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Why Apologize?

The sanctimonious posturing is typical of an agenda-driven media


Is Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s statement that thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU are hostile to Judaism really a reason for moral outrage?

Sephardic chief rabbi Rav Yitzhak Yosef’s statement last week about immigration from the former Soviet Union caused a predictable uproar. Calls for his resignation and demands that he retract his words and apologize came fast and furious. But he was right.

What triggered the outrage? The Rishon Letzion dared to mention the fact that among the million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union are a significant number of non-Jews whose entry was facilitated by the secular establishment and its highly liberal interpretation of the Law of Return. (Under the current law, having one Jewish grandfather is a satisfactory condition for a non-Jew to become an automatic citizen with full aliyah benefits, and many thousands of non-Jews from the FSU have come to Israel under that clause.) Rav Yosef cited this fact as an important contributing cause of assimilation within the State of Israel.

Unsurprisingly, attacks from the anti-religious left and the mainstream media swiftly followed: How dare he talk that way about a great wave of aliyah? About a huge influx of immigrants who bound their fate with Zionism and the people of Israel, pay taxes and serve in the army? About loyal citizens who have brought great benefit to the country? He ought to step down! We demand an apology!

It’s a familiar scenario, which plays itself out every time a rabbinical figure opens his mouth with a word of criticism of the secular establishment. In the end, the rav is supposed to apologize. But to their astonishment, Rav Yosef has refused to do so. For some reason, the Chief Rabbi still doesn’t get it.

The question is, what exactly do they want Rav Yosef to apologize for? Did he contradict the opinion of his critics that the population in question generally serves in the army? Did he claim they aren’t loyal citizens or insinuate that they don’t pay taxes? No. What he said was that, without taking away any credit where it’s due, many of these olim happen to be gentiles. And just as the army service of our Druse soldiers, with all due credit for their mesirus nefesh, doesn’t make them Jewish, it doesn’t make young Ukrainians Jewish either, even if they are exemplary soldiers and speak fluent Hebrew. What, then, is Rav Yosef supposed to apologize for? For stating a fact that even his detractors don’t deny, that a large portion of olim from the former Soviet Union are non-Jews?

The sanctimonious posturing is typical of an agenda-driven media. Because every government department dealing with immigration knows that today, non-Jews compose a majority of new immigrants from the FSU, and many of them are anti-religious and perhaps even anti-Semitic. Why wouldn’t they want to leave their poverty-stricken villages for a nifty aliyah package, as long as they can dig up a Jewish grandfather?

But what, exactly, is their agenda? The secular establishment seeks to expropriate the whole concept of giyur and turn it into something resembling the process of becoming a naturalized citizen. Why shouldn’t a young man who serves in the IDF and contributes to Israel’s economy be considered part of Am Yisrael?

What irks them is that for the time being, they can’t have their way: Israeli law stipulates that in order to be listed as a Jew in the population registry, a non-Jew must undergo halachic conversion. Although for now they suffice with calls for more liberal criteria for giyur, some would really like to eliminate the requirement entirely.

Within the recent outcry is the underlying claim that the chief rabbinate itself is to blame for the fact that there are so many gentiles living as Israeli citizens. Why? Because, as they claim in their distorted and tired old narrative, the rabbinate refuses to take the path of Hillel, who was so lenient and attentive to social trends, and instead follows the “harsh and unbending ways” of Shamai. To large segments of uneducated Jews, Shamai’s name is synonymous with narrow-mindedness, spiritual closure and dogged conservatism. He’s pictured as cranky, irritable, and unapproachable. Yet in the first chapter of Pirkei Avos, it was in fact Shamai who said, “Make your Torah learning a fixture... and receive every man with a pleasant countenance.” Shamai  was, in fact, careful about giving a warm, loving reception to anyone who approached him. His firm insistence on preserving the purity of halachah was distorted by the Maskilim and their inheritors, who created the picture of a cantankerous zealot.

Hillel, on the other hand, is considered the one who makes life easier by saving us from a burdensome religion with his liberal interpretations of the Torah. Those who like to say  “I’m from Beis Hillel,” mean to say, “I’m open-minded — I don’t subscribe to the hair-splitting approach of those strict rabbis.”

Hillel would have been appalled had he heard such notions attributed to him. Hillel sought something entirely different: to rehabilitate the nation so that all the people could walk the authentic path of Torah. Never did he show any tendency to be lenient about fulfillment of mitzvos in order to accommodate those who claimed it was too difficult.

We’ve all heard the famous story, told in the Gemara, of the gentile who approached both Shamai and Hillel, asking each of them to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot, and the responses he received. But even if we read it superficially and go straight to Hillel’s display of gentle patience in his handling of the would-be convert, we certainly don’t see any indication that Hillel would bend halachah in order to accept a gentile into the fold. Those who grumble about excessive strictness and call for reforms to the halachah needn’t drag Hillel into it.

But, the secularists claim, didn’t Hillel enact the takanah of prozbul in order to get around the Torah’s prohibition of collecting debts after the shemittah year had passed? Wasn’t that a leniency he invented to make things easier for people, so they shouldn’t lose money to unpaid debts?

As we learn in the Gemara (Gittin 36), Hillel noticed that as the shemittah year approached, fewer people were giving loans, due to the fear that the debtor might delay repayment until he could take advantage of the Torah’s cancellation of debts at the end of the shemittah year, and then the lender would never get his money back. But those who held back from lending for this reason were transgressing the Torah’s explicit warning not to allow shemittah to deter them from helping their needy brethren. Hillel addressed this problem by creating the takanah of prozbul, by which debts could be transferred to a beis din, ensuring that the Jewish People whom he so loved, and for whom he had such prodigious patience, would keep the Torah’s commandments and not be judged wicked.

Hillel’s purpose was to preserve the integrity of the Jewish People and their adherence to the Torah, not to weaken it. And our rabbanim today – Rav Yitzhak Yosef among them – are motivated by that same ahavas Yisrael, and the same knowledge that our people’s endurance depends on holding onto the Torah for dear life.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 794)

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