The Populist Rabbi

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Yitro 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Many hold that in our world, which suffers from media overload, all aspects of life must be managed by those who are popular, the populists, the politically correct, etc., and if someone conducts himself with innocent integrity he will just make a mess of things.

This has resulted in the creation of a popular/populist Rabbi, who believes that only by doing what the people want can he bring them closer to our Father in Heaven.

Nonetheless, the populist Rabbi does not like being labeled as such, for the connotation is that he has low self-esteem, and that he therefore positions himself at the representative center.

Following are the characteristics of the populist Rabbi. Obviously, one populism is not the same as the next. All the same, we can distinguish several general characteristics that apply, more or less, in most cases.

1. Enlists support and admiration amongst a broad spectrum of the public, especially the secular and the liberal religious.

2. Gains this support by emphasizing frustration, adapting prejudices against certain Jewish laws, and promising overnight miracle solutions.

3. Emphasizes and focuses upon topics that are dear to the hearts of those populations, such as: democracy, academics and the status of women, and shows lenience regarding conversion, sexual modesty, and other matters

4. Wages a stubborn battle against Charedi Rabbis who possess political power due to their spiritual greatness or their genius in Jewish law, and seeks constantly to undermine them by sabotaging that power.

5. At the same time, makes selective use of isolated, lenient Charedi rulings, fleshing out those rulings, extending them and establishing them as representative examples.

6. Systematically blames Torah scholars, and the whole Charedi public, for numerous troubles in society and presents themselves as the bearers of light for the generation.

7. Repeatedly presents Torah scholars as extremists, far removed and cut off from the public, who distance the public from the Torah, while they themselves have a monopoly on the mainstream approach, and are connected to, friendly with and in touch with the people. By such means they claim glory for themselves at the cost of shaming others.

8. Renders moral messages shallow, glossing over them with their personal charisma. These Rabbis are not like Moshe, who testified about his own speech impediments. See Maran Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Cohain Kook’s letter in this regard to his son, Rabbenu Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah in his youth.

9. Attempts to bring secular Jews closer to religion and liberal Jews to Torah by issuing less-demanding rulings. They gauge their rulings by asking themselves: Will the public be pleased when less demanding rulings are issued?

10. Without openly taking a stand against Halachah, but having learned Torah and speaking in the Torah’s name, avails himself of three magic formulas to neutralize Jewish laws that people find inconvenient.

11. ruse #1:  claiming  irrelevance. The Talmud and Rambam are not always relevant to our life circumstances. Rav Kook and the Chief Rabbinate are irrelevant.

If they lived in our midst, they would not say what they said then. Moreover, The Chief Rabbinate, itself, is no longer relevant. It goes without saying that the rulings of most Torah scholars and Torah luminaries, especially those who  are Charedi, are irrelevant since those authorities are accused of being cut off from the people. The Torah, originally considered the truth, is henceforth to be violated, the way a vow may be annulled. Such an approach jeopardizes the whole eternity of Torah.

It's like the story of the wagon driver who refused to obey the Rabbi’s ruling obligating him to pay for damage caused when he slipped on the ice. "The Torah was given in the summer” he argued, “Had it been given in the winter, it would exempt me."

12. The realm that merits the most sweeping stamp of "irrelevance" is the laws of sexual modesty, most of which disturb both the secular and liberal religious. This includes branding as irrelevant our Sages’ dictum that "there is no guardian against unchastity" (Ketubot 13b).

13. ruse #2: misusing our Sages’ ruling "Better they should err in ignorance than brazenly” (Beitza 30a). To their mind, this requires our contradicting or neutralizing anything that will be the least bit displeasing to the secular or half/third/quarter of religious Jews. This frees them from the heavy responsibility of giving rebuke, it crowns public opinion as a major factor in determining Jewish law, and renders the populist Rabbi a captive of the media.

14. ruse #3: spiritual pragmatism. If something is important, but not easy for the public to accept, then better not to teach it than to drive the “straddlers” to the side of the secular/Reform side or alienate the secular. That is: there are laws we do not teach because we need a Torah that one can communicate with and attach oneself to. The facts on the ground determine the “Truth” that is conveyed.

15. Due to this, the populist Rabbi is considered by great Torah scholars like a driver who drives on the white line and even commonly crosses over it. The populist Rabbi unrelentingly seeks to receive the legitimacy of the great Torah luminaries -- and he does not succeed. Yet since those great luminaries relate to him with love and brotherhood and peace and friendship, he very often interprets that position as agreement.

16. And in conclusion, his external appearance is that of "just plain folks". He dresses in a non-Rabbinic fashion, has a small yarmulke, and sometimes no beard, and if he has a beard, it is small and carefully trimmed. And he certainly does not have a beard like that of Ha-Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, which was not symmetric, but was longer on one side than the other.


Our Father our King, for the sake of Your Great Name, and for the sake of our ancestors who trusted in You, and to whom You taught the living Torah so that they might fulfill your wishes wholeheartedly, so shall You have mercy on us and teach us as well.