An election takes place in the coming year in Israel that will have an impact on the life of every Jew in the world. And unlike the Jan. 22 vote to determine the next Knesset and prime minister, this one comes only once a decade.
Unfortunately, few know or care about how the two chief rabbis (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) of Israel are selected, and few are aware of the potential influence these rabbis have on each of our lives. The next election, slated to be held in six months, will be determined by a committee of approximately 150 Israelis, about half of whom are rabbis and half holding political positions. Most of these men —they are all male — are haredi (or ultra-Orthodox). That means they do not recognize the authority of the chief rabbis they will be choosing, and many don’t recognize the authority of the State of Israel.
How is this bizarre situation possible? It’s Israel, where not only are religion and state not separate but are deeply entwined in ways that can and do lead to the manipulation and corruption of power.
The fall of the Chief Rabbinate and its alienation from Israeli society is a sad and telling story that diaspora Jews should be aware of and speak out on in hopes of, if not effecting immediate change, letting Jerusalem know we care and are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo.
Once a highly respected position, given its official role in determining the personal status of Jews in Israel and those who make aliyah, the Chief Rabbinate, which deals with marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, has become at best an embarrassment, and at worst a source of anti-religious sentiment among the majority of Israelis. And for good reason.
In the last two decades the religious Zionist camp, known for its efforts to keep Israeli society unified, has lost control of the Chief Rabbinate to the increasing and increasingly influential haredim who have taken a more confrontational stance, seeking to protect the purity of the Jewish bloodline.
Showing a lack of interest in and even contempt for non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the largest segment of the Israeli Jewish population, the haredi leaders have raised the bar on halachic standards, particularly regarding conversion. As a result, the great majority of hundreds of thousands of potential converts, most notably immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or their children, are unwilling and unable to join the Jewish people.
It should be noted that while the haredim are blamed most for this situation, they have been able to take control of the Chief Rabbinate with the help of secular politicians who, in seeking the support of these religious parties in the Knesset, allow them to control the interior ministry, with its power over religious matters.
The sad irony is that the haredim have undermined the very institution of the Chief Rabbinate by, in some cases, assuring that those who gain the top spot are the least qualified.
For example, Yonah Metzger, the current Ashkenazi chief rabbi chosen by the haredi-dominated election committee a decade ago, is not known for his scholarship, never sat on a religious court and was forced to withdraw his candidacy for chief rabbi of Tel Aviv a decade ago amidst charges of fraud and sexual harassment.
The Chief Rabbinate “has been hijacked by a group of intellectually dishonest extremists,” according to Dov Zakheim, chairman of the American Jewish Committee’s Commission on Contemporary Jewish Life.
In a 42-page paper he wrote, titled “Transforming Israel’s Chief Rabbinate,” Zakheim described those “extremists” as influential haredi rabbis “who deny the legitimacy of the state that signs their paychecks and who scorn those of their fellow Jews who do not see the world as they do.”
Zakheim’s report, which traces the history and political shifts of the Chief Rabbinate in modern Israel and concludes with a call for radical change, was the centerpiece of a special AJC colloquium held here two weeks ago.
The approximately 50 participants were an impressive representation of Jewish intellectual and communal leaders and young activists from both Israel and the U.S. They discussed, sometimes with great passion, the deteriorating state of the Chief Rabbinate and what can be done about it — from working with it while seeking improvement, to supporting a more moderate slate of candidates, to abolishing the position altogether.
To its credit the AJC was the first major American Jewish civil organization to speak out forcefully about the dangers to Jewish unity reflected in recent decisions of the Chief Rabbinate, and to call for a makeover. A statement, passed by the organization’s board of governors in June, asserted that the rabbinate’s rulings “threaten to divide the Jewish people and risk an anti-religious backlash against Judaism itself within the Jewish state.”
Among those positions taken by the Chief Rabbinate considered “particularly troubling”: nullifying thousands of conversions retroactively, including those by Orthodox rabbis in America; maintaining a monopoly over religious marriage and preventing civil marriage, resulting in an estimated one-third of Israelis traveling to Cyprus or other countries to wed; and making statements “delegitimizing the non-Orthodox religious movements” in ways that are “deeply offensive to American Jews.”
Rabbi Barry Freundel, chair of the committee on conversion for the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox group that maintains a relationship with the Chief Rabbinate, made the case for working with the institution rather than antagonizing or demonizing it.
Describing his presentation as “defending the indefensible,” he acknowledged that there are problems within the Chief Rabbinate and that its decision to nullify past conversions caused “pain and anguish” to those it affected.
But he portrayed a complex, even inverted rabbinical system in Israel where, for example, the Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, is seeking to moderate powerful haredi forces when it comes to conversion practices. And he said there are positive signs of moderation within the haredi community.
Refuting widespread accusations that the RCA caved in to the demands of the Chief Rabbinate on who could perform conversions in the U.S., Rabbi Freundel said “we did not capitulate” and asserted that the 13 RCA conversion courts in the U.S., Canada and Mexico have made progress in reforming the process in Israel, with rabbis no longer charging “excessive” rates for their services, instituting court records and eliminating “coercion” on the part of the clergy.
He said his committee now “works well together” with the Chief Rabbinate, often effecting change “behind the scenes,” and that “we [the RCA] are the only conversion court accepted around the world.”
He warned that attempts by those like the AJC to weaken the influence of the chief rabbinate will only “short-circuit” the progress he says his group is making.
Responding to Rabbi Freundel, Barry Shrage, the president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, said the “disdain” shown by the Chief Rabbinate toward non-Orthodox forms of Judaism is especially troubling, given that the chief rabbis are supposed to be moral and spiritual models.
“It’s the spiritual collapse of Israel that disturbs me as an Orthodox Jew,” he said in his emotional presentation. “Halacha [Jewish law] and love of God can’t be taught by coercion.”
What kind of spiritual life can Israelis have, he wondered aloud, “when they don’t like the rabbis [of the Chief Rabbinate] and the rabbis don’t like them.”
He said Israelis have “given away” their heritage and spiritual lives and the effect is that most of them have become “less Jewish” as a result. While he acknowledged that he did not have a specific proposal for change, Shrage said the current situation is “intolerable, and the soul and existence of Jewish life in the Jewish state is at stake.”
Zakheim, in his report, argued for modeling Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on elements of the United Kingdom’s chief rabbinate and bet din, making them “analogous to the Church of England and its spiritual leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury,” with the chief rabbis becoming “personal role models for all Israeli Jews” but “relinquishing control over all matters of personal status and function alongside non-Orthodox Jewish streams, as it does elsewhere in the world.”
There were others at the AJC meeting, though, who called for doing away with the Chief Rabbinate altogether.
Brandeis history professor Jonathan Sarna said there was “nothing good” about the British system, and that Israel should follow the American approach, asserting that “religion thrives” when religion and state are separate.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
Elana Sztokman, the new executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), said that “gender is the elephant in the room” and charged that the Chief Rabbinate “has total control” of the Jewish lives of women, who have “no exit power in marriage” and whose “bodies are watched, guarded and nitpicked.”
She said that “Orthodoxy” should include Orthodox women, not just men, and cautioned that the days of “the polite revolution” among Orthodox feminists may be ending.
Hannah Kehat, who grew up in a haredi family and is now founder and director of Kolech, the Israeli equivalent of JOFA, echoed Sztokman’s concerns and noted that there is a move in Israel to organize against the Chief Rabbinate.
One widely admired group doing just that is Tzohar, composed of religious Zionist rabbis in Israel who are dedicated to humanizing the role and image of the rabbinate. Until now these rabbis were best known for performing weddings free of charge and for offering a compassionate side to their rabbinic roles. In the last few months Tzohar concluded that it could not change the ways of the current Chief Rabbinate so would challenge the haredim by offering up their own candidates in the upcoming rabbinic election.
Rabbi David Stav, chief rabbi of Shoham and chair of Tzohar, told The Jewish Week during a recent visit that the spiritual future of Israel requires a more sympathetic attitude toward secular society, and that his members have had a positive influence on the people they meet.
He plans to run for the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate slot and, though few think he has a chance of winning, wants to promote Zionist values and heal the rift between the religious and secular communities.
A Tzohar member participating at the AJC meeting, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, rosh yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva of Petach Tikva, said that unlike most Israelis, he cares very much about the views of American Jews on these and other matters. And while he said he disagreed with many of the details of the AJC statement, he encouraged the American Jewish community to become more involved with the people of Israel and their concerns, and not just speak with Jerusalem’s political leaders. The key, he said, was to come up with solutions, not just identify problems.
Others at the colloquium had high praise for the Tzohar rabbis as the best representatives of a more open Orthodox point of view, but several said even those rabbis would not be able to effect meaningful change in a Chief Rabbinate controlled by haredi bureaucrats.
Uri Regev, a Reform Israeli rabbi who heads Hiddush, which calls for religious freedom and equality in the Jewish state, said that while the Tzohar rabbis are “more enlightened and moderate,” they also oppose non-Orthodox forms of Judaism in Israel and should not be in a position of authority.
The only representative of a haredi organization at the meeting was Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudath Israel of America. He appeared to restrain himself for much of the day, but did speak out against the use of demeaning language in discussing the chief rabbis and the rabbinate. He declined to comment further when approached by The Jewish Week.
Vital Gaps Exposed
In the end, the meeting succeeded in bringing together a wide range of Israeli and American leaders and activists concerned with the issue, and underscored several vital gaps. One is between those in the Orthodox community who seek incremental change in the Chief Rabbinate versus those who prefer an overhaul. Another divide is between traditional Jews who would maintain some form of halachic hold on matters of personal status in the Jewish state and liberal Jews who would eliminate it, preferring full religious freedom and the introduction of civil marriage in Israel.
Beyond the issue of the Chief Rabbinate, the full-day discussion highlighted the split between diaspora and Israeli Jewry in envisioning a functional Jewish state, and whether it is practical or even preferable to impose American ideals of democracy on Israel.
Steven Bayme, the director of the Koppelman Institute of the AJC which played a leading role in convening the colloquium, sees at the core a conflict between our modern, egalitarian culture and Israel’s traditional and hierarchical society.
The debate over the Chief Rabbinate is but a part of a religious, political and ideological struggle for what the ideal Jewish state should look like, and the relationship between the Jewish people and their homeland.
For now, it’s important for American Jews simply to be aware of the stakes in the election of the next Israeli chief rabbis and to make their voices heard.