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Tuesday 5 June 2007

Reform Reflections - Soloveitchik - Eric Yoffie

May 24 2007; 05:05PM
_Reform Reflections </index.php?cat_id=&blog_id=72>_: The Rav was right
Posted by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

The unchallenged leader of modern Orthodoxy in the second half of 20th
century was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In 1959, it was proposed to
the Rav that he be a candidate to succeed the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of
the State of Israel. If he had agreed, his election was assured, but he
declined the offer, and later explained his decision as follows:

"One of the reasons why I did not accept the post of Chief Rabbi of
Israel – and the offer was made to me several times – was that I was
afraid to be an officer of the State. A rabbinate linked up with a state
cannot be completely free." While expressing his admiration for Israeli
rabbis, he nonetheless explained that "the mere fact that from time to
time halakhic problems are discussed as political issues at cabinet
meetings is an infringement on the sovereignty of the rabbinate."

In a lecture delivered in 1972, the Rav was less complimentary about the
Israeli rabbinate. "When I refused to accept the position of chief
rabbi," he said, "I explained that one of my reasons was that the
rabbinate has been institutionalized there. Willy-nilly, such a
rabbinate will disintegrate. I am sorry that my prophecy was correct. It
is now in a stage of disintegration." (See The World of Rabbi Joseph B.
Soloveitchik, by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, v. 1, p. 56, v. 2, p. 38.)

There is sometimes an assumption that only Reform and Conservative
rabbis oppose the current unholy alliance in Israel that marries the
Orthodox rabbinate to the apparatus of the state and makes each party
the servant of the other. In fact, a significant stream of modern
Orthodox thinking has expressed profound doubts about the advisability
of relying on the coercion of the state to enforce halakhic precepts.
The Rav, as we see from the quotations above, was always insistent that
Mizrachi could best encourage observance of Torah through education
rather than through legislation resulting from political influence.

There are ample sources in our rabbinic tradition that also question the
use of coercive means to further Torah observance. For example, a
critical Talmudic precept is that when the rabbis cannot get the Jewish
people to willingly accept Torah law, they should not coerce them lest
the people sin willingly rather than out of ignorance; in other words,
imposing God's law is more likely to lead to popular rejection of that
law than to acceptance of it. (See Baba Bathra 60b: "We do not lay a
hardship on the community unless the majority can endure it…let Israel
go their way: it is better that they should err in ignorance than

Similarly, Maimonides notes that divine law must have a clear popular
mandate before it can be legally valid; in the absence of such a
mandate, the decree can be abolished, even if the Court abolishing it is
lesser in wisdom than the Court that enacted it. (See Maimonides, Hil.
Mam., 2,7.)

In short, political coercion on religious matters, of the sort that we
have in Israel today, is not in fact religiously valid and does not
advance the cause of Torah. Indeed, throughout history, for Jew and
non-Jew alike, the use of the power of the state to advance a religious
tradition always results in undermining that tradition instead.

Rabbi Soloveitchik was right.


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