In His Image –An Interview with Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow (Hebrew wiki) thinks there is a need for developing greater sensitivity to the new social and economic issues not legislated by halakhah by turning to ethical literature (mussar) and non-legal rabbinic literature (aggadah). Under these new conditions, “social sensitivities become more significant… If we can only build on this sensitivity, we can create a more just world.”

As a statement of this need for greater awareness of the need for a religious Zionist humanism, he has recently issued a new book called In His Image: The Image of God in Man (Maggid Press, 2016). The blurb for the book exhorts us that  “at a time when religion is distorted to crush, belittle, and negate Man, when personal responsibility is replaced by passive faith, and human endeavor is deemed unworthy, This book “seeks to reinstate on of the fundamental truths of Judaism: the creation of Man in the image of God.” The book “explores the significance of Man’s divine image, and its radical halakhic, ethical, psychological, and existential implications.” Cherlow argues that “Judaism is based on the profound glorification of Man, his strengths and freedoms, rights and responsibilities. A manifesto of Jewish humanism.”

The book is a direct presentation of his moral vision in a volume that should be in every day school and synagogue. We have snippets of his views on society, marriage, interpersonal relations, and moral responsibility. The book is not philosophic or literary like the works of Jonathan Sacks, rather straightforward and geared for ordinary people. The interview below conveys the overarching message but without the dozens of presented cases of the book.

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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading Religious Zionist educator, ethicist and activist, was inspired to get involved in social causes following the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. After Rabin’s assassination, however, “I understood that something critical happened and that we should get involved.”

Cherlow thinks that rabbis “must communicate with society at large, not only our community. Communication means that we have to listen, not to come with the attitude that we know everything. There needs to be real dialogue.”

He was one of the founder of the rabbinic group Tzohar. Cherlow is also active in the Takana forum, which confronts sexual abuse in the Religious Zionist community. Cherlow is passionate about organ donation, inspired by his sister, who at the age of 65 recently donated a kidney and saved a life.

He is active in various aspects of contemporary ethics of media, medical, war, social concerns and economics. He composed a prayer for the welfare of the people of Syria and suggested that Israel take in Syrian refugees. Cherlow has argues for workers’ rights and a living wage for workers. He invokes the Biblical story of Sodom as showing a value for today, in that, some “insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city.” He is also for saving the environment. For him the failure to protect the environment “exposes a society driven by consumerism and greed.”

Born in 1957 to parents who made Aliyah in 1949 from Massachusetts, Cherlow was raised in Herzliya Pituach, north of Tel Aviv. He served as a major in the Reserves and studied at Merkaz Harav and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Rabbi Cherlow is head of Yeshivat Orot Shaul in Raanana, founded in 2013- a successor to his prior yeshiva in Petach Tikvah- a yeshivat hesder, which combines Torah study with service in the IDF. The Yeshiva combines traditional, in-depth study of Gemara and commentaries with an emphasis on discovering the relevance of the Gemara to the personal life of the student, ethics and social responsibility.  This focus, along with classes in Tanach, Jewish Philosophy and Chassidut, and an environment that encourages personal expression, exploration and creativity allows each student to identify his own path in divine service.

(As a side note, a senior Talmud instructor at a major elite Jerusalem high school recently said to me that the overwhelming majority of the students were planning on attending one of three hesder programs: those that wanted modern Orthodoxy chose Rabbi Cherlow’s Orot Shaul, those wanting intense learning chose Yerucham, and those who wanted spirituality and experience choose Tekoa).

This work is direct and conveys an ethical message and it is geared for English speakers. But for those interested in the depth and development of Cherlow’s thought, I recommend his first two books. His first book VeErastikh li Leolam (1994 reprinted 2003), his first book asks: what is the religious image of a person in a time of national rebirth?  And, since there is a wide gap between the modern age and traditional reality- what is the nature of this gap? How do we explain the changes to ourselves?  Cherlow asks the same question as Ramhal (R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, 1707-1747), “what does God wants from us?” But for Cherlow, Ramhal’s 18th century answer and our answer cannot, and must not, be the same. We no longer reside in a world where we live for the world to come

His second book Torat Eretz Israel leOr Mishnat Harieiah  (Yeshivat Hagolan 1997) seeks to define a renewed Torah of the land of Israel (Torat Eretz Yisroel) for the new era. Specifically, how do we balance the concern for the current age with the eternity of the Torah?

In that work, Cherlow gives his four basic ideals of Torah study. (1)Prophetic Torah study is found in the Kuzari’s prophetic Judaism, and Raavad’s claim to have holy spirit (ruah hakodesh) in the beit medrash. When Rav Kook called for the renewal of prophecy, he did not mean actual prophecy but a prophecy method through listening to the inner call, and illuminations of the soul. New visions do not mean innovations but to remove the partitions and blinders of the exile.

(2) Torah study needs to include all human faculties – imagination, desire, feelings, volition-  to brings together the complexities of a person. The goal of Torah study is to become a different type of person, one who is complete and all-inclusive. Cherlow advocates the cultivation of spontaneous intuitions or revelations- to integrate more intuition, than logic. In an intuitive approach, we need to know that we never have certainty about Torah since the infinite source of Torah is never grasped. And thereby, the most important lesson is that one needs to accept that Torah is entirely estimations, even the secrets of Torah are only approximation not absolutes.

(3) Torah has inner meaning, as Bahye ibn Pakudah taught that we need duties of the heart and not just of the limbs. This inner meaning includes reasons for commandments, ethical demands and inner states. Therefore, the study of Torah needs to include Tanakh, Jewish thought, and Kabbalah, to include the duties of the heart.

(4) We have to acknowledge that we currently live in an age of age of national renewal and that must change the way we study Torah. At the destruction of the temple, Torah became confined to the four cubits of halakhah (Berakhot 8), but at this time of national renewal Torah needs to be about expansion.

This current work In His Image:The Image of God in Man (Maggid, 2016) written twenty years after his first book now presents the basic ideas of a seasoned rabbi who gives over his straight message for his listeners. The work is based on the Hebrew edition but has been significantly reworked and rewritten for the English edition.

At the same time that Rabbi Cherlow published this book, Rabbi Yehuda Brandes the current head of Mechon Hertzog College at Har-Etzion published a similar but complimentary work that covers many of the same issues called  Human Rights: The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation. I discussed the work here and interviewed Rabbi Brandes here.

This book In his Image, however, is marred by a very poor translation from someone who knows English words but not usage or syntax. For example, the Hebrew phrase was “Ha-ideologiah shel Torat Eretz Yisrael” was rendered as ” The Torah of Israel’s ideology.”  We discussed the work in a study circle at my home and the group found many passages of fractured structure. Maggid Press, who also publishes Jonathan Sacks and Adin Steinsaltz, should have done a better job.

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  1. What is the Image of God?

No expression is more wondrous than Image of God (tzelem Elohim). There is something frightening about telling ourselves that we are created in the image of God. This becomes even more complicated because we believe that God has no body or image. Moreover, we know our weaknesses and faults and to describe ourselves as created in the image of God seems presumptuous and arrogant.

Nevertheless, by saying Image of God we assert that we believe that God created us with special strengths, with a role to protect and develop the Divine creation and manage it according to moral and religious norms. The main similarity between us and the Almighty is the deep faith that we have free choice and are able to both distinguish between good and bad, wrong and right, as well as choose good and reject that which is bad. This is one of the most profound human qualities, which characterizes the singular uniqueness of man. Integrity serves as the compass for our conducting ourselves in the world.

The assertion that we are created in the image of God guides us to examine whether the deed we want to do is tuned to moral principles and is not just a function of base, primitive interests. Technology deals with the question of what we are capable of doing. Ethics deals with what we should do.

2) How is Orthodox Judaism abandoning the Image of God?

An integral component of the valued image of the religious person is self-submission, a sense of lowliness, and the constant reminder of man’s weaknesses. All these are deeply rooted in the entire Torah literature. Already in the Bible (Tanach) we find Abraham stating “I am but dust and ashes”, King David stating “I am a worm and not a man”; the 13th century Letter of Nahmanides (Iggeret HaRamban) commands one to constantly live in a sense of humility and personal wretchedness. That is all true and one should be aware of one’s faults, weaknesses, deficient status within creation etc.

The problem is that attention is given solely to these aspects creating a very jarring disregard of the other aspects of the human person who is worthy in the eyes of God. Abraham, for example, indeed claimed that he was “dust and ashes”. Yet, he made moral claims, even against God; he led war maneuvers against the four kings and his identity is as a man striving for justice and law; King David was a king – he led battles and wars, moral stances, ethical discussions with God etc. In all these, Jewish leaders realized the full scope of their inherent image of God (tzelem Elohim), through courage, wisdom, strength, creation, greatness and creativity.

The problem is not with self-submission, but that other important aspects of the human persona are ignored. When a movement is created within us that also exalts the image of man, that has faith in his ethical and intellectual worlds, that believes it is just as significant to develop his physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities – an entire world of creativity, empowerment, heightened spirit and mainly a sanctification of God’s name, will be opened up to Torah and Halacha adherents.

3) Why is the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the American Constitution important to the Torah world?

Torah is the contact point of man and God’s word. Therefore, it is fascinating to examine what happens when an evil, corrupt, egocentric and aggressive person comes into contact with the Torah. Often, the Torah is able to change his character, refine it and bring it closer to the Master of the Universe and to the complete figure of man. However, frequently, the opposite happens, and the meeting with God and his Torah actually makes one an even worse person, more evil, his faith intensifying his negative qualities. The Sages were very much aware of this and stated that Torah can become the elixir of death and not just that of life. In our times, we know of many movements that carry the name of God, but flood the world with murder, wickedness and cruelty. This informs us of the great danger that lurks for all.

History teaches us that ideological movements risk having their ideologies dazzle them, blinding them to the rights of people and to the image of God intrinsic to them. Therefore, it is critical to protect human rights as well as the basic foundation of man’s dignity and existence.

The Torah itself commands us to do so. It teaches us, from the start, that all people were created in God’s image (b’tzelem); it demands that the entire world be moral, and expresses it in the Seven Noahide Laws; and mainly – it orders us, as part of the commandment to remember the Exodus, to remember that we were slaves, and for that reason we must form an alliance of solidarity with the exploited all over the world. This already appears in the reason given for the commandment of Shabbat, in the Ten Commandments.

Thus, the UN Declaration of Human Rights fits in well with this movement. It stands to reason that were we ourselves to articulate it – there would have been differences, in light of Judaism’s special perception of man and God’s image within him. However, its very existence is an integral part of striving for a more moral world, and one, it follows, that goes more in the path of God.

4) Is there dialogue between Torah and Reality?

Dialogue is constant. By the very fact that the Written Law (Torah she’bichtav) takes place within history, within the real and human world, we learn that this dialogue has been happening all along. Sometimes it is a dialogue of opposition (fighting idolatry); sometimes it is one of partnership (Yitro), but it does take place.

This dialogue continues throughout the entire history of Oral law (Torah she’be’al pe). Can one observe the Jewish greats during the Spanish Diaspora without noticing the dialogue they had with Aristotle, Plato, Sufi Islam etc.? Is it possible to not see the dialogue in our times between the world that surrounds us and Judaism, in all of its shades, including that which wishes to isolate itself and claim that it is not engaged in such dialogue?

Of course, there are different levels of dialogue. I strongly believe that dialogue should be entered bearing a stable, significant backbone, and believing that Torah has a special message for the world in which we live; I believe that one has to be extremely careful about dialogues in which the discourse takes place on a purely “politically correct” level, and in which honest, sincere messages are not said; I believe that care has to be taken to not lose the unique Torah-true, Jewish identity. Nevertheless, such dialogue does take place, whether one wishes and aims for it or not, and whether one is interested in it or not.

5) What is the role of moral sensitivity in Torah?

The greatest articulator of the necessity of engaging with morality was Nahmanides, who taught that a person can formally observe all the Torah commandments and still remain a scoundrel (naval birshut ha’Torah). This possibility exists due to the fact that no legal system – of whatever kind – is able to define morality and introduce it into a carefully-formulated normative system. One’s ethical behavior is based, first and foremost, on one’s “ethical intelligence”, and that is the most fundamental basis for one’s moral character.

I encounter this daily, given the two hats that I wear. The first, central one – the rabbinic hat – acquaints me, not infrequently, with people who are strictly observant about every clause in the Shulchan Aruch, but are basically corrupt people. For example, they do not view the value of decency as a basis for any kind of consideration, believing that if something is not halachically forbidden – then it is both moral and ethical. The Sages were already aware of this, when they revealed to us the behavior of Noach’s peers, who, they maintained, would steal only less than a a penny’s worth (shve pruta)i.e., a steady theft of a sum of money that is under the radar of Halacha. Formally – they observed the law; however, they were corrupt.

I also wear a second hat. I specialize in ethics and serve on different types of ethical committees in Israel, from the Supreme Helsinki Committee for Genetic Medical experiments on humans and other bio-ethical committees, to being a member of the presidium of the Israel Press Council, and lately even published a book that compiles short online answers in these matters. In the ethical world, I clearly differentiate between those who only wish to keep the letter of the law and those whose behavior aims for moral values, which are the basis for proper human behavior.

An example that just recently became public in Israel: It turns out that government and bank officials, entrusted with realizing and selling the assets of defaulting borrowers, purchased these very houses themselves, at very low prices. There is no law that prohibits this, but this is a corrupt thing to do!

Not to mention sexual abuse perpetrated by religious officials, which was also not forbidden by law (since it involved two adults, between which there was no authority-based relationship) and which, shamefully, took place. This is the reason I was among the founders of the Takana Forum (http://takana.org.il/hebrew/) that dealt with it. Lately, the law has been changed in Israel, but naturally, that, too, does not solve all problems.

6) How do we live with duality in the world and ourselves?

Truthfully, I don’t see any other way. I don’t know of a one-dimensional option. The world God created is so complex and contains so many, varied truths. It contains lovingkindness and judgment, man and woman, Israel and the nations, holiness and secularity, body and spirit and countless other components. How, then, can one think of monolithic reality?

The declaration, Shema Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Echad, contradicts idolatry. In the idolatrous world, every power had a god of its own and one could choose one of the gods and surrender himself to it. We believe in one God, who is the God of the entire world, and the source of the different ideas that exist in the world. We are not permitted to choose one of them, and neglect the one that contrasts it. Consequently, dualism is the only option. There are, of course, different forms of dualism: power struggles, checks and balances, partnership, dialectic movement from one end to the other and many more possibilities. Yet, every attempt to place belief into one, single framework and to present one single idea – is a type of modern idolatry, which totally contradicts the Jewish world.

7) How should we avoid other-worldly forces that reject our role in the world?

The Torah teaches that we operate within the world. Although we believe in miracles, and sometimes even expect them, that is not the political policy that is accepted in Judaism, and in the words of Ramban, “for the Torah will not rely in all of its paths on miracles.” Hence, we are required to build an army, political systems, economic frameworks, a world of medicine etc. in order to operate in the proper manners (derech eretz) of the Torah.

In contrast, the spiritual world of complete trust (bitachon), is presented by the Hazon Ish in his book Emunah U’Bitachon (Faith and Trust).

However, we have no contract with God and He did not promise us that things will be good. We must, as mentioned, operate in the world in the fashion in which the world operates. What we get from the quality of bitachon (trust) is the awareness that everything is possible, and even when it seems that all is lost, we remember that the Master of the Universe is the leader of the world and He has the ability to determine how things turn out. Therefore, we do not despair even in difficult hours and deal with hardships out of deep faith in God.

8) How do we give greater attention to physical pleasures yet balance faith and the physical life?

Note that we don’t find even one place in the Torah that negates the body, its pleasures and human satisfaction. The Torah describes the beauty of our holy fathers, their wealth and power, and views all these as very positive elements. And it deals with them in no small measure. The Torah perceives man as a coherent figure and not as one who is constantly struggling between his physical and spiritual self. At the same time, it does not refrain from warning of the dangers to which physical pleasure can lead. The Torah is not fearful. It teaches us to accept all the good there is in the world and to strive for it, but not to be addicted to it, to be connected to that which is good in an appropriate way and to always remember that there are more important things beyond it.

We, too, have to conduct ourselves this way. To see all the good that exists in the world as something with which we have a connection, and which merits contact, and which makes our life in this world more pleasurable. At the same time, we must constantly remember that it is a part of the overall picture. For that reason, we must not make it the single foundation of our life. There are also laws that pertain to the many physical aspects: Kashrut laws that apply to the gastronomical pleasure; Hilchot Arayot that deal with sexual connections; Dinei Mamonot that deal with wealth etc. It is, obviously, important to remember that some of the commandments pertaining to pleasure obligate us to look after others, and not to consider ourselves alone.

9) How do we work toward equality, universalism and ecology?

First, we have to internalize the fact that these values are deeply rooted in Torah. There is no total identity between these values and Torah (for example, the Torah often mentions “You shall have one manner of law”, which emphasizes equality, but at the same time, it contains many mitzvot which distinguish between Israel and the nations), yet, there are many parallels. For that reason, we must cooperate with all who advance these foundations.

We need to include ecology in our Halachic considerations – for example, pesticides make it possible to eat leafy greens without bugs, but they are very harmful to health and the environment; the commandment of settling the Land of Israel, which also considers the importance of wild animals and open spaces (I am a director in The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which is the largest ecological  body in Israel) etc.. We must develop unique legislation regarding refugees, which takes into account both the capabilities of the State of Israel and our obligation to prevent assimilation in Israel itself, but is also influenced by the commandment to remember our Exodus from Egypt, which requires us to remember what was done to us and be careful to not do the same to others etc. etc. I believe that it is precisely this deep and complex approach which must guide the State of Israel and not extreme approaches in either direction.

 10) How should we relate to the Holocaust and the State of Israel as part of world events?

Two movements must grow from the Holocaust that greatly strengthen each other.

The first movement is one for the resilience of the State of Israel and for turning it into the safest place in the world for Jews. The scar etched in us by the Holocaust obligates us to never fully rely on anybody in the world, and to maintain a political and national entity in which we defend ourselves. I wish to emphasize that I don’t mean an isolated state, but one which engages the world, in the manner that enlightened countries do. However, its primal basis is the concern the safety of its citizens and the safety of the Jewish people the world over. It is very important to greatly strengthen the State of Israel and to be careful about taking risks, that if turn out to be failures – will bring about great destruction to the existential foundation of the Jewish people.

The second movement is the realization that we must partner with the entire world in fortifying those elements that fight against the very possibility of repeating the Holocaust. First and foremost, this should be done by promoting a world in which human rights, individual freedom, human dignity and life, are the fundamental principle that underlies any government. But that is not enough. There is a need to cultivate free media, accessible to everyone, which thereby does not enable processes to take place in the dark; opposition must be cultivated everywhere too, so that there is never excess power accumulated in one place; we need to be participate in international solidarity wherever wrongdoing is perpetrated on ethnic groups etc.

The Torah itself teaches us about the great dangers that are innate to power. In Parashat Hamelech it instructs us that danger lurks for the king, among other things, of “his heart be(ing) lifted above his brethren” (Deuteronomy 17, 20), meaning that the power he yields will corrupt his responsibility for the fate of his citizens. It is important to emphasize: The Torah did not say that due to these dangers there should be no kingdom. Much importance is attributed to power and strength, manifested in a stable, strong rule. Simultaneously, the Torah did not ignore the great risks present in monarchy, and for that reason it ordered the restriction of the power of dominion, in various ways. In Biblical times, this restriction was expressed differently than it is today, but this restriction is vital.

Moreover, the Torah does not grant the king exclusive reign. In the Torah’s set of laws, there are additional public functions – the kohen (priest), the judge and the prophet – and we did not learn the principle of separation of powers from Montesquieu, but from the existence of additional ruling bodies. As viewed by the Torah, even today we need institutions which limit the ruling power, and until we return to the days of prophecy and priesthood, it is very important to us that there be “substitutions” for these institutions.

 

 

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