Scholars & Sources: Bridging the Gap between Jewish Values and Modernity

Addressing the topic of "Jewish Values in the Modern World," prominent Israeli scholars provide fresh insights into bridging the gap between our rich, two-millennia-old Jewish heritage and contemporary challenges during a panel discussion featuring BIU alumni Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau and Midrasha Director Dr. Tova Ganzel.    

Rabbi Benny Lau

Speaking of the challenges facing halakhic leadership in contemporary Israeli society, BIU Talmud alumnus Rabbi Benny Lau says, "I'm very optimistic. The world understands that there's a need for dialogue, and that we can't speak in absolutes. Our leaders today are more sensitive. "

He focuses on three key examples:
1. Integrating people with disabilities into the community and religious  life
2. The accessibility of Western Wall prayer areas to Reform Jews and  the Women of the Wall
3. The LGBT community in Jewish society

Having conducted extensive halakhic study on the subject of integrating people with disabilities into the synagogue and community (e.g. whether a deaf or wheelchair-bound Cohen may recite the priestly benediction), Rabbi Benny concludes that such individuals should play an active role in religious life, and in fact, such is the practice at his Modern Orthodox Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. He drafted a document describing the status of deaf people in Jewish law through the ages, which was presented to leading halakhic decisors in Israel. As a result, the marriage registration guidelines have been updated so that deaf individuals who only communicate through Sign Language now enjoy the same status as others when it comes to marriage.

As to the accessibility of the Western Wall prayer areas to diverse entities, Rabbi Benny believes that the main obstacle is political and that from the halakhic standpoint, it's acceptable to allow Reform Jews, Women of the Wall, and others to hold prayer services there. “The political debate between the different streams causes each side to radicalize their positions and Increase the divisiveness between them.  Were the debate to remain within the confines of halakha only, there would be no problem in resolving it."

With regard to his third example, he refers to an ideological question. "Today we know that not all homosexuals chose this way of life – 'G-d created him/her as such'" says Rabbi Benny, who runs a support group for Orthodox parents whose children "came out of the closet" and are grappling with the issue. "Our obligation as rabbis is to be with them all, with the children and parents, and not to push them out of the community."

Dr. Tova Ganzel

How does Judaism address the challenges of bridging the gap between our age-old traditions and teachings and today's vibrant times? How do we deal with the moral and ethical implications?  How does one interpret traditional concepts like social justice in the modern world?  What is the inherent conflict between Judaism and democracy?

"It seems to me that the starting point is the unsupported premise that this inherent contradiction even exists," says Dr. Tova Ganzel, Director of the Midrasha in the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. The problem, she says, arises when Jewish values are viewed and subsequently interpreted through a narrow prism by groups who have, as their declared agenda, the desire to impose their lifestyle on others, citing the laws of the Torah as the foundation for these claims.

Briefly illustrating this phenomenon, she offers two examples of where the Torah provides solutions to thorny contemporary issues.

Civil rights for Jews and Arabs in the State of Israel – "The Torah bids us to treat the Ger (the stranger) with equality, and this relates to both rights and obligations.  From the social justice perspective, however, that is not the case, as the reality is that there is a marked difference in the status and position of Jews and Arabs.  But it is not the halakha which doesn’t allow Jewish and democratic values to prevail, but rather the prejudice and political disposition of the people who are setting the laws and contemporary behavioral codes, and who are using the halakha as a means to support their case for social inequality."
Economics – "According to the Torah every person was created equal in G-d's image. However, with the centralization of power and the huge socio-economic gaps and distribution of wealth, the current socio-political reality in the State of Israel is in fact antithetical to Jewish and democratic values provided for by Jewish law.   In fact, it is interesting that "tzedeka," meaning charity derives from the word "tzedek," meaning justice. The Torah commands us to pursue justice and the Talmud teaches us that "Tzedaka is equal to all other commandments combined" (Bava Batra 9b).
Concluding, Dr. Ganzel expresses the need to "aspire toward becoming a Jewish and democratic state which can thrive and prevail by drawing from the far-reaching teachings and wisdom of the Torah, which provides real solutions to current challenges and would allow our citizens to pursue the lifestyle that they desire."

Also participating in the panel was Rabbanit Dr. Pnina Neuwirth, an expert on tax and commercial law in Israel, and a noted lecturer in both the Judaic and legal fields.