Rabbi Rene Samuel Sirat, Europe’s chief rabbi emeritus, wasn’t pulling any punches. The 68-year-old former chief rabbi of France, who is Orthodox, used his recent visit to New York to assail the current state of Orthodox Judaism — particularly for its continuing mistreatment of women, the peace process, and “strangers” within its community.
Rabbi Sirat, a respected educator, also said that the Jewish community could learn a thing or two about repentance from the Catholic Church.
Some of Rabbi Sirat’s declarations were so bold that Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, an Orthodox rabbi who was asked to read the French-speaking Rabbi Sirat’s speech to an audience at Manhattan’s Sutton Place Synagogue, was clearly uncomfortable relaying them.
Rabbi Ehrenkranz, who as the director of the Center for Christian Jewish Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., had invited Rabbi Sirat to the New York meeting, even tried to “censor” the speech, attempting to skip over particularly provocative passages. That is, until he realized that Rabbi Sirat was standing behind him at the podium, monitoring the situation.
“I’m not sure I should read this,” Rabbi Ehrenkranz told the audience. “Rabbi Sirat has more courage than I do.”
What he was uncomfortable with was Rabbi Sirat’s blunt assessment of the failure of Orthodox rabbinic leaders to address broad issues facing the community.
Rabbi Sirat, a short, round man with a salt and pepper beard, came to New York to honor his countryman, Jean Marie Cardinal Lustiger, a convert from Judaism who has risen to the highest level in the Catholic Church.
Rabbi Sirat expressed pain over Pope John Paul II’s action earlier this month making Jewish-born Edith Stein a saint.
“The canonization of Edith Stein cannot be felt as anything other than an offense inflicted upon the survivors of the Shoah who remained faithful to the God of Israel during these hard times,” Rabbi Sirat stated.
But he also credited the Church, and his friend Cardinal Lustiger, for their steps toward repentance to the Jewish community for the European Church’s role during the Holocaust.
He said the Church could serve as an example to Orthodox rabbis who have failed to speak out against violent actions and rhetoric from within its own community.
“Who has muffled the voices of the rabbis, princes of peace?” he asked.
Regarding the Israeli peace process and the Rabin assassination, Rabbi Sirat made several charges against right-wing behavior.
“We heard the voice of a number of rabbis cursing the Oslo agreements and the voice of some politicians … who were acquainted with the plans of assassinating Prime Minister Rabin and took care not to denounce” the perpetrators.
In short order he assailed supporters of Brooklyn-born mass murderer Dr. Baruch Goldstein whom he called “incense bearers of the murderer of Hebron who built a mausoleum over his tomb.”
He denounced the students of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem who last June called for death to the Arabs in the presence of the Israeli prime minister, and their rabbis who failed to admonish them.
Rabbi Sirat bemoaned a recent incident in which two Israeli youngsters were accused of killing a Palestinian father of 12 and called it blasphemy that they were allowed to appear on television wrapped in tallitot.
“I do not think the authorities should have allowed such a perversion of this symbol.”
But Rabbi Sirat said his attempts to change the discourse have failed.
“In my speeches, with my pen, I have spoken modestly of peace, of fraternity and of love for one’s fellow humans. In France, I had almost no feedback to my words. Obviously peace speeches are not popular in these times.”
Rabbi Sirat spent considerable time calling for a change in Orthodox attitudes toward women, chiding rabbinic leaders for shutting women out of the synagogue and community decisions.
He asked why bat mitzvah ceremonies are not codified. He chided the recent Israeli court decision to relocate the Women of the Wall to an out of the way area.
“Did the chief rabbis climb up even once to the Ezrat Nashim, the mezzanine where our sisters are confined? Have these rabbis once prayed at the Kotel next to the ‘storehouse’ intended for women, who cannot hear anything, cannot see anything, and cannot take part in the office in any way?
“Old pictures from the time of Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, show the faithful, men and women, next to each other facing the wall. Have we become more ‘religious’ than our fathers and grandfathers?”
Rabbi Sirat, a self-described Zionist, also called for Israel to repent for its treatment of Palestinians and Arab citizens.
“The duty of the rabbis to make teshuva [repentance] toward the Palestinians remains. There is no holy war. Only peace is holy.” Yet he added pragmatically: “Peace cannot be unilateral. If your enemy wants your destruction, you must use all the means of defense at your disposal, even the death of the assailant.”
Rabbi Sirat called for the return of Israel to be a light unto the nations, and called for secular Jews to return to their religious heritage.
Decrying all ideologies of the left and right, which he said “will leave you in a state of utter confusion,” Rabbi Sirat declared: “Come back, study the Torah, even without practicing the mitzvot. In it you will find the answers to questions that assault you.”