualifying things we talked about for a Shabbat violator.

“There’s a question about what motivated Maimonides to create the category. In his own rulings he seemed to contradict himself,” Rabbi Linzer said.

Like contemporary poskim, Maimonides has to deal with large communities that didn’t follow what he considered to be traditional Jewish practice. In his case, it was the Karaites, who rejected the Talmud’s authority and its notion that the Torah at Sinai was supplemented by an “oral Torah” that undergirds the Talmud and was more decisive than the written Torah.

Were the Karaites inside or outside the camp?

It wasn’t a simple question.

“In his early writings Maimonides was very distancing of the Karaites. In his later writings, he wrote responsa that were more inclusive and he edited his Mishne Torah to tone it down a bit and be more inclusive,” he said.

Like the discussion of Sabbath violators, halachic discussions of the apikores raises the question of whether “nowadays, when we live in an open, critical minded society, how much does being an apikores have the same sense of disqualifying one’s status? It doesn’t mean that it’s okay, but if somebody basically totally keeps Torah and mitvot, they’re super frum, and they say they personally don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead or maybe they adopt certain positions of biblical criticism, does that mean they can’t count for a minyan?”

In his talk on conversion, Rabbi Linzer will look at the range of halachic discussions concerning converts who don’t practice all the mitzvot.

“Do we think someone can affirm and transition to a Jewish identity without full observance of the mitzvot? Or is full mitzvot part of what being Jewish means?”

As in his other talks, Rabbi Linzer will explore a range of opinions.

But the topic raises the question: At a time when the State of Israel sets conversion standards, and has partnered with the Rabbinical Council of America in centralizing Orthodox conversions, why bother teaching other opinions?

“At the end of the day, I teach Torah,” Rabbi Linzer said. “I would teach the laws of kashrut even if everybody uses the OU. Most things I teach, I’m not going for a practical bottom line.”

At the same time, “people want to understand better, they want to have a larger context. They want to see if the way the Israeli rabbinate is operating now is the only way. Knowledge is power. If the community is more knowledgeable, that changes the dynamic between the rabbis and the laity. The more people know, the more it’s keeping everyone honest.”


Save the date

Who: Rabbi Dov Linzer

Where: Davar, 1500 Sussex Road, Teaneck

When: Friday, May 19 and Sunday May 20

Schedule: Rabbi Linzer will speak after services at 7 p.m. Friday night, and 8:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Saturday.