An Interview with R. Yuval Cherlow

BY: Sarit Bendavid

You are one of the founders of the Tzohar Foundation, an organization dedicated to enhancing unity and Jewish identity in Israel. Can you tell us more about some of Tzohar’s activities and what some of the results of its efforts have been?

Tzohar was established immediately after Rabin’s assassination. We felt that there was a need to try to bridge the gap between the secular and Religious Zionist movement in Israel. At the time, rabbis in particular were targets because they were blamed for opposing the government, and, much more than that, for Rabin’s murder itself. We searched the main point of tension between the secular and religious communities, and we discovered that it was marriage. According to Israeli law, you must get married by a rabbi, and many people felt that this did not appeal to them. Furthermore, rabbis were labeled as corrupt and illegally benefiting from this arrangement (such as by not paying taxes, etc.). Tzohar decided to offer Orthodox, halakhic marriages to secular people for free, incorporating all kinds of things that you might say are obvious but which in Israel amounted to a revolution. This included meeting the couple before the wedding, speaking with them, and trying to design the huppah according to their plans and ideas. Suddenly, there was a snowball effect, and after two weeks, without investing one penny of money for public advertising, we discovered that we were in the headlines of the news and on all the channels. And then we realized that secular people are searching for Judaism in their lives and find us as a positive factor in their wedding experiences. And today we deal with a variety of issues, from marriage to conversion in Israel to special minyanim on Yom Kipppur – not held in shul so that everybody will be able to feel at home but following Halakhah completely. We have a special department that advises Knesset members who want to draft a bill on any of these issues in order to make it more Jewish and properly represent Yahadut (Judaism) in Israel. It has truly broadened to deal with a variety of issues and I think it is a great success.

That sounds amazing. Have you seen results?

We have seen many results. We see that the majority of people feel that they are more Jewish because of their relationship with Tzohar. The best example I can give you involves the Knesset members, who have been constantly working together with Tzohar – even the very anti-religious Knesset members who want to separate between the State and Judaism. In the current situation, they participate and cooperate with us and try to do things in a more Jewish manner.

Do you think the Law of Return guaranteeing any Jew the right to become a citizen of Israel should be based on the halakhic definition of a Jew (matrilineal descent), based on the current requirement of having one Jewish grandparent, or based on some other criterion?

I think that the law should follow the Halakhah. I think that the main discussion today between halakhic authorities is whether Halakhah has any special attitude or approach towards someone whose mother is non-Jewish but whose father is Jewish – what we call zera Yisrael. I want to emphasize: I do not think they are Jewish, as they are non-Jewish according to Halakhah, but there may be a basis for following a special approach towards them, which could be applied in the law. So my answer is that it should follow Halakhah, but according to the posekim (authorities) who claim that there is a special approach towards zera Yisrael. This would entail accepting under the Law of Return those who have one Jewish grandparent if they had a connection to the Jewish people. In contrast to that, the current situation is a disaster. The idea that someone who had a Jewish grandparent but lacks any connection to the Jewish nation should be accepted into Israel – it is a disaster to the State and a disaster to Halakhah and I would be very happy to stop it. Today, even many Knesset members understand that we should limit this, but everyone is afraid to touch this explosive issue. So I am talking about an ideal that I do not see Israel realizing in the near future.

What are your thoughts on the recent bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem that would give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate control over all conversions in Israel?

The whole situation is a pity. The law should be that the only authorities to accept people into the Jewish nation, at least in Israel, would be the Rabbanut ha-Rashit (Chief Rabbinate). This was the situation for years, and this was the best thing, because I really think that the gateway to join the unique club of Judaism should be under the Rabbanut ha-Rashit’s responsibility. The problem is that the Rabbanut ha-Rashit did not succeed for many reasons. One of those reasons was that their halakhic approach was formulated by posekim from the extreme right, and I think they are wrong halakhically and politically and from every relevant point of view. So this law actually wanted to ordain or permit a few rabbis that have a more centrist view of Halakhah to be able to carry out conversions. But this is a circumvention, not the ideal route, because the Rabbanut ha-Rashit has failed, and therefore the idea is to permit local rabbis to do conversions. I have no choice but to support it, but it is not ideal. The best scenario would be for conversion to be done solely by a functional and successful Rabbanut ha-Rashit. It is because of their failure that the Rotem law is now trying to bypass this situation, but it would have been better had the Rabbanut ha-Rashit taken responsibility and authority and not failed, if it could have functioned as it was intended to do and not been occupied by very extreme, right-wing posekim.

Do you think that marriage in Israel should be under the auspices of the Rabbinate or under civil law? What are the main issues present in that debate?

This is a very difficult question. I would be happy if all the Jews in Israel would marry according to Halakhah, but I am not sure if that would be good for Halakhah because such a scenario would create pressure to be more liberal or open or to do things that are not permitted. One problem that exists is that everything is under external court authority. This means that the secular court can force the Rabbanut to do things that are against Halakhah, so it is a very complicated issue. The second thing is that we as the Rabbanut refuse to marry many couples: a Kohen to a gerushah (divorcee), all kinds of pesulei hittun (those ineligible to marry for halakhic reasons), etc. There are rabbis who are not willing to make huppot (weddings) for people who were converted according to Halakhah, even if it was done according to Orthodox Halakhah. They say that they do not accept gerim (converts) at all.

But I think that the best solution is for Israel to have two routes. The primary one should be that all Jews be married according to Halakhah and this should be the state law. And if the Rabbanut refuses to marry two people, they should have an alternate method to be recognized as a couple according to the secular state. I think that many people in Israel would support this idea. The problem is that – and this is the reason that even I cannot really support what I am saying – in such a scenario Israel would be the largest Jewish community to recognize interfaith marriage, because under this law a non-Jewish woman could marry a Jewish man and be recognized by the state. This would deliver a message to the entire Jewish world that we, the largest Jewish community, recognize assimilation. So I do not know how to solve this problem, but I think that this is the only choice.

The bottom line is that in Israel, in a few years’ time, we will hopefully have two tracks, and we should try to implement this as best we can: the official way to be recognized as married according to the law will be according to Halakhah, but the state will offer an alternate way to enable young couples to get married, especially in cases where the Rabbanut refuses to marry them.

In your opinion, what mitsvot must a goy (non-Jew) accept in order to be properly converted? Do you see any foreseeable solution to the conversion issue that is raging right now in the Jewish world?

First of all, we must admit that these goyim who want to convert are going to be secular. There is no doubt about it. Now there is a famous new book in Israel called Sefer Zera Yisrael by a great rabbi (and now a Knesset member), R. Haim Amsalem, that argues that in order to be halakhically converted, and especially in our special situation, one must simply accept in principle the Jewish idea and behave in the Jewish tradition, even if he does not accept Halakhah. By this I refer to someone who keeps the leil ha-seder, fasts on Yom Kippur, etc., at least like a good, secular mesorati, or traditional, Jew, though without accepting Halakhah.

I think we should adopt this attitude. Behaving according to the Jewish life in principle and accepting the Jewish nation and the idea that Hashem exists and that there are mitsvot – I think that this is the minimum that we should necessitate today, and this is for two reasons. The first one is because there is a halakhic basis for it. The second one is because we are now in a great she’at ha-dehak (dire situation). The alternative is that they will assimilate. The problem that we have today all over the world of losing our mentshen will soon arise in the State of Israel because there are thousands – tens of thousands or more – of young people, especially girls, who will get married as non-Jews to Jews in Israel, and that’s a disaster. So when you add these two ideas – first of all, the pure halakhic basis, and second, the understanding that this is a great she’at ha-dehak and that if we want to avoid interfaith marriage in Israel, we should find a way to do things according to the kulla (lenient opinion) – then this is what we should do.

What is the most important aspect of one’s Jewish identity: keeping mitsvot or identifying with Am Yisrael?

I do not like these questions; I do not know. In our parashat ha-shavua (weekly portion) that we read a few weeks ago [Va-Ethannan], Moshe Rabbeinu identified what is so special about Yahadut, because every faith has something sacred and unique to offer, and Moshe Rabbeinu said there are two things that are special: “Ki mi goy gadol asher lo E-lohim kerovim elav,” “For what great nation is there that has a God Who is so close to it…”[i] – that means that we have a very intimate dialogue with Hashem and believe in Hashem and declare this as our faith. The second thing is: “U-Mi goy gadol asher lo hukkim u-mishpatim tsaddikim,” “And what great nation is there that has righteous decrees and ordinances…”[ii] I think that actually wanting to be part of the Jewish nation, amekh ammi (as Rut declared),[iii] and part of the Jewish faith, which means two things – acknowledgement of the existence of Hashem and acceptance of the basic idea of mitsvot – these three pillars are Yahadut, and I do not want to start to distinguish between those three aspects, because they are the three important things.

How should the State of Israel reflect its identity as a Jewish state? Should a national Jewish identity be present at the governmental level?

Yes, definitely. I think that this is the meaning of a Jewish state. Also, this should be carried out by adopting and formulating Jewish values, mitsvot, and the Jewish way of thinking. But there are many obstacles. The first obstacle is with us, the rabbis, the religious movement, because we do not know exactly what we want. And the truth is that sometimes we thank God that there are secular people in Israel, because we are not brave enough to face the challenges that the Halakhah has in a modern state.

I will give a very small example of such a challenge. I had a hannikhah (camper) in Bnei Akiva who today is the head of one of the departments of the police that is responsible for taking fingerprints from houses broken into by criminals. She called one day and asked me if she is allowed to go on Shabbat. And I said (and this was twenty years ago) that it would seem that the answer is no because there is only a monetary concern. It is not pikkuah nefesh (a life-and-death situation), it is nothing important, so I understand the motivation, but I cannot say it is permitted. So she accepted that but said I should understand what I am saying. By saying that she is not allowed to go, I am establishing Shabbat to be a heaven for thieves because no one will come to take fingerprints. So this is a great halakhic question. How should the police function on Shabbat? And let’s say that tomorrow morning everyone is hozer bi-teshuvah, everyone becomes Orthodox; how will these issues be handled in Israel? What will the healthcare system be like according to Halakhah? We are not dealing with these questions. So, therefore, we cannot dream. We cannot push the state to be more Jewish before we are brave enough to be able to give the right answer to those questions.

So I think the first thing that we should do is be much more modest and much more careful and sit together and ask ourselves what exactly we want and how a modern Jewish state should function. What will be the status of rabbis? What will be the balance between the Knesset and rabbis, etc.? What are the halakhot regarding war? So let us start by giving the answers and then we will be able to dream about our vision and start thinking about how to apply it.

Now, I would like to say something not about the Israeli community, but about what is happening outside. The real frontiers of the Jewish nation are not in the State of Israel, but in the Diaspora. The percentage of Orthodox Jewry in the States is rising, but the reason is not because we are so successful, but because of assimilation. We have to understand that combating this phenomenon is our main mission. Sometimes, my colleagues do not agree with me about this issue, for example, when I say that I cannot understand how we are working so hard to keep every inch of the land of Israel in our hands, and we are not investing the same effort in order to keep every Jew in our hands.

There are a lot of things to do and we can rethink many issues. I will give you two examples. One is the price of Jewish education. Too many young Jews are not getting a Jewish education because of the price. And we cannot allow that status quo to exist because who will stay committed to Judaism? The second thing is that we have to rethink our relationship with the other denominations. When R. Soloveitchik, zts”l, and R. Kotler, zts”l, dealt with those issues, we were the minority, we were very weak, and therefore they insisted that there will not be any relationship between Orthodoxy and the other denominations. Today, the power is in our hands. We should reassess our opinion and our responsibility to the Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews.

I really think that you cannot close yourself in, not in Yeshiva College and not in Stern College. Many of the graduates of our American program [at Yeshivat Hesder Petah Tikvah] are later going on to New York University, to Brandeis, to who knows where. So you should understand the importance of Hillel houses and of our mission on campuses, and you should do what you can in order to advance the Jewish nation. This is the most important thing today, and even personally, I am constantly thinking of how I can do more for Jews abroad. I will not be able to have such a large impact because I am not familiar with the Diaspora. But I think that American Orthodox students can do it and I think the message can be delivered, and everyone will ask themselves what he or she can do for the Jewish state abroad, not only in the State of Israel. This message is a very important one, and it is one that I write about in Israel as well, and I am supportive of all the Israeli shelihim who go to have an impact in America.

So as YU students, what would you say we can do?

I do not know; everyone must ask him or herself. When you are in YU, be the best student you can be, and work on your devekut (cleaving to God) and on fulfilling mitsvot, but when you are home, or when you are choosing a career, or thinking about where to live and what to do and what your social activities will be, do not forget that your responsibility is not only to the small Jewish observant minority, but to the entire nation. And then your solutions and decisions will be effective and will also be influenced by this issue.

Many people in our community are torn between coming to Israel and helping the Jewish community in the Diaspora.

I think that life today is long enough to do both. If you decide to get married, stay for a decade in the States, and then come to Israel, thank God, we live long enough to do both. I do not think that we should say today that everyone must leave the United States and come to Israel, and I definitely do not want to say that you should live in the Diaspora for your whole life or to wait until you are retired to come, but I think that there is time to do both.

R. Yuval Cherlow is a Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivat Hesder Petah Tikvah. He is also a member of the Governmental Ethical Committees and the Presidential Press Council of Israel.

[i] Devarim 4:7.

[ii] Ibid. 4:8.

[iii] Rut 1:16.