My favorite night of the year has always been the night of Shavuot, when I go from hill to hill of the seven hills of my beloved city of Efrat, giving Torah study class after Torah study class until the early-morning daybreak service.
During my nocturnal walk I am constantly greeted by groups of Efratites of all ages – men, women and children – walking to the classes of their choice; often they excitedly stop me with a question engendered by a previous lecture.
On this one magical night of the year all of Efrat becomes miraculously transformed into one large and glorious beit midrash (House of Study), whose majestic message pulsates with the words of the Psalmist, “Arise and exultantly sing the song of Torah into the nightâ€¦.”
This year, however was different. Instead of joyous songs, I heard jarring sobs. Instead of the Torah scrolls in the arks and the Torah books on the shelves dancing with rapture and rejoicing, they reeled with dismay and disappointment. The very letters of black fire were weeping, the very parchment of white fire was wilting.
Yes, this Shavuot night, my beloved Torah was crying. YOU SEE, my Torah has always rejoiced with song because “its paths are paths of pleasantness and all of its highways lead to peace.” The Torah is the expression and will of the Divine Presence, who is a “God of unconditional and freely-given love, of compassion, long-suffering patience, truth and cleansing purity.”
My Torah especially rejoices with song on Shavuot, when we read the Book of Ruth, the scroll of lovingkindness, the story of a forlorn and forsaken Moabite widow who is lovingly accepted into the Jewish homeland, faith and community as a righteous proselyte. Her loneliness is transformed into domestic peace and security in Efrat in the loving arms of a noble and proud son of Judah.
The lovingkindness of Boaz and Ruth toward each other as a couple – as well as toward Naomi – merit their being the grandparents of King David, the eventual redeemer of Israel and the world. The world will be rebuilt and redeemed only through the lovingkindness of a Torah and a nation which embraced the Moabitess Ruth as one of their own and provided a suffering widow with love and family.
WHAT HAS happened to our Torah of late? An entirely different narrative is being written, the very antithesis of the love and compassion of the Scroll of Ruth. My Torah has been stolen away, hijacked, by false and misguided interpreters. My Torah is crying because of rabbinical court judges who have forgotten that the major message of the Exodus from Egypt is for us to love the stranger and the proselyte.
They have forgotten the 11 prohibitions against insensitive words and actions toward converts – and the talmudic stricture that we are not to be too overbearing or exacting toward a would-be proselyte (Yebamot 47). They have forgotten Maimonides’s ruling that even regarding a convert who merely went to the mikve (and became circumcised if male) – even if the conversion was for a personal romantic or venal reason, and even if the convert has returned to former idolatrous ways – he or she remains Jewish (albeit a Jewish renegade); her or his religious marriage remains intact, and lost objects must be restored to him or her. (Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relationships 13,14).
MY TORAH is crying because these judges have, in the name of Torah, disrupted and possibly destroyed hundreds if not thousands of families of converts, whose children and even children’s children were brought up and accepted as Jews – only now to learn that their forbears’ conversions have been retroactively nullified.
My Torah is crying because these judges have, in the name of Torah, disgraced and reviled an outstanding rabbinical leader, Rabbi Haim Druckman, a scholar who has dedicated his entire life to the Torah of Israel, the people of Israel and the land of Israel, and allowed an atmosphere to develop in which his name and personage have been dragged through the mud. They have forgotten that “an elder scholar must be treated with precious graciousness” and that “Torah scholars must advance peace in the world.”
MY TORAH is crying because these same judges have made it impossible for countless women to find happiness in marriage; because they have caused wives to live as captive women to unscrupulous husbands who hold them up for ransom in the name of “purity of Israel.” They forget the talmudic directive that “to free a grass widow, our sages invoked many leniencies.” They forget the plea of the Maharsha at the conclusion of Tractate Yevamot: “God must grant courage to rabbinical judges so that God may bless lonely and suffering women with the peace that comes from domestic tranquility.”
My Torah is crying because this Torah of peace and compassion has been perverted and hijacked by judges who, despite their erudition, have failed to learn the lesson of the Scroll of Ruth, failed to internalize the purpose for which Torah was given to the world.
And so the tears of converts and would-be converts, the tears of grass widows and women who are anxiously, frantically and hopelessly waiting for rabbinical courts to obligate their intransigent husbands to grant them their freedom merge with the tears of the Torah itself.
These tears of the Torah and outsiders looking in at “pure Israel” are preventing the redemption, a redemption which can come only on the basis of lovingkindness to the “other” – stranger and convert, widow and grass widow, those who are chained and long to be free.
Our Torah is crying because she is, tragically, now in chains.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.