What is the larger purpose of a rabbi in society? Are rabbis only concerned with the kashrut of pots and pans, or does the kashrut of business practices also matter? Must a rabbi tend to a broken heart and soul as much as he tends to a broken Eruv before Shabbat? Is he a caretaker of prayers and rituals alone, or does he also care about social issues? Does he see halakha exclusively in the realm of the kitchen, mikvah and synagogue, or does he also find halakhic expression in economic issues such as the high cost of living and fair prices for housing? Does the rabbi deal with sensitive social issues such as drug abuse and domestic violence? These are the burning topics in Beit Midrash Shaarei Uziel.

This past week, the rabbis in the Beit Midrash at our SEC Jerusalem Campus engaged in a variety of intriguing studies and activities. Here are some highlights…

A Conference on Economics and Halakha
The rabbis attended a special conference at Machon Keter (The Keter Institute) in Jerusalem, on “Economics and Halakha.” Attending this conference is in keeping with the words of Rav Uziel (Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, after whom we named the program), who said: “Jewish Law always dealt with public affairs and questions that dealt with wages and taxes, government tax policies, distribution of wealth and matters of social welfare.” Exposing our rabbis to such a conference that deals directly with the interface between economics and Jewish law is one of the core values of our Beit Midrash. In addition to the enlightening lectures, the rabbis were pleased to meet an alumnus from last year’s class of Shaarei Uziel, who said that his decision to come to this conference was born out of what he studied in our Beit Midrash last year.

Rationalism: The Classic Sephardic Approach to Studying the Bible
Rabbi Yitzhak Chouraqui, our brilliant Rosh Beit Midrash (Head of the Program) taught the rabbis how to read and interpret the Torah in a rationalist approach. One of today’s major problems is the simplistic approaches taken by many rabbis in interpreting and explaining the depth and meaning of the Torah. These simplistic, literal approaches often lead to extremist religious positions, on the one hand, and alienation of many others who find these approaches silly and illogical. Rav Choraqui’s class focused on the approach taken by our classic Sephardic commentators such as Abraham Ibn Ezra — the rationalist approach — which brings the Torah’s teachings in touch with one’s rational intellect, thus allowing for one to incorporate the Torah’s teachings into his/her own life in a sensible fashion.

All Study and No Work? Not the True Path of the Torah
Rabbi Chouraqui also taught a session on the Torah and Talmud’s emphasis on the mandate to combine Torah study with a profession, because it is impossible to sustain a community on Torah study alone. This, of course, raised an interesting and at times heated discussion, as many rabbis and communities in Israel today do not uphold this principle, and indeed a lifestyle contrary to it. Rav Choraqui brought to the table a string of classic rabbinic sources that all point directly to combining work and Torah, strengthening the Beit Midrash’s position as one that encourages the blend of tradition and spirituality with a practical lifestyle.

The Rabbi’s Roundtable: Economic Issues & Conflict Resolution in Impoverished Communities
This week’s discussion was lead by Rabbi Hanan Afilalo, one of the fellows of our Beit Midrash, who serves in his rabbinic profession as a Dayan (rabbinical judge) in a Beit Din (rabbinical court) for monetary issues. Rabbi Afilalo shared the many challenges of dealing with economic issues in the rabbinate, especially because his communities are largely the periphery communities in Israel’s development towns. Riddled with poverty and crime, these communities present the rabbi with complex and often dangerous challenges, including confronting members of the criminal underworld. Rabbi Afilalo discussed whether it was actually possible for a rabbi in his position to effect change in these communities, and he shared what he felt was one of his most important roles: conflict resolution in economic matters between families and business partners. All of this, of course, through the lenses of halakha (Jewish law).

Maimonides: The Ultimate Sephardic Voice
Rabbi Moshe Amar, a first-rate research scholar and regular lecturer in our Beit Midrash, taught a session on the halakhic methodology and philosophy of Maimonides. Needless to say, the Maimonidean approach is the classic Sephardic approach par excellence, and stands at the center and core of our Beit Midrash’s teachings. This reflects our desire to bring this generation of Jews a Judaism that is presentable and in sync with the modern world.

Practical Rabbinics: Leadership in a Community
Rabbi David Zenou, the Menahel Beit Midrash (Manager of the Program), also serves as the head rabbi of a Moshav in Southern Israel. As a professional leader of a community, Rav Zenou comes with a world of practical experiences in the rabbinate, and shares with our rabbis the many challenges of being a rabbi in today’s world. This week, Rav Zenou lead a workshop on the sensitive subject of the rabbi making changes in a community, and how delicate this can be. The rabbi often walks the balancing act of being an agent of change, and at the same time pleasing those who want to preserve things just as they are. Rav Zenou’s workshop present all sorts of real-life scenarios, making this an engaging and practical learning experience for our rabbis.

Quite a week it was. Stay tuned for another report soon from this unique Beit Midrash that brings to light the practical, tolerant and relevant teachings of our classic Sephardic sages to today’s world of leaders. Together with our partners Kol Yisrael Haverim, the SEC is proud to be training and educating a new generation of enlightened rabbinic leaders.

Shabbat Shalom