Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Miscellaneous
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

One of the problems that faces religious leadership in the Jewish world, especially the leadership of the great scholars and heads of the leading educational institutions here in Israel, is that there is a chasm of disconnect between them and the masses that they wish to lead and influence.

I remember that once when I was a rabbi in Miami Beach many decades ago, a noted Israeli Talmudic scholar asked permission to speak on Shabbat in my synagogue. I immediately arranged for him to do so but I spoke to him in advance and said that the makeup of the synagogue would not allow for an intricate Talmudic lecture that would not be understood or appreciated.

Ignoring my advice, a situation that I am well accustomed to, the scholar proceeded to deliver a thirty five minute discourse on a very esoteric and little known subject mentioned in the Talmud. Naturally, his words were ill received and I suffered the indignities of being reprimanded by many in the synagogue for allowing that scholar to speak.

I asked the scholar why he ignored my advice and chose to speak about a subject that had no relevance or interest to the assembled audience. He facetiously or perhaps seriously answered: "I was trying to raise them to a higher level of total Torah knowledge." I said to him that I thought his goals were admirable but that his methods were deplorable.

I explained to him that in my opinion a speaker and certainly a religious scholar, who views one's self as a person of leadership and influence in the Jewish world, cannot afford to have a complete disconnect with the people to whom he is speaking and trying to lead.

The Torah teaches us that our teacher Moshe "descended to the people." That is not only a physical description of Moshe coming down from Mount Sinai but its broader implication is that Moshe had to have had connection and empathy with the people of Israel. He could not lead them from the heights of Sinai but rather he could do so only if he were willing to descend from the mount, so to speak, to the level of the people

Much of the struggle, both within and without the religious Jewish world here in Israel, is over this issue of disconnection. For various reasons, some of which are true but most of which are exaggerated or based on ignorance, the Israeli public has little confidence, respect or adherence to its rabbinic leadership. This is not only true regarding the sorry state of the official Chief Rabbinate but even in those sectors of religious society which claim to follow the wishes of the great scholars of Israel. The influence of these scholars at ground level is minor.

This again is because of the enormous disconnect between the world and environment that the scholars live in and the true environment of daily life and its challenges and problems that confront the masses. Raising the level of knowledge and spirituality amongst people is a lengthy and arduous process. It can only be done if the leadership truly understands and appreciates the situations and difficulties that the mass public faces.

The Talmud itself stated that religious leaders should not establish decrees that most of the public will find impossible to abide by. Yet we are witness on a regular basis to the utterances and decrees of the great scholars which if followed would make it impossible for most Jews in Israel to live and survive.

This disconnect is apparent to all – it is the elephant in the room that is ignored by both the leadership and the masses. We are forced to live in some sort of fantasy land of theoretical obedience to the scholars and the practicality of ignoring their pronouncements. Disconnect eventually breeds disrespect.

There are currently a number of initiatives to try and bridge this disconnect and rebuild the authority of the rabbinate and the scholars here in Israel. All of these initiatives are being fought against tooth and nail by the established powers and political interests that are so embedded in Israeli public and religious life.

There is a false sense of accomplishment and by those who continue to protect this disconnect and to believe that what was once can be imposed on what now is. The struggle to create a rabbinate that understands and speaks to the people, and one that could gain the respect of the public and restore itself to spiritual and moral leadership in the country, has been an ongoing one for the past century.

It does not appear that this struggle will be won by either side in the very near future. Nevertheless, the problem of the disconnect in religious Jewish society here in Israel will not disappear nor will it be solved by benign neglect. It is one of the major issues that we must think about and act upon in order to initiate a process that will eventually lessen, if not even eliminate, this disconnection.

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