Monday, February 4, 2013

The Populist Rabbi

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner recently penned a scathing piece which he published both online and in print (in a Shabbat sheet distributed in shuls throughout the country) entitled "The Populist Rabbi", in which he excoriated rabbis who issue halachic rulings and statements for the sake of populism and popularity, and who, in their desire to make Judaism palatable to a secular an irreligious public, play down certain aspects of Jewish law and life, issue lenient rulings, and deride rabbis who take an opposite view.
It seems obvious that Rav Aviner's words are a thinly veiled swipe at Beit Hillel, a new rabbinic organization that arose specifically to do the very things that Rav Aviner accuses them of doing. I say this because Rav Aviner wrote the following, immediately after Beit Hillel promoted the fact that it has enjoyed a wonderful and productive meeting guessed it, Rav Aviner.
The populist Rabbi unrelentingly seeks to receive the legitimacy of the great Torah luminaries -- and he does not succeed. Yet since those great luminaries relate to him with love and brotherhood and peace and friendship, he very often interprets that position as agreement. 
Rav Aviner's piece has generated a flurry of internet activity (much of it on closed rabbinic email lists, some out in public), mostly critical of his piece. They wonder about the timing, placement and appropriateness of his criticism.
Rav Yuval Sherlo makes two interesting points about the criticism of populist rabbis: On the one hand, how is anyone to know the true motivations of another? Who are we to judge the "for the sake of heaven" of someone else, especially in areas of religious life? At the same time, accusations of populism go both ways. The same swipe can boomerang: you can be a lenient populist, or a strict populist. Both are catering to a crowd; they're just looking for support from different groups.
Who's right? As with many arguments that really are "for the sake of Heaven", both are right.
Of course there's a danger of populism in rabbinic life. This blog is a populist enterprise. I don't write everything I think, and often censor myself for personal, political or even politically correct reasons. (Just ask Jeremy Gimpel about whether it's wise to say everything we believe to be true). At the same time, that desire to be "accepted" can be quite dangerous: at what point does a populist like myself become so devoted to the populist cause that he begins to truly distort the truth for the sake of acceptance? That's a very difficult question to answer.
On the other hand, living in the "four amot of the Beit Midrash" can give a person a myopic view, disconnected from the people that want a connection to Jewish life. Failure to translate the eternal values of Jewish life to the masses will ultimately not enhance Judaism, but degrade it.
Both Beit Hillel and Rav Aviner have important points to make, and it behooves rabbis - populist or not - to try and find the proper balance between rigidity and populism, appropriate for their specific communities.
And yet, while both are correct, somehow having this dispute out in public diminishes its value. (I find it commendable that Beit Hillel did not respond, and hope that they maintain their radio silence on this issue.)
Some arguments, as important as they may be, belong safely within the walls of the Beit Midrash.


  1. One might define a populist rabbi as one that is in touch with the populace - in contrast to others whose rulings are ignored by the populace.

  2. "The great Torah Luminaries" - referring to himself. How humble..


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