Monday, March 5, 2012

The Making of a Rabbi

It was particularly disturbing to read about efforts of the State Prosecutor’s Office to indict the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron over his alleged involvement in falsely obtaining government funds because of the many noble principles he stood for. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, educated in the elite yeshivot was the chief rabbi of Haifa before becoming chief rabbi of Israel. In that role he championed the cause of peace and was willing to relinquish parts of east Jerusalem in order to further the cause of a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. He was a proponent of interfaith meetings with Christian and Muslim leadership sitting on the boards of the World Religious Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He wanted to end the orthodox monopoly over weddings claiming that the current status quo was a source of hatred between the orthodox rabbinate and the liberal movements. Some referred to the speech in which he made known his feelings as a bombshell. Recently he along with modern orthodox rabbis like Norman Lamm and Aaron Lichtenstein condemned the calls of other rabbis for IDF soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements in the Gaza disengagement. So how is it that a man with such a notable background finds himself at the center of a criminal investigation?

I have suggested before that one of the short falls of Jewish higher education at orthodox rabbinical seminaries is the paucity of courses and structured programs that teach ethics, namely Jewish ethics in the business place as well as in the public sector. Ethics, or moral philosophy is a system of defining and promoting right from wrong behavior. Especially in Israel, where there isn’t separation of church and state, and where the involvement of the rabbinate in the public sphere is ubiquitous, cries out for intensive education in the area of ethical behavior.

Ethical behavior can’t be learned from the study of Torah and Talmud without including the systematic approach that can be learned from the masters of ethics and philosophy. It reminds me of that amazing period of the Middle Ages, when Maimonides and later Shimon Duron, and others such as Hasdai Crescas and Joseph Albo were able to successfully design a hierarchal belief system that incorporated ethics as well. They were able to do so because of their unique understanding of the classical Greek philosophers who initially developed the breakthrough approach of how to understand the universe that we occupy.

Those disciplines, so assiduously studied and researched by those sages of the middle ages has been lost on the orthodox rabbinical students of the modern age. They don’t devote any appreciated time, if any, to the writings of Crescas, Albo or systematically study classical texts such as The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides, where ethics take center stage. No! Ethics aren’t systematically studied but mastery of Talmud is considered the touchstone of Jewish knowledge. Interestingly, the editing and redacting of the Babylonian Talmud in the 5th-6th centuries was intended for use as a tool in order to negotiate the nuanced life as Jew in the Diaspora. Other texts weren’t readily available as there was no printing press, and scrolls were just coming into disuse as the idea of folio parchment was becoming popular. The dark ages also engendered a level of ignorance to which the Jews weren’t exempt. But between that time and the enlightenment a rich voluminous library of Jewish thought and philosophy developed which contributed much to the comportment and conduct befitting Jews and their leaders. Sadly, those studies never gained the currency to which the Talmud reached.

The price for maintaining Talmud study as the quintessential text to be studied at the expense of all others during the intellectual growth years of a yeshiva student has contributed to the lacunae of critical knowledge needed for a rabbi to guide his community through any ethical quagmire, which may appear. It’s not enough to rely upon one’s own instinctual moral or ethical compass. It may not even be enough to rely solely on classic rabbinic literature such as Shulachan Aruch and Choshen Mishpat as the navigational tools for working through ethical issues. A rabbi has to be equipped with clear understanding of ethics, backed by years of formal study and not by instinct. A fluent literacy in applied ethics, moral theory and phenomenology are but a few areas that a rabbi ought to be comfortable with. By studying these various approaches his personal sense of ethics become sensitized and heightened becoming proactive and not reactive. To assume the role of rabbi and to lead a community without this strong background in formal study of ethics is tantamount to navigating as ship without sophisticated navigational tools. This is what may have been the cause of Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s current problems. He would do well to promote as part of the core curriculum of yeshiva students serious course study in ethics treated as seriously as the study of Talmud. Without doing such, they may be doomed to falter, and more importantly fail themselves and their communities.