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Beit Midrash Family and Society Various Events

Rabbis’ Business

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A recent rabbinic ruling by the Chief Rabbis of Efrat regarding the sale of cigarettes in their community has, as can always be expected, provoked criticism and discussion. Though there may be issues of pro and con regarding this specific issue (though I for one cannot imagine believing that smoking tobacco in the long run can be beneficial a to anyone except the tobacco companies) the underlying tone of this discussion is : "Rabbis, mind your own business!" It is asserted that whether a community allows the sale of tobacco within its environs is none of the business of rabbis. Such specious arguments as that they can still be purchased outside of Efrat do not speak to the heart of the matter. The argument is not about tobacco sales, it is about rabbis expressing an opinion on matters of public health and concern - a field that rabbis are not supposed to deal with in any way. Stick to your books and leave us wise men, politicians, and professors run everything. Keep your opinions to yourselves and concentrate on the matters given to your authority - kashrut, marriage and divorce and other matters of ritual. But do not have the effrontery to discuss publicly any public or national matters outside of your particular matters of expertise. At least that is the way the situation appears to this old battle-scarred rabbi. Maybe it is only paranoia on my part (Richard Nixon is famously reported to have said: "You would also be paranoid if the whole world was against you!") but rabbis generally are a persecuted species who are responsible for everything but should never attempt to express a public opinion about anything.

The Talmud states that "all matters that pertain to the general welfare of the community are the responsibility of the rabbi." Over the centuries this injunction has been honored more in the breach than in actuality. Nevertheless there can be no dispute that respective and respected rabbis influence the policies of the religious parties that sit in our Knesset. We may not always agree with their opinions and advice but in the religious world one would hope that no one would gainsay their right to express those opinions and advice publicly. Such figures as Rabbis Ovadyah Yosef, the late Rabbi Eliezer Shach, and the late rabbe of Chabad have had great influence on particular segments of Israeli and Jewish society and on the general Israeli public and world Jewry as well. Yet there is always controversy not only about what they said but over whether they even had a right to say it publicly and forcefully. When Rav Shach expressed himself regarding a possible settlement with the Palestinians and the dangers of isolation from the non-Jewish world, he was roundly criticized for expressing his views. "Leave our foreign and defense policies up to the experts and don’t mix in to what is none of your business" was the general media reaction to his words. Well I for one don’t see why his opinion is less valuable to our current debate on policy and our future than the opinion of all of the so-called "experts" that are always interviewed by our media and have yet to come up with a successful formula for solving these problems. Rabbis have a legitimate right to express their opinions on matters of public concern.

Rabbis have regularly been accused here in Israel of "incitement" when expressing their opinions on public matters. Left wing professors in Israeli universities who advocate boycotts of Israel are never accused of "incitement." Rather they have the sacred privilege of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Apparently they can say anything they wish without being told to mind their own academic business. Are the rabbis any less academic and accomplished than the professors? Present company excluded, I think that they are not. I think that it is the fear that people may actually listen to the opinion of the rabbis, opinions which many times contrast to current political correctness and modern lifestyle that lies at the bottom of this self-righteous censorship attempt. Why can the rabbis of Efrat not tell their community about the dangers of smoking and attempt to persuade the merchants there to discontinue selling death? Rabbis speak with thousands of years of tradition, Jewish experience and personal practice behind their words. One may have the choice to hearken to their advice or ignore it. But I do not believe that anyone has the right to challenge their right to express their opinions on national, general and communal matters in a public manner.
Rabbi Dov Berl Wein
The rabbi of the "HANASI" congregation in Yerushalim, head of the Destiny foundation, former head of the OU, Rosh Yeshiva of 'sharai Tora" and rabbi of the "Beit Tora" congregation, Monsey, New York.
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