"One of the most significant decisions I have made in my work is to focus on positive, rectifying educational activities," says Rabbi Baruch Efrati, head of the young religious Zionist rabbinical organization Derech Emunah (whose new book on Parshat Shavua, "Kri'ot Chadashot BaTorah" - thus far only in Hebrew - published by Sifriat Beit El), has just reached the bookstores, as we begin our conversation.
"During the last few years confrontational approaches, the kind that criticize and express virulent opposition, have been largely abandoned in,my field fo endeavor and constructive educational and rabbinical activities have taken their place.
"In my humble opinion, political and media noise have little effect on reality while educational and rabbinical activity, when genuine and coherent, makes its way into the heart and accomplishes true tikkun olam – that is, tikun olam under G-d's rule (as the Aleinu prayer says).
"Our Patriarch Abraham was a dissident in his birthplace of Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees), many of his protests justly aimed at his father's mistakes and those of King Nimrod. He stood on one side of the river bank opposite those erring souls on the other side of it, but once he arrived in Haran he began to concentrate on educational accomplishments and created a community rabbinate in his open and inviting tent. That is where, together with his wife, he succeeded in affecting many souls.
"I have chosen to complain less about evil and concentrate more on adding light to our environment, teaching our holy Torah, making decisions on the halakhic questions posed to me and on writing. To study and advance in Torah with the good people created by Hashem rather than talking about them. I hope that my new book will be another meaningful step in that direction, please G-d."
A7: Parallel to the change in focus, there seems to be a physical change in the Rabbi's appearance. Is there a connection?
"Maimonides, the Rambam, taught that a healthy body is part and parcel of a healthy soul. Several years ago, I lost a significant amount of weight. That is part of the process of a deeper realization of what life means.
"Five years ago during the month of Elul, when I was studying Rabbi Avraham HaCohen's book "Orot Hateshuva" as I do every year, I reviewed the first paragraph in the book which talks, among other things, about the natural, physical form of teshuva. I stopped there and mulled over what I had just read. I did not want to continue failing to do this kind of teshuva properly. I realized that physical teshuva was crucial for me, as part of the general teshuva of character. Since then, losing weight became part of my service of Hashem, an integral part of keeping mitzvoth instead of a personal effort, and results were quick to come.
"The relationship to our bodies has always been a value in halakha and faith. When you succeed in delaying gratification and putting effort into physical exercise over a long period, your spiritual world improves in similar fashion. You are less impulsive and therefore more respectful to those in the Beit Midrash with whom you have differences. The long term physical and spiritual effects are outstanding".
A7:Tell me about yourself
"I have chosen the path of faith"
"I was the eldest child of a religious Zionist family that lived in Ramat Gan," says the rabbi. "Today, I am 41 years old, married to Yehudit who is a Junior High School principal, and we are the patents of seven children. I am a congregational rabbi in Efrat, head of Derech Emunah and a halakhic decisor who is also a therapist. Both my parents, my father a Bar Ilan graduate and my moher an immigrant from Ireland, raised me to be dedicated to Torah and Zionism. I remember hearing my late grandfather learning Zohar in the room next to mine in the middle of the night and would awaken to his voice learning gemara while wearing his tefillin in the early morning hours. I continued that tradition."
"Both my grandfather and father were community rabbis, one in Ramat Gan and the other iin Givat Shmuel. I am much below their spiritual level – and pray that my actions will approach the level of theirs.
"My mother's mother fought in the underground Etzel movement from England, smuggling arms to the Jews in Israel. I was very close to her and she, too, encouraged a strong bond with Israel and Zionism.
"I went to school in Bnai Brak and then to Yeshivat Shaalvim's High School where my teacher, Rav Shmuel Ekstein z"l had a deep and lasting influence on my life. He 'walked before Hashem', was an inspirational educational and Torah model whom I looked up to immeasurably. At a relatively young age, I met the rabbi of Givat Shmuel, The Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Yoseph Singer, zts"l, one of the greatest figures of the Erlau Hassidic court, with whom I had a personal relationship and whose Torah I studied for years. Rabbi Singer was a wonderful rabbi, full of love for G-d and His creatures, a model of Torah study along with true humility.
A7: Where did your spiritual world attain its mature and meaningful level after high school?
"After Shaalvim, I spent one year in the Beit El Yeshiva and then went to the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem where I continued to study for several years after my marriage. My exposure, as a young man and then a kollel student, to the Gadol Hador and Chief Rabbi of Israel Maran Rabbi Avraham Shapira, zts"l made a lasting and deep impression. I would learn Torah from Rav Shapira, but he also taught me how to live my life, how to find joy in mitzvoth, in normalcy, hard work, and recognize my obligation towards those who passed the Torah on to us.
"I also found a soulmate in Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, shlita, may Hashem send him a complete recovery. I took part in his excellent lectures, and sharpened my outlook in them. He added another, mature level to my understanding the depth and seriousness of Torah.
"Several years later we moved to Chemdat in the Jordan Valley where I studied for the Chief Rabbinate's ordination examinations, while teaching in the pre-army Mechina there and in the Maale Ephraim hesder yeshiva. Four years after that, we moved to Efrat, and I began teaching at the Maoz pre-army Mechina in Lod. When I became congregational rabbi of the Zayit Raanan shul in Efrat, I soon realized that the post of a community rabbi needs a tremendous amount of input, and left the Lod Mechina with regret. Later on, when I was the Rosh Yeshiva of the hesder yeshiva in Efrat, I once again had to choose between the two positions because it was impossible to remain in them both and also be an involved parent and husband.
"My work as congregational rabbi was intensive, mostly dealing with young adults and marriage counseling. After seven years in a much-loved Ashkenazic congregaton, I felt that I needed a change in lifestyle and tempo and moved to a Sephardic congregation. The character of the community and reconnecting with my roots enabled me to find new and significant paths for serving Hashem. It all connects with balancing the desired with the attainable in hashkafa, and my wish to encourage positive processes rather than criticize what still needs improvement.
"There are times when I feel that the Sephardic approach is one of "progressing and trying," rather than one defined in terms of "good and bad." Both are vital to serving Hashem and I try to maintain both within me. Instead of differentiating sharply between good and evil, I prefer to concentrate on encouraging the good, adding more light and criticizing less. When I began to pray at the Sephardic congregation I did not expect to be the community's rabbi, but this happened naturally and with mutual affection. I am extremely happy with the situation, my service of G-d has been personally enhanced by it. I spend much time on halakhic decisions and am careful to consult with great rabbis on every new and serious issue, discussing the questions and awaiting their decisions, especially Rav Avigdor Neventsal and Rav Dov Lior Shlita. Until his passing, I would turn to Maran Chief Rabbi Rav Mordechai Eliyahu zts"l with difficult questions, and in our home we follow the fascinating halakhic method of Maran Chief Rabbi Rav Ovadia Yosef zts"l."
A7: Your name has been mentioned as a candidate for the Efrat Rabbinate. Is that an option?
"I love Efrat's residents with all my heart and soul, respect them and see the light they radiate much more brightly than any shadows. However, I am not interested in the position and there are others more suitable than I."
A7: In addition to leading the Sephardic congregation, what else is the Rav working on?
"I am educating my children to be G-d-fearing and working on my wife's and my enhanced service of Hashem as a couple. I am also busy with the Derech Emunah organization, teach at the Neta Sorek Yeshiva in Efrat, in the Great Synagogue and other Jerusalem study institutes, am a dayan in the Beit Din for financial issues, and a virtual congregational rabbi."
A7: Can you tell us about the Derech Emunah organization?
"Eight years ago, Rabbi Klonsky and Rabbi Shteiner Shlita (senior and well known Jerusalem rabbis who studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva) turned to me and requested that I accept the challenge of rebuilding the organization. The Derech Emunah rabbis feel it necessary to stress what should be understood by itself : Our obligation to the land and to the Jewish identity of our state, two goals for which we expended and still expend much effort. We have a close relationship with Rabbi Tzvi Tau Shlita and additional rabbis with Torah viewpoints.
"Our work is done for the sake of Heaven, with a common mission for Eretz Yisrael and the sanctification of Judaism in our state. We try not to be involved with what separates religious Zionist rabbis from one another, focusing instead on our shared values as those who love the land and its holiness. Most of our voluntary work is behind the scenes, strengthening the Chief Rabbinate and providing support discreetly to rabbis serving in the field who have to deal with complex issues of western cultural influence on heterogenic congregations. Baruch Hashem, there are now several other organizations with rabbinic backing which deal with strengthening Jewish identity, a development which is a blessing for the Jewish people"
A7:The Rabbi mentioned a virtual congregation. What is that?
"This refers to a congregation meeting via whatsapp and other state of the art social media and it is growing in members by leaps and bounds. Seven whatsapp groups, including men, women and young adults from all over the country, add up to over 1000 members. We have intense activity on Torah subjects – halakhic decisions for every facet of life, halakhic questions requiring in depth learning, answers to questions of faith, counseling for couples, for educating children and young people, publicizing Torah articles, lectures on zoom, family learning and more. The significant halakhic activity taking place in these groups means that every minute of my day is filled with the 'toil of Torah' thanks to the many questioners and I am grateful to Hashem for that."
A7: Doesn't it bother you that the same questions may be raised again and again in that kind of group?
"Hillel the Elder taught that we have to answer questions even if the answer to them is obvious, and from Shamai the Elder to greet everyone with a sunny countenance. The Rabbinate must show a pleasant and accepting welcome to every questioner. It takes a great deal of time every day but I feel that this is the reason I was created. In the past, people would come to the Rav's house with questions, and that is still the best thing to do, but most people ask by way of whatsapp and social media since it is readily available to them, and also because the questioners often belong to a larger group of people with the same Torah lifestyle as theirs and who can also read the question and answer."
A7: The Rav mentioned that he studied therapy. Why did he find that necessary?
"As part of my being a practicing Rabbi, I felt it was necessary to gain more expertise in the fields of personal and interpersonal relations and so I studied psychotherapy, marriage counseling and parental guidance. We founded an institute in Efrat for individuals, couples and parents, from all over the country. The meetings are rabbinic in nature and the issues imbued with sanctity, while the therapy is effected by means of professional tools.
"If a couple comes to consult with us about personal matters, the starting point will be the body and soul's service to G-d, while the tools for this service will be professional therapy whose light is Torah-sourced. And that is also the case when the questions concern personal or parental guidance. Professional knowledge is necessary in order to help with problems in marriage and parenting, which is why it was essential for me to acquire therapeutic tools. Before each meeting, I pray to Hashem for guidance in avoiding errors and in finding the right way to add peace to His world.
"There is a focus on youngsters in the rabbinic and educational fields today, including dealing with gender and related issues with which young people have to contend and about which they are often confused. My teacher and mentor Rav Avraham Shapira zts"l was known to say that young people are our main investment, they are the future of handing down the Torah (mesora). We started a whatsapp group for young adults only, and I give Torah lectures attuned especially for young people of different ages."
A7: This interview was conducted in honor of the publishing of the book "New readings in Torah" by Rav Efrati (Sifriat Chava publishers). Tell us about it.
"This new book was written at the initiative of students," says the rabbi, "who suggested that the various ideas in my talks in different venues over the years be gathered in one book. It is eclectic in style and content and even in its views of reality. The Torah thoughts it contains were expressed at different times for people of various ages, making for a colorful experience. The essence of the book is a new look at the Torah readings, Jewish holidays – and that includes Israel's holidays – from a viewpoint loyal to the sacredness of Torah and the words of our Sages. It is not a summary of ideas brought by our Sages, however, but a new and original look at the topics.
"The topics include a wide range of issues – integrity, wholeness, how to deal with today's culture, femininity and masculinity, loyalty to halakha, optimism, Torah Zionism, attitudes to general knowledge, courage and fear, educating children, mysticism, the culture of debate, modern anti-Semitism, messianism, the Temple and offerings in the modern world, greater Israel, humble truth, psychological balance, vegetarianism, relating to figures in the Tanach, to nature, aesthetics, Torah and science, media, the psychological and philosophic approaches of Freud, Mill, Hobbes, Nietszhe, Heideger and Locke versus the approach of our sacred Torah – and more. The subjects are woven into the weekly Torah readings which act as a springboard for these analyses.
"One of the dominant topics is the proper attitude of parents to offspring who have strayed from the path of religious observance. We delve into the educational credos of the great Tanach figures some of whose children did the same. We can observe how they continued to love their children, believed in them and in their strength to undertake the journey of faith, and reaped the fruits of this belief over the years. A parent's faith in a child who has left the way stems from belief in the Creator who put him in the role of father or mother to this soul and thus gave him the ability and merit to love him and believe in his power to reach the end of his own trek.
A7: Looking at the future, where do you see your path continuing to?
"I will try my best to be a mensch, that is the most important goal of all, to strengthen my fear of G-d with my wife and children. All the rest are simply consequences of those goals, depending on the situations Hashem puts before us. While this book is becoming known, I am compiling volumes of responsa to questions that have been put to me over the years. In addition, the virtual community is constantly growing, thank G-d, and I will be happy to see it grow to thousands of participants, so that Torah and sanctity increase among the People of Israel."
Interview conducted by Avner Shaki of A7 Hebrew site, translated by R. Sylvetsky