Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beit Hillel: A New Attempt at Rabbinic Leadership. Will it work? Stay Tuned.

About a month ago, I received an email invitation to the founding meeting of a group that was later named "Beit Hillel". (Yes, when the group's founders first formed the organization, they had yet to agree on a name.) The purpose of the group was to establish a cadre of Modern Orthodox rabbinic and Torah leaders who would articulate a moderate, thoughtful Torah position on important issues related to Israeli and Jewish society. Would I consider attending the conference? I said that I'd attend. Here's the invite.

Behind the group (actually founding it) stand a group of relatively young, modern, and often left-leaning Orthodox rabbis, who serve in shuls across Israel. Mind you, this isn't the first leadership group that I've been invited to participate in. The last one kind of petered out, which is good, because it never really amounted to much anyway.
Pros: On one hand, this initiative represents an important effort to articulate a Judaism that will speak to the majority of the Israeli public. Today, the only audible voices in the rabbinic world are the ones that articulate extreme views to whatever degree, from rabbis that advocate not selling homes to Arabs to rabbis that declare that soldiers must disobey orders to attend ceremonial functions to rabbis that encourage violent protests. No one is articulating a moderate, considerate view, and that seems to be the intent of the organizers.
Cons: At the same time, no leading rabbinic personality has given his approval for Beit Hillel, from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein to Rav Chaim Druckman to Rav Yaakov Ariel, all leading figures in the Religious Zionist world, all voices of moderation. Why not? Does that say something about the group and those who organized it? I've got a friend who feels that this is just a front for an Israeli version of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a rather left-leaning Orthodox organization organized by Rabbi Avi Weiss. I have been promised that this is not the case, but time will tell.
Case in point: the organizers of the group decided that it wouldn't be only rabbis, but Torah leadership personalities, so that they could include women in the group. Personally, I applaud the move, but the publicity in the news about this move certainly sounds very liberal.
In the end, I fear that while this movement was organized with the best of intentions, it might not be able to fufill its intended function for the simple reason that the media doesn't like moderate views. They don't play well. Extremism sells. It drives clicks and pageviews. And if each time a firestorm arises in Israeli society Beit Hillel issues a well-thought, articulate and sensitive statement, I wonder whether it will really get any play, or be drowned out by the louder voices specifically tuned to grab the headlines.
The conference starts in about an hour, so I'll keep you posted. I'm thinking of liveblogging the event, so follow me on @weeklyparshah.