Divorcing the Rabbinate

Although Tzohar was founded a decade ago, it was only this past March that this group of maverick Orthodox rabbis took the highly unorthodox step of challenging the Chief Rabbinate in Israel's Supreme Court. In a petition, Tzohar asked the High Court to cancel the appointment of 15 new dayanim (rabbinical judges), who had been selected by the rabbinical establishment.

"We weren't happy to do it," says Rabbi David Stav, one of Tzohar's founders. Stav says he felt "that the group there in the Chief Rabbinate was just so corrupt, a group of ultra-Orthodox apparatchiks deciding who should be a judge."

Although the High Court ordered Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann to reconvene the appointments committee, Tzohar's victory was short-lived, as the committee went ahead and reappointed the same candidates. Still, Stav says he doesn't feel disappointed. Now, he says, "we have 50 rabbis coming to us and saying that we have to set up our own independent rabbinical courts."

Until recently, Tzohar's main field of activity was in providing Orthodox rabbis to officiate at user-friendly marriage ceremonies. But slowly, the organization began moving in more controversial directions, voicing open criticism of the establishment. As this has happened, especially over the past two years, the Chief Rabbinate seemed to become aware of a growing threat and responded with a series of rulings. These in turn served as the catalyst for a wider conflict over shmita (the sabbatical year during which Jewish-owned land is supposed to lay fallow, according to halakha), the biggest row between Tzohar and the Rabbinate to date.

When Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger announced that local rabbinical councils would have the freedom to decide whether they would issue kashrut certificates to stores and restaurants selling heter mechira produce (fruit and vegetables grown on land that has been "sold" to a non-Jew via a legal loophole), Tzohar decided to set up an alternative kashrut organization that would provide kashrut supervision and certificates to farmers and businesses producing and selling heter mechira food.

What is not yet clear is whether the alternative kashrut apparatus marks the beginning of a permanent schism within the Orthodox rabbinate, or is just an ad hoc measure that will pass at the end of the shmita year. More crucially, will Tzohar have the strength and audacity to act on even more controversial issues, such as the conversion crisis, with over 300,000 new and less-new immigrants here, most of them from the Former Soviet Union, who are not halakhically Jewish?

About 150 Orthodox rabbis are active in the organization, which estimates that an additional 500-600 rabbis throughout Israel sympathize with their ideals. This informal nature is intentional. As Tzohar's membership spans the length and breadth of the religious Zionist movement, consensus is an overriding consideration, so that, in many cases, rabbis act as individuals and not Tzohar members. For example, Tzohar members vary widely on the conversion issue; nor does the movement have a united position regarding recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

"We never meant to be the enemies of the Rabbinate," says Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, one of Tzohar's founders, "but they gave us no choice. When we started out 10 years ago, they called us the young rabbis, but now many of us are nearing the age of 50, there's no one to be afraid of anymore, and we have to decide what exactly we stand for." ()