Guest post by R. Yitzhak Ajzner
Rav Yitzhak Ajzner came on Aliya from Australia immediately after high school. He spent 10 years in education in Israel, in various positions ranging from a school principal to a teacher at the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’ale Adumim. He also served as a community rabbi for a few years. He currently works as a software engineer, and is a member of the Beit Midrash for Halacha of Beit Hillel.
A few weeks ago, I provided here background to the responsum Beit Hill released regarding inviting a non-Orthodox Jew for a Shabbat meal, when it is likely that the guest will desecrate Shabbat (link).
This post triggered many comments, bringing up a range of questions and issues, which reflected a need for further background and context, not necessarily to the particular responsum, but to Beit Hillel in general. What prompted the formation of Beit Hillel? What is the essence of Beit Hillel? Who are the members? What is it they are seeking to achieve and how do they do it?
In addition to providing an understanding of this new organization, rapidly becoming a major voice on the Israeli Modern-Orthodox scene, I believe that the full picture will give perspective to Beit Hillel’s Beit Midrash of Halacha, and the vast majority of queries raised will be implicitly answered.
In the Beginning
Beit Hillel was created in 2012, at a time of growing frustration and indeed embarrassment amongst many Modern-Orthodox Israelis, over the manner the National Religious sector was presenting itself publicly, and consequently the image Torah Judaism had obtained in the public sphere.
This was a time when a controversy over the sensitive issue of female soldiers singing at army assemblies was raging in Israel. As anybody who has served in the army knows, or indeed as anyone who has participated in the Israeli public workplace is aware, these kind of prickly issues, where there is a clash between Halacha and modern sensibilities, are nearly always solvable on a local level with a grain of quiet diplomacy, and a sprinkling of goodwill. It is in the religious sector’s general interest, in terms of its mission to sanctify Hashem’s name and bridge gaps, to emphasize our common legacies and mutual destinies with our non-observant brethren; rather than fan the coals of our differences and disagreements. Yet the voice of the National Religious camp, empowered by a scoop-hunting press, was dominated by voices which presented a black-and-white vision, expressing themselves in bellicose tones, seemingly oblivious of the effect of their words, coming out with instructions including that a religious soldier should choose death rather than hear a female soldier chant the Hatikva (yehareg, v’al ya’avor).
This was also a period when certain National Religious rabbis led a highly publicized movement to prohibit Arabs from renting apartments in Tzfat. While nobody in the religious camp wishes to ignore the prohibition of “Lo Tehanem”, many with a more nuanced approach, including R. Gil Student on this very blog, wondered why only the most extreme opinions on this mitzvah were being promoted, and being amplified with remarks of a racist tone.
One can discuss the merits and complexity of each issue; however the result of all this unnecessary confrontation was a 2-dimensional picture of Modern Torah leadership, arrogant, detached, oblivious of any positive moral sensibilities the modern era has introduced, and without regard for the nation in which we dwell. In short, Hillul Hashem was rampant.
Upon this background, many religious Zionists expressed their desire that other voices be heard, and called for an alternative leadership. It is in this context that I described the members of Beit Hillel, in the previous post, as “Rabbanim and Rabbaniyot … who share the ideology of an enlightened, inclusive Judaism, whose ‘ways are pleasant’; and are committed to presenting what they consider to be the genuine face of Judaism to the public, sophisticated, nuanced and sensitive to the needs of the era.”
Despite serious reservations over certain aspects of the Israeli public sphere, Beit Hillel presents its critique with humility and respect, and in a non-divisive, non-confrontational manner.
The Focus of Beit Hillel
At its foundation, Beit Hillel elected to emphasize 3 issues:
- Harmonizing Torah with Democracy
- Empowerment of the status of women within Halacha
- Education towards integration of Torah with general culture and modern civilization
Although Beit Hillel does not dedicate itself exclusively to these issues, they give an idea of the organizations major concerns.
The name Beit Hillel was chosen not because Halacha is according to Beit Hillel; nothing could be farther from the non- presumptuous nature of the members of the group. The name is a statement of aspiration to live by the values Hillel preached: to love peace, pursue peace, love ones brethren, and bring them close to Torah. The members also endeavor to live up to the reason the Talmud provides (Eruvin 13b) for why the Halacha was set like Beit Hillel: “They were amicable and unpretentious (nohin ve’aluvin), and they would study their own opinions as well as those of Beit Shammai; and not only that, but they would mention Beit Shammai’s positions before their own.”
The Members of Beit Hillel
The Rabbanim and Rabbaniyot of Beit Hillel represent a particularly impressive spread of Torah leaders from all over the country, in a wide range of educational and community positions. There are city rabbis, Rashei Yeshiva and Ramim, and no less importantly heads and leading teachers of midrashoth. There are also dozens of rabbis of Orthodox communities, kibbutuzim and settlements.
Beit Hillel is supported by a steadily growing group of influential laymen, many in key positions in academia, media and politics. The relationship is bi-directional. While the rabbinic body benefits from the resonance these people afford to its message, it also keenly seeks the laymen’s input to be sure the rabbis and rabbaniyot are always in touch with major public developments, and in tune with its more subtle aspects and nuances.
Beit Hillel Activities
Beit Hillel is a young organization, searching for ways to impact Israeli society. Religious, as well as non-religious Jews in Israel are thirsty for the teaching of Torah in a language they can identify with, and for Torah guidance. Beit Hillel, therefore, functions in a broad variety of spheres, utilizing every modern media available in order to reach as many people as possible.
Towards this end, Beit Hillel employs social-media experts to ensure their message is heard effectively. Beit Hillel partners with the internet site of the Ma’ariv news company, NRG, and provides Torah content in the form of videos and articles. Beit Hillel is particularly active in Facebook, currently with over 5000 followers; it has an online Facebook responsa service, the first of its kind, allowing questioners to interact with each other and the answering rabbi, forming an online beit midrash. Beit Hillel publicizes positions on public issues of moral concern, releasing them to the general media, its Facebook page, and internet site.
All issues are discussed internally, in an email forum, which includes all of Beit Hillel’s members, before the organization publishes stands, or takes action.
Beit Hillel makes trips of solidarity to places in Israel under duress, such as Sderot while being attacked, and to South Tel Aviv during the crisis with foreign workers.
Another important activity which typifies Beit Hillel’s uniqueness is its “Elu v’Elu”meetings (a pertinent allusion to “Beit Shamai’s” opinion, literally “both opinions represent the truth”), in which a delegation of Beit Hillel rabbis will meet with major rabbis of the National Religious sector who have reservations over Beit Hillel’s policy, such as Rabbanim Melamed and Aviner.
Beit Hillel also conducts conventions every few months to discuss pressing issues on the public agenda, and to explore ways they can assist to improve the status quo. Examples include the problems of get-refusal; and the situation of the hundreds of thousands of non-Jews in Israel from the former Soviet Union states, integrating into society, and the possibilities of conversion. These conventions are followed up by task teams that consider operational options, which are brought to the general email forum, for consideration and authorization, before being acted upon. An example of this process is Beit Hillel’s recently launched, high profile initiative, coordinated with major Poskim and Dayanim, and with explicit support from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Nahum Rabinovich, to encourage the use of halachically approved prenuptial agreements, to minimize the horrid predicament of women who are refused a get.
Beit Hillel also publishes digital newsletters and journals, which disseminate information about its activities and public stands, and present the conclusions of its “Batei Midrash”.
Beit Hillel has 2 Batei Midrash, one which concentrates on Halacha, the Beit Midrash HaHilchati, and the other on more abstract, educational/spiritual issues, the Beit Midrash HaRa’ayoni. In light of the democratic, transparent and collaborative manner Beit Hillel conducts all its business, it is only natural that these Batei Midrash should be open to all members, and all opinions are respected and considered.
The Beit Midrash HaHilchati, described in the previous post, is led by Rav Zev Weitman, the Rav of the Tnuva conglomerate, and former Rabbi of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. The forum usually includes 15-20 of the Beit Hillel Rabbanim and Rabaniyot, who work towards publicizing a responsum as explained in the previous post. Like all group discussions, each person brings different strengths to the table. While some participants stand out in their halakhic knowledge and experience, others bring their communal experience; all members offer valuable insights. For example, in the discussions concerning inviting non-religious Jews for Shabbat meals, some raised the severe impact on families of refraining from inviting non-religious children for Shabbatot and Hagim; while others focused on the role of Shabbat in “kiruv”, mentioning that if our shuls and homes are not open to the non-religious, there is almost no other way to bring Torah into their lives. Some mentioned the potential influence of the presence of non-religious people on observant families and communities; others offered the perspective of rabbis of yishuvim, where community life is different from cities.
After a draft is written by committee members with broad Halachic knowledge, and experience in Halachic decision making, it is reviewed and criticized by all. Some suggest that certain critical sources were omitted, and some question the value of including other sources; some members suggest improvements in style and presentation. The draft is then reviewed by all Beit Hillel members, and then shared with a (closed) email list of hundreds of prominent Religious Zionist rabbis, including poskim, dayyanim, rabanei arim, ramim and rashei yeshivot, representing the entire spectrum of Religious Zionism; to hear further insights and criticisms. The final draft is then printed in a newsletter distributed in shuls across Israel.
The participation of rabbaniyot, female Torah educators, is indispensable. Their knowledge and insights contribute significantly to the groups’ discussions and conclusions. Consider this anecdote, one of many, to illustrate the unique contribution of a female member, in a recent discussion of the issues facing an airplane traveler. After the (male) presenter listed the issues concerning crossing oceans, especially traversing the International Date Line; such as Sfirat Ha’omer, fast days, Shabbat and prayers, a rabbanit recommended he add to his list the issue of the seven days of purity.
As the output of the Beit Midrash is brought before the entire Beit Hillel membership, it represents the consensus of the entire forum. These responsa do not intend to compete with venerable Poskim. They are what they are: the opinions of approximately 170 Rabbanim and Rabaniyot, leading Torah educators and community rabbis, on vital and pressing issues of major public concern. If a person, even a rabbi, wants to know whether one can invite a non-Orthodox relative for a Shabbat meal, for example, he may find it helpful to know that Rashei Yeshiva, dozens of community rabbis, ramim and yes, also learned female educators have collectively sat in the tent of Torah, responsibly learnt the pertinent sources, discussed the familial and communal ramifications, and reached the conclusion that with certain conditions, it can and should be done.
As a practical consequence of the responsa regarding inviting a non-observant Jew for a Shabbat meal, and its warm reception by the media and general public, Beit Hillel plans an Israeli version of the highly successful “Shabbat Across America” project, in which religious families across the state will be encouraged to invite non-religious into their homes for a Shabbat meal, with the participation of high-profile public figures, both religious and non-religious.
In this post, I have attempted to provide the reader with sufficient background to understand the essence, aims, make-up and workings of Beit Hillel. One reader of my previous post expressed an interest in being a fly on the wall in Beit Hillel internal debates. I have strived to be that fly on the wall, explaining the thinking that motivated Beit Hillel’s founders; pointing out their focus, what typifies its members, how they work internally; and finally describing the variety of activities Beit Hillel is intensely engaged in, to implement its vision.
Beit Hillel has been very warmly received as a breath of fresh air by the Israeli public and media. If this post contributes to a further appreciation of its endeavors and secures a measure of moral support from our brethren around the world, that will be my reward.