A modern Orthodox rabbi in Israel has made an extraordinary proposal. For the sake of Israel’s future, it must recognize the political validity of the non-Orthodox streams. Yuval Cherlow, the rabbi in question, made no concession regarding the halachic validity of those streams. It is simply that the government must treat them as equals in all matters of state. Otherwise, Cherlow wrote, Israel will find itself without Jews in the diaspora who are willing to support it in the future. That, he said, was an existential threat worthy of emergency status.
Having just returned from a trip to the United States, Cherlow wrote a letter to the students of the Israeli yeshivah he heads, explaining that there were two reasons Jews here were turning their backs on the Jews there, especially among the young. The first reason for what he terms “the worst kind of disengagement” from Israel was its handling of the conflict with the Palestinians, specifically “the occupation, the racism, the control of another people by force,” to use his words.
“A second reason,” he wrote, “is the fact that they are not wanted here: The religious movements to which they belong are not recognized and also those who are not affiliated with any stream of Judaism do not want to identify with a state where the Orthodox have a monopoly, their conversions are not recognized, and nor are their prayers (Women of the Wall) and so on.”
To ignore the problem by continuing to deny the validity of the non-Orthodox streams is to confront Israel “with a harsh reality in which we are committing suicide, endangering the existence of the state of Israel and moving away from our fundamental role in the world, ‘And all the families of the earth are blessed with you.'”
In his letter, Cherlow sought to make a distinction between Orthodox and non-Orthodox practice. There must be “a differentiation between the position of Jewish law and the policies of the State of Israel,” he wrote. Recognition would be political, not halachic.
Nevertheless, he also argued that the Orthodox need to make some concessions, as well, based on a halachic principle of turning a blind eye to certain halachic violations in order to preserve halachah in chief – a principle that flows from a verse in Psalm 119:126, “It is a time to act for the Lord for they have violated Your teaching.” He included such items as “driving to a Conservative synagogue on Shabbat; considerations in conversion; [halachic deviations] done by Reb Shlomo Carlebach of blessed memory; bringing Reform Jews into a minyan and in general cooperation with various streams; and so on.”
These are extraordinary statements from a rabbi who is not a stranger to controversy. The religious right in Israel have targeted him frequently. He even has been referred to as a “neo-Reform rabbi” passing himself off as Orthodox.
What is unusual is how swiftly he was attacked by people from his own religious Zionist camp, especially the modern religious Zionist rabbinic group known as Tzohar, which itself is frequently attacked from the right. Tzohar almost immediately disassociated itself from Cherlow’s views. How sad that is.
Cherlow himself has gone to great lengths never to appear in public with non-Orthodox rabbis, or to otherwise have anything to do with them.
He made clear, however, that it was not just to save Israel’s future that he was advocating reforming the system. “World Jewry, principally in the United States, continues to assimilate and is disappearing from the Jewish people,” he wrote. Recognition by the state, he argued, possibly would enable the non-Orthodox streams to stem the tide of assimilation in the diaspora by giving them greater credibility.
Cherlow argues that Orthodox Judaism will win the battle for the hearts and minds of Jews everywhere in the free market of ideas, and has no need for state sponsorship or legal exclusivity. Whether this is correct remains for the future to reveal. That there will be a Jewish future at all, however, may depend on how seriously people take to heart what he had to say.