“Communication means that we have to listen, not to come with the attitude that we know everything. There needs to be real dialogue.” – Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, leading scholar, educator and social activist.
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.
At the time, he was a rabbinic educator living in the Golan Heights. “I was enjoying my life,” he said in an interview with United with Israel (UWI). After Rabin’s assassination, however, “I understood that something critical happened and that we should get involved.”
Indeed, the entire episode of the murder of the Israeli prime minister, including the aftermath, highlighted the polarization in Israeli society between the so-called peace camp and those who opposed making a deal with the PLO.
“Therefore, I did three things,” Cherlow continued. “One, I moved to the center of the country – to Petah Tikvah – to be part of the core of Israeli society. Two, I understood the vital importance of connecting rabbinical work with ethics… I started studying, writing, arguing…and in time became somewhat of an expert. Three: I’m one of the five founders of Tzohar.”
(Tzohar, a national movement of 1,000 respected, moderate Zionist rabbis and women volunteers, is “leading the revolution for an ethical, inclusive and inspiring Jewish Israel,” as stated on the website. “Tzohar’s mission is to guarantee the Jewish future of the State of Israel.”)
Over time, Religious Zionists have become “much more connected to the mainstream population – not just in the communities of Judea and Samaria,” Cherlow explained. “They are no longer in a bubble. Tzohar is very active in this field. I do see improvement, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Cherlow also sees a change within the ultra-Orthodox community, “but in an unexpected way.” In his assessment, “the more liberal side of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society is becoming more and more Zionist. At the same time, many among the Religious Zionist are becoming stricter in their [religious] observance. The gaps are much narrower. It’s a process. But officially, as long as the haredi rabbis and scholars don’t recognize Religious Zionist rabbis, there’s a gap.”
Terrorism also plays a role in unifying the nation. “We’re becoming more united, more human. It’s a difficult situation, and there’s a lot of emotional reaction. On the other hand, there’s disagreement on how to respond.”
In December, for example, the Israeli Medical Association (IMA), at the behest of the left-wing Physicians for Human Rights, issued a highly controversial directive instructing medical teams arriving at the scene of a terror attack to treat the most severely wounded first, even if it means giving priority to the terrorist. “A doctor should administer treatment based only on medical decision,” Dr. Leonard Edelman, IMA president, stated.
Many doctors, politicians and others opposed this new directive, including Cherlow, who said it was a “grave mistake.”
Cherlow elaborated on the issue during the UWI interview. “I disagree with any principle that claims that this is the only principle. That’s extremism, and I’m against it. If an artist, for example, says the only thing he’s interested in is art and he doesn’t ask himself if it’s moral, that’s wrong. As for treating patients, I say you can’t say the only criteria is medical. It can’t be. You must consider other aspects, such as who’s the victim and who’s the murderer.”
Cherlow is also active in the Takana forum, which confronts sexual abuse in the Religious Zionist community. One of the biggest challenges, he explained, concerns situations where nothing illegal had transpired but where a respected authority abused his position for immoral purposes, causing pain to others.
Another major challenge Cherlow has faced “was to convince my colleagues that we 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.”
Cherlow is also passionate about organ donation, inspired by his sister, who at the age of 65 recently donated a kidney and saved a life. “I began speaking publicly about it after the fact, in order to encourage others,” he said. “Israel needs about 80 percent of cases of brain death, and then there’ll be no waiting lists. Today, it’s approximately 60 percent.”
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, while “gratified by being involved in ethical issues in Israel,” his main focus is his position as head of Yeshivat Amit-Orot Shaul in Raanana, a post-secondary institution, known as a yeshivat hesder, which combines dedication to Torah study with service in the IDF.
Cherlow and his wife Smadar, a professor of Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, have seven children and, he quipped, “14 and a half grandchildren, as far as I know.”