Monday, December 20, 2010

Immunizing the Rabbis?

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

Esser Agaroth notes that an Israeli Knesset member, Michael Ben-Ari, has put forth a bill to immunize rabbis from prosecution for halachic statements. After all, Knesset ministers are immunized from prosecution for their remarks, even when those remarks are against the state.

Presumably, this is meant to protect proclamations like the recent letter against selling/renting out homes in Tzfat, and it could easily go much further.

The article at Esser Agaroth points out certain problems with this bill, but I’d like to add one: The great need, from a Torah, halachic perspective, for rabbis to convince the public of their positions. It’s not for nothing that the leaders of every generation, from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah (debates in Bei Avidan) to Rav Saadia Gaon (Emunot v’Deiot) to Rambam (Moreh haNevuchim) to Rav Moshe Isserles (Torat ha’Olah) to Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Horeb), endeavored to explain Torah and halachah in a way that would appeal to the community.

Maybe this is a difference between the Israeli and non-Israeli rabbinate. Perhaps fighting for the sanctity of Israel and the future of its Jewish communities emboldens the rabbis involved, and reinforces their sense that they need be beholden to no one. Indeed, לא תגורו מפני איש, a judge in court is not permitted to fear repercussions! But the approach seems counterproductive in the public arena, because such brazen disregard for the opinions of the greater population, and such clear contempt for diplomacy, only guarantees alienation of the great majority of listeners.

Perhaps having a significant population which rallies to your strongly worded positions makes you feel less obligated to reach out beyond – but then why make these statements at all? Do we speak only for the sake of hearing the echoes in our ears? If a rabbi speaks in his own forest, is there a sound?

To me, immunity would just provide incentive for more out-there, devil-may-care (so to speak) bombast. I’d rather see no immunity, and a greater attempt to win the battle for hearts and minds.

Evading formal government censure has never been the barometer of rabbinic success, you know. להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה (to elevate Torah and bring it glory) is the classic litmus test.


  1. Do the Rabbis have to win the hearts and minds of the hamon am, or the politicians and court system? It would seem that this legislation would be similar to the Pharisees of two thousand years ago enacting legislation to ensure that their proclamations and laws can offend Sadducees without fear of arrest; it would seem that at the time, the Pharisees did /not/ mind offending those of other sects.

  2. Joel-

    The Tziddukim and Prushim were in open war; would you suggest that this is the case today?