Leon Sheleff's Contribution to the
Dialogue on Judaism in Israel
by Gabriel Ende
The contribution of Leon (Shaz) Sheleff to the public discussion of Jewish issues was a result of his social conscience, as well as his refusal to accept the arbitrary division of Jewish society into “dati” (Orthodox) and “hiloni” (secular) camps—a division which relegates all subjects even remotely impinging upon Jewish religion or tradition exclusively to the Orthodox domain. Sheleff viewed this arrangement not only as inimical to the largely unarticulated Jewish interests of the non-Orthodox majority. He also perceived it as nurturing destructive forces under the banner of Judaism—forces which thrived in the absence of a critique from humanistic circles that could also speak from Jewish sources and traditional sensibilities.
Critique of prevailing views
Shaz was incensed by the self-righteous attitude of the religious right, invoking divine authority for their political goals, but ignoring the command to “love the stranger”. He criticized the absence of religious sensitivity to burning social issues and to issues of human rights. He also criticized, however, the secularist doctrinaires for their refusal to consider the many positive influences that a non-alienated approach to Jewish expression could have upon Israeli society, without doing violence to democratic values.
Many of Sheleff’s views on these subjects are set forth in his Hebrew book, Asabim Shotim b’Gan Eden , translated into English as Weeds in the Garden of Eden . Though not a yeshiva-trained Jewish scholar, he felt fully competent to challenge traditional interpretations of Biblical texts, drawing upon insights from his many areas of academic endeavor.
Affiliation with Conservative Movement
Although colleagues in academic circles and the political left often found the strong Jewish concerns of this ostensibly “secular” Jew mystifying, Shaz was, in fact, a long-time member and activist in institutions of the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism. Many of his discussions of Jewish subjects were initially voiced in the sermons he delivered at Congregation Hod ve-Hadar in Kfar Saba.