Chief Rabbi Amar
Chief Rabbi Amar. Photo by Emil Salman
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Even before the eruption of the storm involving the Tzohar organization this week - which led the religious Zionist mainstream into an unprecedented head-on collision with the institution of the Chief Rabbinate over the issue of conversion - Haaretz had requested an interview with Rabbi Shlomo Amar. We were particularly interested in finding out if Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi wasn't concerned that the state's official rabbinical authority, which was founded 90 years ago, was now irreversibly collapsing under his tenure.

Previous Haaretz requests for an interview with Amar had either been refused or simply not answered. He said yes now, oddly enough, in the wake of a series in these pages about the growing phenomenon of religiously observant Jews who are taking halakha (traditional law ) into their own hands in matters of marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.

In responding to the charges raised in the articles against the Rabbinate, Rabbi Amar was wearing three different hats: of the president of the High Rabbinical Court, of the supreme state authority overseeing the official civilian and military conversion programs, and of chief rabbi of Israel (in which capacity he serves in tandem with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger ). Because of Amar's busy schedule, we were forced to condense the interview into less than an hour, and had an opportunity to put to him fewer than half of the questions that had been prepared.

Rabbi Amar has been in his position for eight-and-a-half years, a period that has been characterized by many storms (a partial list includes recurrent crises about conversion; rebellious behavior by conservative-minded Ashkenazi Haredi religious court judges; a crisis during the shmitta [agricultural sabbatical] year; turmoil surrounding the issue of organ donation; and now the fresh scandal involving the Tzohar rabbis, who assist couples that don't want to marry under the auspices of their local rabbinate ). And when the rain comes down, Rabbi Amar always tries to maneuver between the raindrops.

Some observers say that Amar, who is 63 and whose rabbinical career is not over yet, is fraught with anxiety vis-a-vis the Lithuanian Haredi leadership, which waged a public campaign against his predecessor in the job, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, for having adopted what they felt was an overly independent and Zionistic approach.

Amar is the quintessential pupil of former chief rabbi and Shas spiritual head Ovadia Yosef; some observers even see Amar as his successor as leader of the country's Sephardi religious public. At the very least, he is most certainly a leading figure in the Sephardi Haredi world. For the benefit of Amar, the Knesset is considering amending the law, so as to enable him to run for a second 10-year term, but he has said he is still undecided as to what he will do in another year and a half.

Amar does not read newspapers, but is convinced that he knows, for example, what motivated Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the rabbi of Efrat and one of the senior leaders in the religious Zionist world, to write a pained article in The Jerusalem Post this month, under the headline, "Has the Chief Rabbinate outlived its usefulness?" Riskin wrote, among other things, that the majority of Israelis are not yet ready to join the writer Yoram Kaniuk, who "was resigning as a member of the Jewish religion," but "the rabbinical establishment is doing everything in its power to bring them to the brink of doing just that."

'Beautiful work'

Two weeks ago, we reported here that Riskin was planning to set up an independent conversion court, regardless of the enraged reactions of the Chief Rabbinate.

"It is really not like that," Amar says, referring to Riskin's column. "I judge them favorably, and simply assume that they do not know the reality. People are telling them tall tales. Beautiful work is being done with conversions; there are no unnecessary stringencies and no unnecessary leniency, and there also is beautiful work being done in both the army and in the civilian sphere. It is getting better and better, toward the positive side. And the Rabbinate is gaining even more strength.

"Except that there are people who apparently deceived him [Riskin]; there are people who want to run the world themselves. It is hard for them to come to terms with the fact that they are not running the world. There are people who make their living from there being X number of women who are refused a divorce."

Amar continues: "Today there is the media, thank God, and its objective is to improve and to criticize, but there are people who exploit it, acting as if they are merely offering criticism, but who are pushing certain things that they wish to push. I will say outright, and you have my word on this, that the Rabbinate is excellent, and the religious court judiciary is excellent, much better than what was the case many years ago. It is getting better and better, including also the way in which it relates to the public. Of course, 'For the poor shall never cease out of the land' [Deut. 15:11]

"We have a very strong disciplinary eligious court and when there are complaints, that is where they are referred. In the religious courts, of course, there is an ombudsman who is impartial, who does not favor anyone. Things are going very well there, and every complaint is handled very seriously by the religious court judges, believe it or not. Everything has changed. The secular male lawyers and the female lawyers admit that the work in the religious courts now bears no resemblance to what used to be the case.

"[For Riskin] to come and say these things? He is simply being fed information by people who are interested in leading things in a certain direction."

What does the rabbi say to the couples who are choosing to get married privately?

Amar: "I think that every person who loves Israel and who loves our people wants to see a settled and secure people: He wants to see security placed in the hands of the security people - not in the hands of private people; medical services offered in an organized manner, and also the Rabbinate and the services of the Rabbinate organized in a proper, official way.

"And really, but really, a very great thing has been done, in spite of all of the arguments and in spite of all of the disputes: There is an organized Rabbinate, there are organized religious courts that are well arranged. They now set the pace for the religious courts outside Israel. There are a great deal of obstacles. There is no doubt there are many people who are hurt. Sometimes there are injured parties from this side who cannot accept the realization that they did not take the right path ...

"For instance, I will give a very simple example. A person gets married at the Rabbinate, so all of the rabbinates should know about it. If a person gets divorced, all of the relevant offices know about it. If a person ... Well, let's say, a certain type of action is needed and he is prevented [from taking it] for some reason. This, too, is recorded and known, so that there can be follow-up. There is order ...

"It's like a person who can find a way around the security people and gets into the office of the defense minister in the Ministry of Defense's headquarters: It happens, but it is not an everyday matter. It is something extremely rare. But in places where there is no organized registration process at all, a person could leave after he has gotten married, and if he is not a decent person and not an honest person, he could go somewhere else, including to the Rabbinate, and say he is not married. He wants to get married? They'll marry him. Who will stand in his way? In the offices of the various rabbinates he doesn't appear as being married, so there is no one to prevent it.

"This is the constituent element of the registration, which might seem to be no more than a bureaucratic procedure. It goes without saying that our religious courts and the Rabbinate are becoming proficient in these things. There are assessments, there is also follow-up, there is also the chance to appeal, there is room for complaints. Things are different."

Haredi courts

Time and again the question of the Haredi courts arises. They are not bound by the law, but they are permitted to carry out every action in the realm of marriage and divorce. It is well known that you will give your seal of approval to whatever they do.

"But I am in favor of [marriage registration] taking place only in religious councils, without anyone else. The more official and state-oriented, the better, that's my opinion. And if they listened to me, the rabbis of the private Haredi courts would do this, too. If they could rise above themselves, they would relent. It's better, it's more organized and better arranged ...

"The Haredi court of the Eda Haredit [the umbrella group of the more extreme factions in the ultra-Orthodox community] - they have always told us there is an arrangement dating from the times of the Mandate, and it proceeds in accordance with that arrangement. Take Rabbi [Moshe Yehuda Leib] Landa in Bnei Brak: [His private Haredi court] is organized like every religious council. I have heard that there are Haredi courts that people have complained about, that they registered through them. I've asked. In truth, it is an administrative matter, and doesn't pertain to me but I was told that all of these Haredi courts receive the registration through a religious council.

"The head of the army's personnel directorate was here with the army rabbi. Our object is to make things uniform. It's going well, and with understanding; she saw that there are no stringencies here. In the beginning [of my term], I set up the regulations governing the hearings of the conversion courts; there was a lot of noise. You don't know what they did. They thought I was going to do I don't know what.

"Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called me. He said, I have heard such and such; there should be equality, everyone should be brothers. I said: Give me an example. He said: I heard that someone who is a convert has to visit the graves of the sages. I started laughing. You think we're that foolish? Take a look here, please: All of the regulations governing the hearings are right in front of you. If anything like that is in them, I am tearing them up. Afterward, an evaluation was done here. Everyone saw that there are hearing regulations, that if a single one of them wasn't enforced, it would be the worst possible distortion of justice. So here, too, what we are doing is really beneficial."

There was a time when the criticism came from the secular side. Now it is coming from the side of observant Jews.

"I ask you to check well into that. There are people for whom that comes from a place of pain, because they heard certain things and thought they were true; they did not check and they do not know. But those who are inventing these things, if you check well, you will find that ... How is it written [in Parshat Va'eira, Gen. 20:5]? That Abimelech said, 'In the simplicity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this"? It isn't always like that."

Amar dismisses the claim that the conversion procedure is essentially being privatized. Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, as reported here, recently set up a private rabbinical court for conversions. Amar claims, though, that this is merely an activity Rosen found to do following his retirement from the special state-affiliated conversion courts. We mention names of additional rabbis who have begun to convert privately, but Amar wouldn't budge.

"There are people who work until they reach retirement age," he said, "and it is hard for them to retire, so they go and create a private religious court. So what? What will people say? Why are they doing it? ... These same people sat for years in the same conversion court and conducted the same proceedings along with their colleagues, who continue to do that. Some of them are better, some of them are less good; it is insignificant. It is insignificant. There are a few who do it, as if they are seeking status. As if, if they do a conversion or a divorce, then it is as if they have the status of a religious court judge. Some are seeking status. There are less good reasons. But a person works all these years, like his friends were working, and then reaches the age [of retirement]. This applies to religious court judges in the High Rabbinical Court as well as in the district religious courts - you get old, you go home. Judges are the same way."

But the privatization is everywhere. Rabbi Steinsaltz in Jerusalem is also converting people, and meanwhile the Haredi religious court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in Bnei Brak has multiplied by thousands of percent the number of people converting with him. In the past year, 250 people have converted with him, instead of going to the state system.

"I don't know how many, but [the figure] is something else. [Karelitz] from the outset wanted to be just like the rabbinical court of the Eda Haredit, and now certain policies have been set by the State Prosecutor's Office at the most senior level, and I also signed my name to the regulations. The subject will come up, and I will make some sort of order out of this whole matter. It is two worlds. Not this and not that ... [What you have are] two completely different accounts, completely, completely. And you have my word on that."

In another year and a half, Amar's term comes to an end. During this period isn't there still a need to improve things, we ask.

"The Lord knows mysteries. I am 100 percent fine with it, praise God. I try to work and the work is not easy. I think that no drastic change should be made. You have to constantly check to see where the need is, but there will always be disagreements. Ever since Moses our teacher there were those who disagreed with him, and it is written: 'The sons of Korah died not' [Numbers 26:11]. Korah died, but he's got descendants. There will always be disagreements. And no one who comes to disagree says that he wants the kingdom. He says that everyone in the entire community is a saint, why are you being arrogant, why not give them good service? If they come, they'll check it out, they'll bring their allegations, and they'll see that, thank God, the religious courts give excellent service. The same is the case for the Rabbinate, and if there are any 'instances,' we are prepared and we will take care of them. We have proved ourselves."

Nevertheless, don't you hear the voices? People are bitter. Are there religious couples that want to marry in the religion of Moses and Israel, but are not willing to step foot in the Rabbinate?

"If there is such a thing, we are willing to listen, but for the most part it is because of other reasons. Maybe such a couple has the intention that they won't need a divorce, that if, heaven forbid, they will want to separate, he will go to the right and she will go to the left, and no one will catch them. It is like telling a bank: Give me a loan, while laundering funds. You have to be clever. There are exceptions to everything. That is the kind of generation we have, with people who are angry. But you should know, people with their own interests are capitalizing on this, people with different motives. The tendency is to always go against the establishment, particularly against the religious establishment, but you also have to use a critical sense, and see things as they really are."

The opinion of the chief rabbi did not change at all when he was asked to comment on a completely different group, that of the rabbis of the Tzohar organization, who still highly regard state religious authority and are not prepared to break away from the Chief Rabbinate. Regarding them, as well, Amar said that they are the descendants of Korah, filled with "an inclination to argue."