When Rabbi Benny Lau began his Shabbat HaGadol talk at south Jerusalem’s Ramban synagogue last Saturday afternoon, he said his lesson originated in anger and frustration. The climax came when he said, “If I were a young person today, I would abandon religion.”
Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath that precedes Pesach, is traditionally a time for community rabbis to teach their congregations the fine points of the laws of Pesach and to offer some pointers for the coming Seder ceremony. Rabbi Lau barely spoke about Pesach; instead he offered—in traditional Jewish fashion, via a discussion of Talmudic passages—a call for greater openness and tolerance within the religious community. His particular target was the abrogation of personal responsibility religious Jews. Blind obedience to rabbinical authority used to be a defining trait of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, one of the things that divided it from the modern Orthodox community. But over the last couple decades more and more Jews brought up and educated in Zionist religious institutions have increasingly sought to avoid thinking for themselves, on halachic, political, and social matters. The result has been a desecration of God’s name, as rabbis claiming to speak for Israel’s religious Jews have revoked conversions, demanded the relocation of a hospital emergency room, and committed a series of other political and religious acts that are an embarrassment to their heritage and a real danger to Israeli society as a whole.
This sort of religious community can only repel thinking young people who are unwilling to abandon their freedom to think for themselves, he declared.
Hebrew speakers can read a written version of his power talk here and English speakers can catch some of the gist of it by looking here . But the real question is whether Rabbi Lau and his colleagues in the religiously moderate Tzohar organization will take concerted action not just to decry but to actively oppose the unthinking Judaism they decry.
That would require new organizational and political frameworks—the abandonment of the official state rabbinate, which has been taken over by the ultra-Orthodox and fundamentalists, and of the political parties that now claim to represent the Zionist religious community. Furthermore, it will require this community to reconsider the Land of Israel-based theology that, by making them part of a system of injustice to others, has blinded so many of its members to injustices within their own community.
The situation is dire and, as Rabbi Lau said in his talk, the moderate community has not yet produced a figure with the stature and the courage to stand up and lead a movement loyal to halacha and tradition but independent of and opposed to Jewish fundamentalism. It’s what my own synagogue, Kehilat Yedidya, sought to do when we founded it 30 years ago. At the time we were considered so outlier that even rabbis who supported us did not want their names made public. Rabbi Lau seems to have come round to share the concerns we voiced back then, and perhaps to think that, as we thought then, the solutions need to be radical ones. We founded a community; Rabbi Lau, who comes from the mainstream, can found a movement—if he’s willing to take the lead. Was his Shabbat HaGadol talk a call to arms, or just another cry in the wilderness?