Virtual Talmud

When I heard about Israeli president Moshe Katzav deciding not to refer to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Reform movement, by the title “Rabbi,” I laughed it off. But the more I think about it, the more the “Leibowitz” in me starts to rise up.

For those who don’t get the reference, Yeshayahu Leibowitz was born in Riga in 1903. He received his Ph.D. in 1924 in biochemistry and medicine and received an M.D. in 1934 from the University of Basel. After emigrating to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1935, he settled in Jerusalem and joined the faculty of Hebrew University in 1936.

Leibowitz is known primarily for his religious writings and for his scathing critique of Israeli values and national policy. His remarks shortly after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to the effect that certain actions of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon evinced of the existence of a “Judeo-Nazi” mentality, provoked a storm of reaction. Notwithstanding the common assumption that rhetoric of this sort betrayed an anti-Zionist stance, Leibowitz repeatedly affirmed his belief in the validity of the Zionist endeavor both in his writings and in conversations to the end of his life.

As a thinker, I find Leibowitz to be somewhat overly simplistic and black and white, but on some issues he was so right. One of those issues was his belief that the Israeli government should get out of the religion business. On the poisonous mixture of religion and politics, Leibowitz demurred: “What do I think of the religious parties? What can I think? They don’t play any spiritual role. They are cogs in the wheel of the state. The Chief Rabbinate is an appendage of the Jewish state and has nothing to do with our religion. What religious authority can it have, anyway? As for Gush Emunim, they are fanatical nationalists with messianic pretensions. The fact that they are religious is irrelevant. So were the idolaters of antiquity, after a fashion, that is.”

I don’t support a wholesale divorce of religion and politics–certainly not in Israel, a country whose mission must always have a spiritual component. Still, when I hear about such silliness as Katzav’s refusal to recognize Rabbi Yoffie’s religious authority or the recent brouhaha sparked by the Israeli government’s rumored refusal to recognize Orthodox conversions done in America, I start asking myself whether maybe Leibowitz was not so wrong after all.

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