For Open Minds, Allies Are Everywhere

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 15, 2010, issue of September 24, 2010.
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Edible fowl everywhere were breathing easier this Yom Kippur, after a leading Israeli rabbi called on sinners to atone this year by donating to the poor rather than twirling a chicken over their heads and then slaughtering it. Ritual chicken-twirling, known as kapparot or kappores, is merely a tradition or minhag, said the rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Beit El. By contrast, cruelty to animals is forbidden by divine commandment or mitzvah. It shouldn’t be hard to do the math and follow the right course of action.

Granted, this might seem like an arcane squabble among the benighted if you don’t happen to believe in divine commandments and you’re not a chicken. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye, and it’s worth a second look.

To begin with, Rabbi Aviner has been taking a fair amount of heat for his statement, which should tell you right away that something is up. Many of his critics claim he has no business questioning an ancient custom ordained by generations of sages. Others attack him for cooperating with the Israeli Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which solicited his opinion and released it on video. Religious conservatives tend to regard the SPCA as treif because it takes the wrong side in the never-ending war between the animal kingdom and the kosher deli counter. In other words, it’s bad enough that Aviner is talking like a liberal, but consorting with liberals is a step too far.

Aviner is used to taking this kind of heat, as I noted in a blog post last November. He was nearly excommunicated in 2005 for telling soldiers not to mutiny when ordered to evacuate settlements in Gaza. In the summer of 2009 he raised rabbinic eyebrows when he told his students that dinosaurs seem to be a scientific fact, implying that the world is more than 5,770 years old. This past February he went way out on a limb with a ruling in favor of organ donation, on grounds that the mitzvah of saving a life overrides the rules of kosher burial.

Yet it’s also true that Aviner is a firebrand of the settler movement. The yeshiva he founded and heads, Ateret Cohanim, pioneered the practice of creating Jewish enclaves in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. It was his students who took over St. John’s Hospice in the Old City in 1989, outraging Christians and sparking an international incident. In 2004 he brought busloads of students to protest the dismantling of an illegal outpost, Migron, in what became a pitched battle between settlers and troops.

My point? Simply that a person like Shlomo Aviner can be your ally in some causes and your opponent in others. This sounds obvious, but it isn’t. We tend, all of us, to get so caught up in whatever good fight we’re fighting that the person we’re arguing with ceases to be someone we disagree with and becomes a blood enemy. Aviner is a good example. He should be embraced by progressives for his positions on science, medicine and democratic rule. Those are important fights, and every voice is needed. But he’s a champion of settlements, and for some people that ends any discussion before it can begin.

It’s also true that his Orthodox critics do the same thing to animal rights advocates, who have important things to say about Jewish ethics but don’t get a hearing from those who should be most interested. We all play the same games.

The settlements debate is a biggie, however. The passions around it tend to obscure many possible points of connection. It so happens that settler rabbis are among the most important voices in Israeli Orthodoxy for religious tolerance, women’s rights, medical progress and lots more. Their schools teach science and civics. They lead the fight for liberalizing conversion to Judaism. Their philosophy, religious Zionism, a form of Modern Orthodoxy, insists on grappling with history rather than hiding from it. That’s why they embrace science and social change. It’s also why they embrace military conquest. To them, all God’s works are sacred. Including, for most, Palestinian life. Some of us just don’t notice.

One of the giants of the settler rabbinate, Rabbi Haim Druckman of Kiryat Arba, heads the special conversion court system set up two decades ago in a compromise with American Jewish liberals. He’s the guy whose conversions are being annulled en masse by Haredi rabbis for being too lenient. He’s a vital ally on a very important issue. He’s also a major opponent on another crucial issue. Life is complicated.

And then there’s the Haredi rabbinate, which puts women in the back of the bus, curses gays and rejects archaeology. They don’t much buy into this life-is-change stuff. They won’t believe the Jewish state is sacred until the Messiah comes and says so. For that reason, most of them don’t particularly care who rules the West Bank. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the revered, potty-mouthed spiritual leader of the Shas party, has said repeatedly that territories may be conceded if it will forestall wars and save lives. That’s an important thing to know. Does anybody listen?

Actually, yes. Orthodox rabbis, Haredi and Zionist alike, listen quite attentively. They fight with each other about women’s rights, scientific inquiry and territorial compromise because they notice what’s going on outside their yeshivas. And, as noted, once they take a stand they often end up agreeing with liberals, albeit in their own ways. For better or worse, they know what we’re talking about. Liberals would do everyone a service if we returned the favor.

Sure, one could simply stand one’s ground, raise the flag of pure reason and try to hold back the night, so to speak. On the other hand, 52% of Jewish first-graders in Israel this fall are enrolled in Orthodox schools. Do the math.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at and follow his blog at

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