The office and recent inhabitants of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel are considered irrelevant by the majority of Israelis. Worse, there is no respect for its out-of-control bureaucracy that has been exposed, way too often, for unethical and illegal behavior. And few, if any, would have anything to do with it were it not for the sad truth that it has de-facto control, in Israel, over so many life-defining moments; these ianclude ceremonies marking births and deaths, weddings and divorces, circumcision, and, of course, the last word in who is recognized as a Jew.
The sad joke of it all is that the haredi Chief Rabbinate has been able to push its own chosen candidates through, despite the fact that they don’t recognize either the legitimacy of the rabbinate or of the Jewish state.
The bottom line is that organizations of Modern Orthodox orientation, like Itim, and its founder Rabbi Seth Farber, have sprung up to fight the intransigent apparatus; Rav Yehuda Amital, the late rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Gush Etzion, empowered his students to officiate at weddings to break the hold of the rabbinate and perhaps keep yet another Israeli couple from flying to Cyprus for a civil ceremony; and there is more and more discussion centered around doing away with the Chief Rabbinate altogether.
Yet, while it’s difficult in Israel to find a minyan of support for this out-of-date Chief Rabbinate, it seems that the only place its rabbis are able to find full and unequivocal support is in the United States. It is here where the Rabbinical Council of America (an arm of the Orthodox Union), Yeshiva University and others lend the rabbinate full legitimacy, despite some private grumbling.
The most recent example of this disturbing trend is the rejection of a letter signed by Rabbi Avi Weiss attesting to the Jewishness and single status of one of his congregants. (The story, headlined ‘Fresh Skirmish In ‘Who Is A Jew’ Wars,” was first reported on Oct. 18 in these pages.)
The rejection was not challenged by Yeshiva University, where Rabbi Weiss was ordained; by the RCA, where he was a member for many years; or by his fellow Riverdale rabbinic colleagues who seem to be on the Chief Rabbinate’s “good” list.
Where is the outrage that a fellow Orthodox rabbi, who gives his life for Clal Yisrael and the greater community, was publicly humiliated and derided?
No doubt the issue is clouded by Rabbi Weiss’ involvement in founding Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and his creation of the “rabbah” title. But that is like a magician’s misdirect designed to keep your eye from following what is really happening.
Because the issue here is not Rabbi Weiss, nor is it women’s role in Orthodox Judaism or alternate ordination of rabbis outside the mainstream. Those are merely excuses for the closing of ranks by those who are threatened by such actions.
The issue is our community — its viability and its future. The issue is where and from whom do we derive our authenticity and legitimization. The issue is who really speaks for those who consider themselves Modern Orthodox. And, to me, it’s absurd to imagine that the answer is a disenfranchised rabbinate in Israel.
I long ago came to a personal realization that the term “Modern Orthodox” no longer defines the religious segment that I was brought up in. A world where rabbis of all denominations in a community were warm and visiting colleagues; a world where Jews of all practices were held in equal respect by the rabbi; a world where the emphasis was on the beauty of our religion, not the stringency of its practice.
I believe we need a new term to define those who fit the true center — not the one defined by the haredi masters that so many of our leaders and organizations kowtow to. What was once “Modern Orthodox” is to me neo-haredi, and it’s time to make break and return to the vision that was created for America after the Holocaust.
I am reminded of a story that a famous chef of a five-star hotel in Jerusalem once told me about whom he trusts most in the kitchen when it came to kashrut; he was not observant. At the top of the list was a non-Jew because, the chef said, you explained that one side was meat and one side was dairy and never the twain should be confused. They had no reason to question, and did what was asked of them. The helpers he trusted the least were the haredi workers, he said, because they wouldn’t eat in the hotel anyway as they didn’t consider it kosher enough.
This should be our mantra: Don’t let people who don’t respect your religious beliefs or your leaders define who you are; they don’t believe in your legitimacy or support your institutions.
I encourage readers to write to the RCA and send letters to Yeshiva University demanding that they support Rabbi Weiss in this instance. And beyond that, organize your community, your friends, your synagogue, your day school.
Your own legitimacy is being questioned and attacked, and it’s our own organizations that are giving credence to an irrelevant Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
David Sable, a member of the board of directors of The Jewish Week, heads a major marketing and communications company.