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Judaism Cannot be Held Hostage by the Chief Rabbinate

A plea directed at rabbis in Israel and abroad: end the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on Jewish religion before the Israeli Rabbinate destroys it altogether
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Vice President and Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence in Jerusalem, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. His research in Jewish philosophy and identity addresses a wide range of eras and topics: Second Temple literature, Mishnaic and Talmudic scholarship, medieval Jewish literature, early Zionism, and contemporary Jewish identity. His books and other works have been

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Rabbi Avi Weiss said on the podium of his synagogue before more than 400 community members, paraphrasing the famous saying. He was not talking about the occupation; he was talking about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is an absolutely kosher Orthodox rabbi, and a Zionist to the core. He is a scholar with a great spirit, a human rights activist, kind, charitable, and an ardent Zionist. He leads a modern Orthodox community which ends its morning daavening with a daily halakha, and Shabbat and Holiday prayer with the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva.” He established the Chovevei Torah Yeshiva for training rabbis and “Maharat” Yeshiva for women. In short, Rabbi Weiss does everything you would expect of a modern Orthodox rabbi.

For years he has served an involved, Zionist community, a community that is well connected, a community which sustains Orthodox educational establishments, and supports Israel demonstrably, both financially and politically. In short, everything you might expect from a committed Zionist community.

Spend a few weekends at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) – “The Bayit”- as Rabbi Weiss’ community in New York is called. I’ve prayed here for more than two months, and until last Saturday, all the words of Torah I heard were pure love. If reproach were woven into his sermons, it was so well hidden it was hardly visible. Rabbi Weiss is an expert at attracting a community through bonds of love and aiming for self-improvement.

But a month ego, for the first time, the rebuke in the rabbi’s sermon was so explicit that one could hardly find the love that so characterizes him and his community. Pain and offense took over. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate succeeded in offending one of most important leading modern Orthodox rabbis in America.

In the last election for the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate we were promised a Rabbinate that would represent and serve all Israelis. But apparently, even Rabbi Avi Weiss is not religious and reliable enough to attest to the religious status of his community members. And this is not even about conversion, it is about marriage testimony. The Chief Rabbinate decided to reject letters of testimony from Rabbi Weiss and other Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.

The “sin” that disqualifies these rabbis is that they support more open models of Orthodoxy. Compared to other liberal Israeli rabbis I know, these rabbis are not radical at all. They did not make any controversial halakhik decisions, as have others, such as Rabbi Hayim Drukman, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, or Rabbi David Bigman. In fact, the rabbis whose letters of testimony were rejected by the Rabbinate, according to Rabbi Weiss, are also rabbis from Yeshiva University – the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy.

In short, the Rabbinate has apparently started “blacklists” of “reliable” rabbis and “unreliable” rabbis to legitimize some and disqualify others.

Many of the North American Orthodox rabbis who appear on the list are ashamed to speak out in public, because this apparent mark of disgrace is imprinted on them by the official rabbinical institution of the State that they support. The stigma undermines their status as rabbis and undermines the certificates of rabbinical ordination that they received from rabbis who are far more important than the officials who disregarded them and the chief rabbis (at least the Ashkenazi ones) that the State of Israel managed to elect in recent years.

But not Rabbi Avi Weiss. He didn’t shy away; he started a public struggle. He understood that the ruling accelerated the slippery slope which has made the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate essentially an ultra-Orthodox monopoly. At first they disqualified the Reform and Conservative movements, then conversions by Orthodox rabbis. And now they reject even the slightest testimony from them. Rabbi Weiss, like many Israelis had already done, arrived at the painful and regrettable conclusion that the Rabbinate is an obstacle to Jewish religiosity in Israel and around the world.

“The problem is coercion. Coercion of beliefs and opinions and lifestyles suppresses religious growth and flowering. It does not encourage it,” he said. And he is right. No religious flower will blossom on a bed of coercion and oppression.

Rabbi Weiss calls for the Chief Rabbinate to open its gates, and for an open and free religious dialogue with all Jewish sectors and denomination in Israel and the U.S. He understands the significance of such a call to this kind of religious dialogue: it means recognizing the right of Jews to belong to different denominations, recognizing the right of Jews to marry in a civil ceremony or a religious marriage of any kind. This official recognition has an “Orthodox price,” but it will save religious life, it will save the Jewish religion. It will free Judaism from its current oppression.

It’s time to be courageous

This call from the heart of American Orthodoxy is not really directed at the Chief Rabbinate. It is directed first and foremost to Rabbi Weiss’ fellow Orthodox rabbis in the United States and Israel, who understand that the Rabbinate’s monopoly control will lead to stagnation and oppression. It should also be directed at political leaders who understand all too well the problematic condition of Jewry worldwide.

For years we in Israel have tried to engage the heads of secular political parties on the questions of religion and state. But we had little success, because not dealing with this issue was the price they paid for political support from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Recently, since the Weiss affair went public, a Knesset caucus headed by MK Elazar Stern has devoted extensive discussion to it. I understand that the new Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau said that he will personally handle the case of Rabbi Weiss’s status. There is no doubt this will quiet down the Weiss affair, but while this may be the quickest solution to this particular matter, it should not isolate this affair from the larger question by treating it as a personal matter. The Chief Rabbinate is an official institution that must abide by the laws of a civilized state, and public issues having broad implications must not be handled behind closed doors as if it were the General Security Service (Shabak). It is time to change the situation fundamentally.

Now, before we lose the last of our strongest supporters in North America, we need an intervention. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Religious Affairs, who holds liberal views on these issues, the Minister of Finance and his party members, Ruth Calderon and Aliza Lavie, all need to stand up and do something.

It is time for our elected officials to get involved in creating a new Jewish covenant that will unite all the parts of the Jewish people. It is time to show courage and leadership and fundamentally change the relationship between religion and state in Israel, to allow an equal voice and equal status for all. This crisis is an opportunity.

Originally in the Jerusalem Post

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