The Chief Rabbinate of Israel recently made headlines for the wrong reasons once again. Until a recent agreement was reached, it had refused to accept letters from Rabbi Avi Weiss and other American Orthodox rabbis attesting to the Jewishness of congregants seeking to wed in Israel. As a result, numerous organizations and prominent individuals, in Israel and the U.S., each with a plan to reform, weaken, improve, or dismantle the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate), stood up for Rabbi Weiss and called on the Rabbanut to accept him. Ultimately, the Rabbanut agreed to accept Rabbi Weiss’ testimony and also to accept automatically any letter of testimony that has been approved by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest association of Orthodox rabbis in the world.
There is a certain amount of irony in this arrangement. Although Rabbi Weiss has been a member of the RCA for decades, he has long criticized it for kowtowing to the demands of the Rabbanut. His insistence on the autonomy of every community rabbi led him to found the International Rabbinic Fellowship in 2006 and the now-defunct Fellowship of Traditional Orthodox Rabbis in the early 1990s. Yet the recent tussle over his status served to further cement the relationship between the RCA and the Rabbanut. In fact, with the RCA now empowered by the Rabbanut to determine Jewishness in Israel — in addition to its earlier recognition of conversions and divorces effected through the RCA’s apparatus — it enjoys a status similar to that of chief rabbinates in countries around the world. That is, as a result of the efforts to gain recognition for Rabbi Weiss, the RCA may now be the closest the U.S. has ever come to having a recognized and official rabbinate.
To its credit, the RCA has often behaved like the only adult in the room throughout the current controversy. While the Rabbanut’s ignorance about North American Jewry was on full display, and while elements on the right and left of Orthodoxy tried to transform an essentially bureaucratic issue into a litmus test to determine whether Rabbi Weiss’ “Open Orthodoxy” is indeed Orthodox, the RCA largely kept mum. It issued a clarification that Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt called “a brief, painstakingly neutral statement,” and Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, stated in an interview that his organization stands by Rabbi Weiss’ testimony and continues to work with the Rabbanut to create a transparent system for recognizing American Orthodox rabbis.
While I believe the RCA has erred on the side of sycophancy, especially when it recently called the Rabbanut “the pillar of fire that leads the camp of world Orthodox Judaism,” in the main the RCA’s handling of the controversy has been prudent. This does not mean that I believe the Rabbanut is not worthy of condemnation; on the contrary, I am on record in this publication and elsewhere calling for an end to the Rabbanut’s exclusive control over certain aspects of life in Israel. Rather, the RCA’s mandate and raison d’etre requires it to take an approach that avoids public condemnation to the degree possible.
This is easier said than done. On one hand, Rabbi Weiss and many others associated with Open Orthodoxy are themselves members of the RCA and have spoken out on Rabbi Weiss’ behalf. On the other hand, the Israeli media reported that unnamed members of the RCA, even those who hold official positions within it, were whispering into the Rabbanut’s ear and urging it not to accept him. And at least four members of the RCA’s executive committee have written op-eds and blog posts justifying or at least expressing sympathy for the Rabbanut’s refusal to accept Rabbi Weiss’ letters.
Yet, couched in diplomatic rabbi-speak, the RCA’s public statement implicitly criticized both sides of the debate. It states: “The RCA regrets that the discussion concerning the reliability of American rabbis for technical matters under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate has been used to promote broader issues relating to the contours of American Orthodoxy and its limits. The RCA believes that there are better places and ways to work through these issues.”
Stated a bit less diplomatically, and in far more detail, this is the meaning of this paragraph: There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether certain elements within the Open Orthodox movement, within which Rabbi Weiss is a key figure, have in fact gone beyond the Orthodox pale. There are some people who want to enlist the Rabbanut’s real power to write Open Orthodoxy out of Orthodoxy. There are others who want the Rabbanut to accept Rabbi Weiss’ testimony because it would be tantamount to an endorsement. The RCA believes that the technical credibility of individual rabbis to testify and officiate is an issue that is separate from the question of Orthodoxy’s ideological borders. We believe that certain positions and the individuals who espouse them must be discussed in the proper forum. None of this, however, has anything to do with an individual’s credibility on matters of personal status, which is a technical issue and should be dealt with using an established protocol that bolsters the overall credibility of every RCA member.
The Rabbanut is indeed a deeply problematic institution — not because it is Orthodox, but because it has exclusive power over certain aspects of Israeli law and life. Many organizations work to disentangle Israeli religion and state. Such efforts, however, must focus on the Knesset, the sole body with the power to effect substantive changes to the Rabbanut. The RCA, however, is a professional association whose mandate is to look out for the best interests of its members. For the foreseeable future, this means that it must cultivate and maintain its relationship with the Rabbanut.
Elli Fischer, a writer and translator in Israel, is a regular contributor.