Once every few months, the Beit Hillel rabbinical organization, which was established a little over a year ago, issues a religious ruling on an important subject. It has received many responses that range between encouragement and harsh criticism. Some are simply from people who are confused, who do not understand what the organization's purpose is or who question the innovation in religious rulings, such as the one allowing religious people to eat in secular people's homes even if the food is served in utensils previously used for non-kosher food.
In many cases, Beit Hillel does not issue an actual ruling, but rather a well-ordered position paper that lays out rulings that seem courageous to some but too lenient and compromising to others. Much of the criticism the organization receives has to do with the attempt to test the boundaries of religious law. There are many complaints of populism as well.
Beit Hillel is made up of a group of Orthodox rabbis (the better-known of whom include Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, a founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat; and Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a former Knesset member of Labor-Meimad), and includes women as equals among its leadership. The group of roughly 170 men and women rabbis states its views in the media, on its Facebook page and on YouTube as well, taking a moderate line on many issues that are on the Israeli agenda.
Some of the issues Beit Hillel deals with are prominent ones such as religion and state and religious-secular relations. Others, such as the position paper published this week about the reality television show "Big Brother," concern more marginal issues.
"These types of programs often legitimize moral weakness and unrestrained indulgence of baser impulses," the paper states. "These programs strengthen [moral] deficiencies and perversities that violate societal norms."
Beit Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth explains the origins of Beit Hillel.
"Israeli society is undergoing a Jewish renaissance. There's Jewish renewal, and the secular public is looking for a secular Jewish identity. The best indication of that is the results of the recent elections where mainstream parties such as Yesh Atid had religious representatives, and Habayit Hayehudi addressed the secular world," Neuwirth says.
"As Israeli society searches for connections, we've seen in recent years how the religious discourse is becoming more radical, for example, in the exclusion of women from the public space, exaggerated segregation of women, disobedience in the army, a hostile attitude toward the courts, rabbis' letters about expropriating Arabs' apartments, and so on. We also saw a turn toward radicalism in the discourse about issues of religion and state, so we felt we had an obligation and that our job was to take responsibility, show leadership and bring the moderate and attentive voice, which builds bridges rather than walls, back into Judaism.
"Particularly now, we oppose separatism. We're one society, and we all have a common vision. We need to look for how to make connections, how to create Jewish identity. We don't compromise when it comes to religious law. I'm very much in favor of religious and secular people spending as much time together as possible so they can connect. To do that, we give them a set of tools. I'm glad if religious and secular people have Shabbat meals together in the synagogue."
Neuwirth has a good reason for giving Shabbat meals as an example. One of Beit Hillel's religious rulings that had particularly strong reverberations dealt with just that subject. Beit Hillel officials were asked about a non-observant family member who wanted to attend a Shabbat meal but did not want to stay the entire Shabbat. Could he still be invited even though the hosts knew he would be driving to or from the meal?
The rabbis' convoluted answer put the need to draw people close at the top of the list of priorities.
"Shabbat is a basic mitzvah of the Torah, considered equivalent to all the mitzvot, and desecrating it is compared to idol worship," they wrote. "Experiencing Shabbat has a special power to draw Jews close to Jewish values ... This is where the indecision comes in. On the one hand, we want to allow every Jew to experience the special time that is Shabbat. On the other, our hearts are crushed: How can one experience the value of Shabbat while desecrating it?
"The best way to invite guests for Shabbat is to invite them for the whole Shabbat, from before it begins to after it ends. If the guest should decide not to come for the whole Shabbat, you may agree that he will come for only part of it in cases of drawing people close to Jewish values or domestic peace. In such a case, it is better that the guest arrive during Shabbat and leave while it is in progress than that he arrive during Shabbat ... In a case of great need, particularly where the fear exists of a rift in the family or a quarrel in the home, the hosts may agree to the guest arriving during Shabbat, relying upon the Halachic rulings that permit it."
In another issue that made some waves, the rabbis said that religious people could visit the homes of secular people and even eat on utensils that had been used for non-kosher food. In a long and well-sourced Halachic decision that sought to be lenient, the rabbis referred to a great many issues, including the heating of food and the kashrut of the utensils (disposable ones are preferred). The ruling contains leniency about eating fruits and vegetables, eating vegetables that might have worms, dairy products and so on in the home of a person who does not observe the dietary laws.
The rabbis even went so far as to slaughter sacred cows, such as the prohibition observed by Ashkenazim on eating pulses and legumes during Passover. Their ruling last Passover leaned toward leniency, particularly in a case where people who keep the prohibition are the guests of people who do not. They have also said there is no reason to be afraid of studying evolution.
But the rabbis' focus has mainly been on improving the status of women.
"In some synagogues, women are present but invisible," the rabbis wrote in a position paper. "They are hidden at the edges of the building, behind a sealed divider, so that they can neither see nor be seen. They are not partners in running the community, or they are partners only in areas that traditionally 'belong' to women, such as the kiddush after the service and child care during the service. The feeling is that the community belongs to the men, and women may enter only on condition that their presence is not felt. For all practical purposes, their status in the community is similar to that of small children."
The position paper included several practical suggestions for improving women's status, such as putting the women's section on the ground floor rather than upstairs and making sure that "from anywhere in the women's section it will be possible to see the Ark and the platform where the Torah is read."
The paper also says that the barrier between the men's and the women's sections "should fulfill its purpose according to the definitions set down in religious law. Still, efforts should be made to ensure that the women will feel they are partners in serving God and in community worship ... While the Torah is being read, the divider may be opened, allowing the women to participate fully in the study of Torah at that time."
As usually happens in arguments over points of religious law, Beit Hillel has its share of critics. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the highest-ranking rabbis of the religious Zionist movement, was the first to fire arrows. In a published essay, he wrote, "It is a popular style of Torah scholars to portray themselves as following the school of Beit Hillel, which is described as convenient, lenient, going along with life, attentive and attainable, as opposed to that of Beit Shammai, which is strict, makes life difficult and unrealistic, and so on. Students' groups all over the world have also adopted this way, as have Reform groups."
Aviner said the organization's choice of name, Beit Hillel, was triply offensive: toward other students of Torah, "as if they did not understand or try with all their might to help," toward Beit Shammai, and toward Beit Hillel, "as if he did not understand that sometimes reality is complicated and complex and there is a need to be stringent."
Criticism also came from other religious Zionist rabbis, such as Rabbi Zephaniah Drori, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Shmona and the dean of its hesder yeshiva. In an interview with Israel Hashavuah, he even compared the members of Beit Hillel to members of the Conservative movement.
"Searching for lenient opinions in all things is nothing new. The entire Conservative approach started that way. They debated the lenient opinions and found ones they could rely on. It's the same spirit," he said.
"I also protest their having chosen to call themselves Beit Hillel because even the school of Beit Hillel was strict. If only they accepted the way of Beit Hillel! This organization is neither Beit Hillel nor Beit Shammai. It's a different direction; it's the Conservative movement.
"From what I've heard, they have a few rulings that nobody permits. They invent dispensations, and that's worse than the Conservatives. They find ways to be lenient without proof. If they promise not to issue any rulings that contradict the opinions of the early decisors, only then will they be considered respectable. One of the most dangerous things on earth is the principle that 'the praise of God is in their throats, but a two-edged sword is in their hands.' Their speech is high and holy, but their hands are ready to destroy everything. That's inconceivable. We must be faithful to God's word, which is what's set down in the Talmud and in religious law."
The dean of a religious Zionist yeshiva told Israel Hashavua: "The problem is not the religious rulings. The problem is the context and the tone. If you know how to respect people who are stringent for various reasons, and you understand that you and he each have your own way and you need to let him follow his own beliefs, then that's fine. But if you come and say that this is Jewish law and this is the way it should be, and you criticize the rabbis for not being attentive enough, then that's condescension and ignorance.
"Rabbis aren't tested by their popularity. They're tested according to their reverence for God and the question of what takes precedence, the goal or religious law. There's nothing wrong with being lenient. There is a problem with the feeling that they are treating the Torah with contempt to justify contemporary culture. They're trying to be lenient because the secular people want that, not because they want to build up the Torah."
Just as there are some who agree with every word Beit Hillel says and others who are appalled with their religious rulings, some are searching for a middle ground. One example is the Chief Rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the son of the late chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu.
"There are boundaries in religious law," he says. "There are boundaries for leniencies and for stringencies, and a person must consider what's right for that particular time, whether to be lenient or stringent. The approach doesn't always have to be the same. If we use only the lenient method, or only the stringent one, that will not be the truth. To say, 'I'm always of the school of Beit Hillel, always lenient,' is misguided.
"We must always be true, connected to the truth. For example, if one asks whether it's permitted to make a wedding with separate seating or mixed seating, in principle the answer is that it's definitely better to have it with separate seating. But there are cases where you have to examine the matter and ask how much it might offend the family, the parents, the couple. Even my late father, of blessed memory, who was known as a stringent rabbi, used to say that it was a mitzvah to invite a secular person for Shabbat and have him arrive on Friday afternoon, and allow him to keep Shabbat in his own way."
About the complaints that Beit Hillel bends the religious rules, Neuwirth has this to say: "We don't bend the rules of Jewish religious law. There were always angles that went in either direction. There was always an argument between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Jewish law has a framework, but there is also room to move. We are within the framework of Jewish religious law, providing rulings that understand the public and its feelings."