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Tuesday 5 June 2007

Re-think Israel's Chief Rabbinate

Re-think Israel's Chief Rabbinate

The Chief Rabbinate has had a 59-year monopoly on many aspects of the
religious life of the State of Israel. It controls marriages, divorces
and conversions to Judaism; it regulates public kashrut as well as
offering kosher supervision to private establishments.
It operates a network of rabbinic courts. It has a visible, public
platform for teaching the ideas and ideals of Judaism to Israeli
society, and for serving as a religious beacon of inspiration to world
One would think that after these 59 years, then, the Chief Rabbinate
would be one of the most beloved and revered institutions in Israeli
society. The rabbis have had daily opportunity to interact with all
Israelis - religious and otherwise - and to show them the beauty of
Judaism, the kindness of Torah, the pleasantness of the Orthodox message.
Yet, amazingly and tragically, the Chief Rabbinate seems to be one of
the least beloved and revered institutions in Israeli society. It has
little or no authority in the haredi community; it generates little or
no enthusiasm among religious Zionists; it is of little positive
significance to the remainder of Israelis.
Although the Chief Rabbinate and its many functionaries include some
fine, sincere and wonderful people, the overall image - and reality - of
the rabbinate appears to be negative.
IN THE field of kashrut, the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate is
disdained by the haredi community, which has set up its own kosher
supervision system (the Badatz). Apparently, the Badatz has achieved -
in many circles - a higher level of trust for its supervision than has
the Chief Rabbinate. Indeed, in all areas of Jewish law the haredi
community turns to its own authorities, and not to the Chief Rabbinate.
In the area of marriages, stories are legion of couples, especially
non-Orthodox ones, who have had unpleasant experiences with rabbinic
functionaries. The growing demand for civil marriage in Israel is an
indication of dissatisfaction with the rabbinic marriage bureaucracy.
In the area of divorce, the Chief Rabbinate has been notoriously
unsuccessful in addressing the aguna problem, allowing a situation to
fester where husbands refuse to grant a divorce unless they are paid
off. I myself have been involved in several cases where Israeli rabbis
have actually encouraged the husband to demand payment and various other
rights before granting a divorce.
The Chief Rabbinate finally felt compelled to convene a conference to
deal with the issue, but then cancelled it at the last moment -
apparently under pressure from haredi elements. It seems increasingly
clear that a solution to the aguna problem will not emerge from the
Chief Rabbinate, but will have to be found in the civil courts.
IN THE area of conversion, the Chief Rabbinate raises obstacles to
prevent non-Jews from entering the Jewish fold. It has adopted a haredi
position that conversion is available only to those agreeing to observe
Torah and mitzvot in full. This position is a radical break from the
Talmud, Rambam (Maimonides) and the Shulhan Aruch; it is capitulating to
an extreme haredi position that took root only in the 19th century.
The Chief Rabbinate not only enforces this position for the State of
Israel, but has now disqualified the conversions of Orthodox rabbis in
the Diaspora unless those rabbis are clearly under the rabbinate's
thumb. The Rabbinical Council of America has essentially bowed to the
authority of the Chief Rabbinate, since the latter has the power to
decide who is Jewish and who is not Jewish in the State of Israel. If
the Chief Rabbinate rejects the validity of a conversion - even if
performed entirely according to Halacha - the convert and his/her
children will face problems if they decide to move to Israel.
The Chief Rabbinate seems intent on demonstrating its "power," and on
showing that it can be as extreme as the haredim. How far has this
institution moved from the wise, compassionate and loving attitude of
the late Sephardi chief rabbi Benzion Uziel (who died in 1953)!
Rabbi Uziel well understood that the role of the rabbinate was not to
drive people away from Judaism, but to find every possible way of
bringing them into the fold for the sake of Jewish families and the
Jewish nation. When Israel was founded, Orthodox Jews placed much hope
in the Chief Rabbinate. They truly hoped that it would enhance the
Jewish nature of the state and win the hearts of Israel's citizens to a
deeper appreciation of the Torah traditions. Regrettably, these hopes
have not been fulfilled.
THE CHIEF Rabbinate functions as though it were leading a cult rather
than a world religion with a grand, universal message. It adopts extreme
haredi positions and attitudes because it seems to view the haredi
community as the only constituency that matters.
Should the State and people of Israel continue to grant power to this
sort of chief rabbinate? Shouldn't there, rather, be a complete review
of the rabbinate's role and functions, a top-level government commission
to evaluate its successes and failures, to recommend changes in policies
and procedures, to overhaul the rabbinic bureaucracy, to clarify the
rabbinate's mission - its responsibilities as well as its limitations?
Establishing such a commission will surely engender fierce opposition
and political infighting. Yet unless an impartial panel carries out a
serious evaluation of the Chief Rabbinate and makes necessary
recommendations, the damage to the State of Israel, to Judaism and to
the Jewish people will be immense.
All Israelis and all Jews have a stake in an honest, compassionate,
competent and courageous Chief Rabbinate, one that serves as a unifying
force. The sooner the rabbinate is reconstituted, the sooner will we be
able to say with a full heart: "For out of Zion comes forth the Torah,
and the word of God from Jerusalem."
The writer is senior rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic
Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City.


At 19 July 2007 at 17:59 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for speaking out so eloquently about this unfortunate, but correctable state of affairs.

At 19 June 2010 at 09:57 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!


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