Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is a well-known and well-respected Israeli Zionist-Orthodox rabbi, but one with a history of controversy. On Tuesday it was reported that Cherlow, in the wake of a U.S. visit, wrote a letter to his students in which he argued that there’s an urgent need to accommodate Jews in North America in ways most Israeli Orthodox would not approve of.
Three things could happen following Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s call for more halachic “flexibility” (that’s the reporter’s definition) in dealing with the Conservative and Reform Jews.
1. That Cherlow will be shunned by even more rabbis and considered even more controversial than he is now.
2. That he will say that he was misunderstood.
3. That someone like him making such a call might move the needle just a little in some Orthodox quarters. (There’s a fourth option, but that’s one no columnist wanting his readers to keep reading would be foolish enough to mention – that nothing will happen following Cherlow’s call).
The rabbi's reasons for wanting to change the way religion and state affairs are handled in Israel are mixed, and not always cohesive. In some instances, it seems as if Cherlow’s primary motivation for being more welcoming toward other Jewish streams is “assimilation”. That, “World Jewry, including the leading community of the United States, is gradually assimilating, and vanishing”. But he also seems to think that the so-called “distancing” threat is a prime reason for change. Apparently, Israel "is perceived by American (non-Orthodox) Jewry as something that they do not wish to be identified with, due to the occupation, racism, the rule by force over another nation … The second reason is the fact that they [American Jews] are not wanted here [in Israel]: Their streams of the religion are not recognized; also those who do not associate with any stream of Judaism have no desire to be identified with a state in which the Orthodox have a monopoly; there is no recognition of their conversions, their prayers, (Women of the Wall) and so on."
That’s a common theory, and it is one many people would gladly repeat to an Israeli visitor. Of course, American Jews – many of them – are rightly disgusted by the way religious affairs are handled in Israel. And if this makes them more suspicious towards Israel, that’s natural, and to be expected. Still, the distancing theory on which Cherlow seems to be relying doesn’t quite hold (see my views on distancing here and here if you’re not familiar with them). And this might make his case more difficult to defend.
That’s a pity, since Cherlow’s position is the right one – it is his reasoning that is wrong. Consider this: What if Cherlow is convinced that Conservative and Reform Jews are willing to keep tolerating Israel’s preposterous behavior? What if he discovers that doomsday “distancing” scenarios are just a tool with which to convince him to take a stand – that he was, in fact, tricked into his newly found stance because he was led to believe in a crisis that doesn’t exist?
If we follow Cherlow’s current reasoning, the result might be regretted – a shift back to the “old” stance. If the crisis in relations is the reason for Cherlow’s position, and the crisis proves to be a mirage, the position must be abandoned. That is, unless Cherlow himself doesn’t believe in the reasoning he laid out – as I suspect is the case (Cherlow’s phone was turned off for many hours, so I couldn’t get hold of him. When I do, I hope to let you read his unvarnished views, as he wants to present them). In the long paper I wrote about “distancing”, I specifically referred to “distancing in the service of religious denominational interests” as part of the general tendency of “turning to the distancing narrative to advance the goals of various ideological and institutional actors”.
What’s interesting about Cherlow is that he might be doing the same thing, but from an unexpected angle. If we are used to Conservative and Reform rabbis threatening Israel with distancing to advance their (justifiable and reasonable) institutional and ideological objectives, what we get from Cherlow is the same rhetoric and the same goal – coming from an Orthodox rabbi.
This point is a little complicated, so bear with me: Progressive rabbis utilize an imaginary “distancing” because they don’t have any other way of moving Israel in the right direction, but to threaten – that’s how they ended up winning the Rotem Bill battle. Cherlow is using the already employed progressive threat of distancing, because he knows that the progressive are correct: The only way to make Israel change its bad religious habits is through threats. And so the real motivation for both parties is hidden behind this threat of distancing. Progressive rabbis want Israel to change not just to make it more acceptable to young American Jews – they want it changed because they believe in the inherent value of such a change. And Cherlow likewise doesn’t just want Israel to change because he wants it to be more acceptable to young American Jews – he wants it changed since he realizes that the current state of Israel’s religious-state affairs is damaging. It is damaging to the state, and to the religion (and once more I’ll ask you to remember: I’m taking the liberty of interpreting his position, and that’s an interpretation he might feel compelled to reject).