In a nondescript building in the heart of Jerusalem, Rabbi Joseph Carmel presides over 40 students who may hold a key to solving the rancorous “Who is a Jew” debate in Israel.
While the Orthodox chief rabbinate battles with the Reform and Conservative movements over conversions and who will perform them, and while the Knesset moves ahead with joint conversion institutes in the wake of the proposals of the Neeman Commission, Rabbi Carmel is training a new generation of open-minded religious judges who could be called upon to convert graduates of the joint institutes.
He’s been doing it for 10 years now, outside the glare of the media. Now, though, his Eretz Hemda yeshiva is emerging as an island of calm in a roiling sea, perhaps bridging the gap between the Orthodox rabbinate and the Israeli public.
“Our goal is to provide halachic solutions with compassion,” Rabbi Carmel explained during a recent visit to New York. “Any rabbi can say ‘no,’ but to say ‘yes,’ you need wide shoulders.”
Thick skin, too, he might have added, especially these days, considering the controversy swirling around conversion rituals and allowing non-Orthodox branches a role in the process.
Indeed, a key question regarding the future success of the Neeman Commission’s proposed joint conversion institute in Israel, which would include participation from the three streams, is whether the judges appointed by the rabbinical courts will be sympathetic in determining if conversion candidates should be accepted as Jews.
Rabbi Carmel, a tall, friendly, seventh-generation Israeli, says his are trained in the ways of modern society as well as the ancient laws of Torah and Talmud, and suggests that they would respond positively to sincere conversion candidates, regardless of their background. The yeshiva supports the efforts of the Neeman Commission.
A self-professed disciple of Hillel, the Talmudic rabbi who best exemplified moderation and compassion, Rabbi Carmel said Eretz Hemda teaches “the wisdom of common sense, and we look for young men who not only have knowledge but an open mind and wide horizons.”
Eretz Hemda is unique in that its rigorous seven-year post-ordination program preparing young rabbis to be dayanim, or religious judges, requires its students to have served in the army; value and possess secular knowledge; and do voluntary outreach work in the community. That is in addition to the demanding Talmudic curriculum, which requires up to 12 hours of daily study.
Rabbi Carmel acknowledged that his educational approach “goes against the stream” of Orthodoxy in Israel, which has become increasingly fundamentalist.
The chief rabbinate and its council appoint rabbinic judges, and most are haredi, or rigorously Orthodox. They tend to live an insulated life and very few serve in the army, attend university or have any meaningful contact with non-haredim.
Would the chief rabbinate appoint Eretz Hemda graduates to oversee conversions? The question remains open for now, but Rabbi Carmel is proud that his institution has a reputation for excellence even in the haredi world, and that its graduates have become leading dayanim on religious courts as well as chief rabbis of cities and yeshiva rabbis, despite its relatively modern philosophy.
“To be a true Torah scholar you have to know the sources, but that is not enough,” Rabbi Carmel said. “You have to know psychology and sociology and science. You have to be in touch with the world because it is God’s creation.”
As for countering haredi criticism, he added: “You have to be brave and know your sources,” and not be intimidated by “extremists.”
One way to expose Eretz Hemda students to Israeli society is through a tutorial program set up with Bet Hinuch, a secular public high school in Jerusalem. Eight young rabbis spend several hours each week leading study sessions with about 100 boys and girls who attend on a voluntary basis. This year the 10th- and 11th-graders are studying the Jewish family and a course called “Man, God and Time.”
Rabbi Carmel says the purpose is to teach the youngsters “our roots,” and he is adamant that there is no ulterior motive of trying to make the students Orthodox.
“I warned my rabbis that if one of the youngsters becomes a ba’al teshuvah [or newly observant], I will close the program,” he said.
The curriculum Eretz Hemda has created for these courses draws on a variety of sources, from Maimonides to Ben-Gurion, on a given issue.
Gideon Stachel, the principal of Bet Hinuch, said he is very pleased with the program and the rapport between the rabbis and the youngsters. “I feel that studying the Jewish oral tradition is an obligation, not an option,” he said, though he and the vast majority of the school’s 700 students are not observant. “It’s important for students to understand their heritage.”
Eretz Hemda also has evening study programs open to men and women, and provides halachic advice to rabbis around the world. For example, a rabbi asked whether he should exclude a nonpaying member from his synagogue.
“We showed him the sources and advised him to be careful about using force,” said Rabbi Carmel, who warns against creating a chilul Hashem, or desecration of God’s name.
He stresses that Jewish law is not black and white but open to many forms of interpretation. On the subject of conversions, he notes that while the Torah mentions ritual slaughter only once, it has 36 references to the ger, or stranger in your midst, suggesting the importance of treating him with care.
Referring to the approximately 200,000 Russians living in Israel who are not Jewish by any standards, Rabbi Carmel stresses the importance of treating them with dignity and a sense of kinship. “They live among us, their children go to school with our children and serve in the army with our children.”
Noting that when it comes time for marriage, there must be a way to accommodate these people, the rabbi said “We must find a halachic solution to open our doors wider so that they can become a part of us. That is one of our most important challenges as rabbis.”
He expressed confidence that this can be done gradually, and preferably without fanfare, over a period of years, by providing “more and comfortable places to learn about Judaism.
“If we give them a good menu,” he said, “they will want to eat. There is no other solution.”