As dissatisfaction with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate intensifies, the American Jewish Committee is heading up an unprecedented effort to form a broad coalition, here and in Israel, to limit, if not end, the rabbis’ authority.
At a meeting convened and hosted by AJC on Jan. 21, more than 30 representatives of U.S. and Israeli organizations ranging from Reform to liberal Orthodox approved the draft of a mission statement calling for creating “a broad-based initiative to advocate for religious freedom and equality, notably with respect to personal-status issues, as a means of strengthening Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state that enhances its ties with global Jewry.”
The group also agreed that its immediate objective was to “organize a coalition of Israeli and American Jewish organizations and individuals that would mobilize support to create recognized alternatives to the exclusive control of the Chief Rabbinate over personal-status issues, notably marriage, divorce and conversions to Judaism.”
Beneath the polite surface, those are fighting words. And they indicate an effort to end a monopoly as old as the state.
Some participants advocated doing away with the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate) or having its heads elected by the Israeli public. Others urged caution in pushing too hard, and suggested calling for more popular proposals like civil marriage, which would in effect limit the reach of the chief rabbis.
It took the diverse group several hours to hammer out the two brief statements, not so much because they disagreed on the message — indeed there was virtual unanimity on that — but rather due to the care given to choosing the right words. The lengthy group exercise, which participants referred to several times as “wordsmithing,” was critical, given the delicate, high-stakes attempt to challenge an arm of the Israeli government — the Rabbanut —without being unduly offensive or harming the overall image of the Jewish state.
But it was clear from the day-long discussion around a large conference table that participants were deeply disappointed, though not surprised, by the Rabbanut’s continuing move to the right, despite the election of two new chief rabbis this summer to 10-year terms.
They are Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef. Both are the haredi sons of former chief rabbis.
Despite remarks the two men made during and after the heated election campaign about reaching out to make all Jews feel welcome, there is little evidence of any such attempt. To the contrary, they have acknowledged in recent days that they have no systematic approach to determine which Orthodox diaspora rabbis are credible in attesting to the Jewishness of constituents seeking to marry in Israel.
That fact came out during the recent fiasco over the status of Rabbi Avi Weiss and other North American Orthodox rabbis.
After Rabbi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, was deemed unacceptable to the Rabbanut, the public backlash from the likes of Natan Sharansky and other respected leaders here and in Israel, resulted in the Rabbanut rescinding its decision. Most recently, it appears to have reached an agreement with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in the world, to accept as credible any of the RCA members’ testimony regarding the Jewishness of couples seeking to marry in Israel. (The Rabbanut has yet to confirm this.)
Still, that does not address the larger issues at stake. Those around the table agreed that their move to alter the status quo regarding the power of the Rabbanut speaks to the very question of what it means to be a Jewish state, and how it functions in effecting the religious status and lives of all Jews.
The fact that the Rabbi Weiss incident focused on the status of Orthodox rabbis (and showed the fissures within that community) underscored the reality that the majority of rabbis in the diaspora, who are Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, have never been and are not now on the Rabbanut’s radar.
Non-Orthodox rabbis have no official status in Israel and cannot perform marriages or divorces.
Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi in Israel and president and CEO of Hiddush, which advocates for religious freedom and equality in the Jewish state, told the group at AJC that the Rabbi Weiss case “should be a model for us.” He said the international publicity underscored the lack of a coherent policy by the Rabbanut and proved to be an embarrassment to the Jerusalem government.
Among the groups represented besides AJC were the Israel Democracy Institute, ITIM (an Israeli organization that helps people navigate the bureaucracy of the Rabbanut), National Council of Jewish Women, New Israel Fund, Israel Policy Forum, JOFA (the Orthodox feminist alliance), UJA-Federation of New York, the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements and the leaders of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which calls itself Open Orthodox. (Most representatives present said they would need to report back to their organizations for official permission to endorse the statements.)
One mainstream Modern Orthodox rabbi who was unable to attend due to the weather said the next day that he faults the Rabbanut “for bringing this on themselves” through their “roughshod” actions that show little empathy “for Clal Yisrael [the Jewish people].”
He said he is “not ready to take a stand” in signing on to the mission statement, in part out of concern about the many people he has converted over the years. He explained that he was worried about jeopardizing their status should the Rabbanut react in a punitive way toward his criticism.
“I don’t know the answer” to what should be done about the Rabbanut, the rabbi said, “but they have alienated so many people, from Reform to Orthodox, that they have no one but themselves to blame” for efforts like the AJC group’s to limit their powers.
The Modern Orthodox rabbi said he believes “the silent majority” of RCA members shares his views on this issue, but that “a vocal minority makes it very difficult to function in a fair and responsible way.”
Dov Zakheim, who chairs the AJC’s Jewish life commission and who ran the meeting in the military style to which he is accustomed as a former comptroller of the Pentagon, was characteristically blunt in explaining why officials of the RCA were not invited to the meeting.
“They’re a bunch of cowards,” he said, adding that their officials’ presence at past AJC meetings on the issue of the Chief Rabbinate was decidedly unhelpful.
Much of the day’s discussion focused on tactics and strategy about how to galvanize Jews in Israel and North America to challenge the Rabbanut. All the participants agreed that the issue was complicated, not only because the Rabbanut is a government institution but also because of the societal differences between Israeli and American Jewry.
For example, several people noted that American Jews, most of whom are liberal in religious terms, would be drawn to support positive calls for religious freedom and equality in the Jewish state. But many Israelis have grown inured to the discriminatory policies of the Rabbanut on matters of personal status. The point was made that both Israeli and American Jewish leaders may well be persuaded by the argument that these matters have an impact on the very security of Israel.
According to this reasoning, since Washington and Jerusalem enjoy a special relationship, with American Jewry playing a critical role in terms of support for the Jewish state, any weakening within American Jewry of affiliation with Israel could in turn diminish the U.S.-Israel bonds.
The prospect of an increasingly assimilated American Jewish population, with growing numbers of people having negative feelings about Israel over matters of religious exclusion, could have lasting consequences that carry over to political and strategic spheres.
By day’s end, participants expressed satisfaction, and even surprise, that they had come up with a draft of a mission statement and agreed that their efforts need to be continued and greatly expanded.
Steven Bayme, national director of the contemporary Jewish life department of AJC, played a pivotal role in bringing the various constituencies together. After the meeting he said he was pleased with the broad range of participants and their willingness to work together. “We now have ‘a coalition of the willing’ ready to act to alter the status quo” in Israel, he said.
Another AJC official who attended said he was proud of the organization’s role in convening the meeting and promoting the cause. He said he is hopeful AJC will in the next few weeks decide to help fund and staff the effort and work in tandem with a similar coalition in Israel.