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Where are our rabbis?



Nina Cohen, Johannesburg

Their reticence to speak out on this and other issues is probably in response to an atmosphere of coercion created by the South African Rabbinical Association, the Beth Din, and the chief rabbi. It creates a fear of publicly expressing a divergent voice, thus becoming a betrayer of the “party line”. Having a counterview ultimately leads to stigmatisation and deliberate marginalisation.

This coerced silence is a worrying sign of a fragile, insecure Jewish leadership and organisations without the values, confidence, and security to withstand public debate and difference. Is this draconian and dogmatic style of leadership what is required “to uphold halacha and Torah values”?

Judaism has survived for more than 3 000 years not only because we were able to hold onto our core beliefs and practices, but because our leaders were able to respond to the challenges of the world around them and innovate to meet the demands of the day. Ezra and Nehemiah, through the introduction of public Torah reading, enabled Judaism to exist as a diaspora religion without a centralised temple. The Rambam, by integrating Aristotelian philosophy with Torah and the writing of the Mishneh Torah, was able to empower the Jews of his time to resist the physical and intellectual onslaught of Christianity and Islam. The Zionist visionary, Theodor Herzl, dreamed of the Jewish State in Palestine at a time when this seemed impossible.

The contribution of these historic Jewish visionary leaders may be too much to expect from our rabbis. There is, however, much to be learned from the Limmud style of leadership. Limmud is a place where all Jewish people have a voice. There is one massive and gaping void – the absence of our appointed spiritual leaders and their diverse voices.

How can anyone lead if they are forbidden to listen and forbidden to engage? Of what value are our rabbis, if their own religious judgement and agency is taken from them? 

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