Rav Ariel: Mending Rifts in an Age of Conflict

By Tali Ausubel
On March 6, 2012

On February 13 Rav Yaakov Ariel, the Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan and one of the leading rabbis of the religious Zionist movement, delivered an empowering speech to the women of SCW, entitled "Politics in the Public Sphere: The Intersection Between Faith and Policy in Israel." The lecture and subsequent Q&A session were moderated by Rabbi Yosef Blau, SCW's Senior Mashgiach Ruchani. Ariel addressed an array of issues facing the current Israeli political spectrum at the moment, ranging from dati leumi/haredirelations, women's role in religion and in the state, and the importance ofaliyah.

Though the event was "coordinated and advertised rather last minute, the turnout exceeded our expectations," said Rachel Benaim, SCW '13, the co-president of TAC's Torah Scholarship Lecture Series (TSLS), which helped bring Ariel to SCW. "The fact that it was in Hebrew didn't even deter people from coming," she noted.

Ariel did, in fact, address the crowd in Hebrew; however, for those less confident in their linguistic skills, Natalie Taylor, director of the CJF's Women's Leadership Initiative sat at the computer and manually transcribed and translated Ariel's lecture onto a projector screen. "I was excited about the presentation being in Hebrew," commented Estie Hirt, SCW '13. "It gave me confidence that I am able to understand complex, current issues in the language most relevant." 

Rav Yaakov Ariel is as hard-core Israeli as they come – he was born and raised in Jerusalem, and spent time studying in Mercaz Harav as a prevalent student of Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook. Ariel later served as Rosh Yeshiva in the abandoned Israeli settlement of Yamit, in the Sinai Desert, until 1982. He is currently the Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, just outside Tel Aviv, and the head of Rabbanei Tzohar, an organization that addresses the "desperate need to unify Israel's fragmented society," according to its website. While there is controversy surrounding Tzohar, its programs, stances, and activism deserve recognition, and so Rav Yaakov Ariel addressed them briefly at the end of his lecture.

Ariel explained some of the key events and outreach programs run by Tzohar. For example, every Shavuot night, thousands of non-Orthodox and Orthodox join together to learn Torah all night. Tzohar wants to expand this program to more cities throughout Israel. On Yom Kippur, they set up minyanim for the non-religious in many kibbutzim and areas where there is little connection to halakha. There are Tzohar Rabbis who help to explain to different people in the Knesset what halakha says about various issues. They train Rabbis,to whom non-Orthodox individuals can relate to perform marriage ceremonies.

One of the most pertinent issues Rav Ariel discussed was the place of women in the right-wing Orthodox Jewish sphere. In light of the recent protests about women being asked to sit on the back of certain buses in Israel and the incident with Naama Margolese, the young girl in Bet Shemesh who was spit at because of her supposed immodest dress, the topic was timely and sensitive. "His speech made me value the precious role women play in Israeli society," commented Tova Joseph, SCW '13, who left the speech feeling "invigorated and uplifted."

Not all students, however, felt that Rav Ariel presented the issues effectively. Penina Cohen, SCW '14, who attended the speech, said, "While Rav Ariel spoke about many great ideals it is important for women to have, the line between the practical and the ideal remained confusing. I would have appreciated if he spent more time addressing how the ideal he presented plays out in the practical roles of women in the Orthodox world today."

"Rav Ariel made very good and important points," said Elana Raskas, SCW '13, "but I felt that he was preaching to the choir. He was telling over the benefits of Modern Orthodoxy and women's involvement to a group of proud, Modern Orthodox women." While it is always good to have one's convictions re-affirmed, Raskas felt Rav Ariel's speech was lacking fresh, dynamic content – a new perspective.

 While his comments about the place of Orthodox women is today's society were greeted by mixed reviews, his strong message about making aliyah left students excited and optimistic. Yehudit Goldberg recounted enthusiastically, "It was amazing to see someone who is so aware of all the issues in Israel who, and who is in fact intimately involved with all these issues, still coming and encouraging all of us to make aliyah. For those of us who have felt concerned after reading recent headlines, it gave the dream new energy." "I was having doubts about making aliyah, but Rav Ariel's speech helped to reaffirm that goal for me," said Benaim.

While Rav Ariel acknowledged that it is far easier to make a living in America, he emphatically referred to living in Israel as "the real thing." In Israel, he maintained, a Jew is building up his own land. Additionally, he argued, nearly everything found in America can be found in Israel today (down to the very cereal brands). He also cited benefits in childhood Jewish education. Raising children in Israel eliminates the need for translation from Hebrew to English, enabling children to read and relate directly to the ancient texts, without any barriers. Students seemed to deeply identify with this last argument, recalling the many grueling and often seemingly futile hours spent in Hebrew classes.

Ariel's focal message, though, was the ability to be an observant Jew while still living in the modern world. His points mirrored many of Yeshiva's core principles. While many view Judaism as an archaic practice, Ariel passionately presented the relevance of our tradition in a modern world. Rather than shy away from problems and differences, Ariel encourages dialogue and cooperation. His actions speak for him, as he works tirelessly to bridge the gaps and mend the rifts that threaten to tear the Jewish community apart. Modernity's interaction with tradition, and the necessity to re-infuse the Jewish world with love, unity, understanding, and respect, stand as unequivocal messages of importance and tenor.

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