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Monday 1 January 2007

Unworthy rabbis

We were wrong to entrust Judaism in hands of religious establishment

Moni Mordechai


12.28.06, 20:31

Over the weekend, the chief rabbis raised an outcry over what they characterized as a "severe mishap" that led to seven men and women being ordained as secular rabbis. The chief rabbis went out of their way and directed a letter to the attorney general, claiming that the move was illegal.

As we may recall, laws were drafted by people, just like Jewish law was written by human beings. The laws and religious regulations were aimed at creating a certain social order based on the drafters' worldview at the time. In the United States, for example, the amendments to the constitution are more important than the constitution itself.

As a Jew who belongs to the broad branch of Judaism and refuses to view religious practice as the only important thing, and as someone who views Judaism as an important cultural source, and who defines himself as a secular traditionalist, the word "rabbi" is a romantic one, possessing charm and power.

However, to my regret, today it is empty of meaning. I met very few truly relevant rabbis, who were leaders. In my mind rabbis are more closely associated with shady deals, religious enforcement, efforts to convince Jews to become religious, and racism.

An example of this can be found in news reports from recent weeks: Rabbis in Bnei Brak ruled that apartments must not be rented out to Arabs and foreign workers. At this time, ultra-Orthodox rabbis are trying to overpower El Al because if was forced to fly on the Shabbat and were able to defeat bus companies Dad and Egged, who ran an advertising campaign that included a bare male chest.

Leading religious-Zionist rabbis decided that in order to address the rift between religious Zionism and the rest of the people, all of us should be made to become religious.

Those are not my rabbis. In fact, no kippah-wearing rabbi can be referred to as my rabbi, not because the term is simply irrelevant for modern life, but rather, because most of those people hold on to a conservative, anti-democratic worldview that is sometimes racist and anti-humanitarian, all under the guide of kindness.

Charity more important than social justice

Gentlemen, chief rabbis, before you are quick to condemn a secular person who wishes to become a rabbi, please look in the mirror and reply to this: Have you ever ran a social project in poor neighborhoods? Have you ever acted for the sake of secular people, beyond the distribution of food to the needy? Has the Orthodox rabbinate contributed even one declaration in the past 60 years that touches on universal moral values?

Have the rabbis attempted to resolve, practically and not through a random prayer session, some kind of important social issue that the country is coping with? Foreign workers? Constitution? The Muslim world? Minimum wage? Unemployment? Ethnic rifts? Environmental issues? Purity of arms?

The answer is no. By definition, the rabbinical establishment is unable to deal with such issues. To start with, it adopts a hawkish attitude towards them. Maybe because it finds charity more important than social justice. Rabbis who dare to bravely address controversial issues are immediately ostracized and face a process of de-legitimization.

We always assumed that a person who boasts the title "rabbi" studied all his life, underwent a proper qualification process, and is able to address various issues beyond the world of Torah.

However, there is no transparency in the process of qualification to become a rabbi. Many carry this as an honorary title and those who underwent the process are no more qualified to serve as leader than those holding a Bachelor's degree from university.

The Orthodox rabbi of our age has not been a community leader for a long time now, and when the rabbi post becomes a job just like any other, there is no reason to entrust one guild with the monopoly over it.

We erred when we abandoned our Judaism in the hands of the religious establishment. Our leaders erred when they abandoned the Torah and allowed one branch to dictate our way of life based on a conservative, narrow interpretation.

The Torah was given to the people of Israel and not to the religious only, Judaism is a religion, and in the case of the State of Israel it's also a nationality. However, a huge gulf has emerged between the religious practices dictated to us in recent decades by our brothers the religious Orthodox and the wonderful Jewish culture. Therefore, we must take the reigns again.

The hope for this can be found in the Tmura institute, the local branch of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which organizes many voices and projects of schools for Jewish studies. Those can bring about the right balance of religion's status within society and to take away the monopoly from the Orthodox.

In a reality that features no leaders and where our religious and national community leaders appear to only worry about themselves, the chief rabbis should encourage accountability, responsibility and the assumption of leadership.

Yet they know they are unable to offer us anything, as the moment a competition would open, the large space they left in the public's heart would be exposed in the big sham called the Chief Rabbinate.

Moni Mordechai served as public relations advisor for the Tzohar forum of rabbis and for Rabbi Michael Melchior when he served in ministerial posts


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