We All Owe Israel's Racist Rabbis a Vote of Thanks

Rabbis who signed a ruling against leasing to Arabs have put an end to the notion of rabbinic authority and have freed us to be Jews on our own terms.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

A year ago at this time, I wrote a piece which I ultimately decided was too venom-laced, too cruel, and too socially un-redeeming even for this often problematic space.

An end of the year feature, it was called "The Top 10 Rabbis Judaism Could Do Without." No one saw it. I threw it out.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It was a time for new beginnings, I believed. A time for granting the benefit of the doubt. A time for giving a chance, for hoping against hope. A time to refrain from tarring all rabbis with the refesh - the filth of a few.

If for no other reason than respect for Judaism and the vast majority of rabbis who are forces for good in this world, I decided to learn to live with the rest. Even those whose rulings contravene some of the most fundamental moral precepts in Judaism, and also those who issued bans on living with non-Jews, as well as those who have declared it moral to kill Arab innocents, even infants, and those who preach the destruction of Palestinian property, and those who have advised IDF soldiers that mercy toward Arabs is cruelty, and those whose ardor for settlement is such that it has bent and broken the principle that the saving of human life takes precedence above all else.

What can I say? After a year of waiting and watching, I now realize that I'd been wrong in more ways than I knew. Not only was the list of 10 Rabbis that Judaism Could Do Without, mean-spirited and presumptuous, it also turned out to be much, much too short.

By 290 rabbis, at least. Those who have gone out of their way to endorse a written religious ban on selling or renting homes, apartments, and lots to non-Jews, particularly Arabs.

At this year's end, then, let me begin anew, with this preamble. In my house, growing up, a true Yid, a person with a Jewish soul, was synonymous with that of a mensch, a genuinely human being; a person who is sensitive to the difficulties of others, and appreciative of the differences between people. That is to say, a Ben Adom, a descendent of Adam and Eve – who were, by the way, and certainly by Orthodox definition, not Jewish.

It's the end of a terrible year. A time to take stock. To rethink. And to realize that the Jewish People as a whole owes a special vote of gratitude to these hundreds of rabbis and their colossal ill will.

These rabbis have set the rest of us free.

In their newfound candor, these men, many of them municipal chief rabbis and heads of rabbinical academies – that is, the people who get to decide who is Jewish and who is not, who may marry and who may not, who may be buried where and with whom - have at long last told us what they have for years been quietly telling their rabbinical students, their parishioners, each other.

In so doing, they have effectively put an end to the notion of rabbinic authority. They have done the Jewish People an invaluable service.

They have freed us. Freed us to be Jews. Not on their terms. On ours.

Just listen to how the letter ends: "The neighbors and acquaintances [of a Jew who sells or rents to an Arab] must distance themselves from the Jew, refrain from doing business with him, deny him the right to read from the Torah, and similarly [ostracize] him until he goes back on this harmful deed."

In their level-eyed bigotry, their ironclad insensitivity, their untouchable, corrupting, bureaucracy-based immunity, they have taught us finally to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain of Oral Law.

At the same time, they have helped us to see where Jewish leaders the world over truly stand on issues of fundamental human consequence. The mumbling and the silence of the many who have ducked a response to the rabbis' action have made the strongest statement of all.

This month, even as the country was engulfed in flames, some of the same rabbis were busy in back rooms, deciding who could decide who is a Jew, and making sure that they would retain more and more of the say.

We no longer have to go along. They've lost the franchise.

We should thank them for showing us how they can take a period focused on disasters and personal tragedies and turn it into one more opportunity to threaten the government with dissolution. The issue this time?

Ultra-orthodox rabbis – who are only too happy to allow immigrant soldiers to keep them safe – now want to disallow the Orthodox conversions these same soldiers have undergone during their military service.

No one has to go along. And if this is about giving thanks, this is surely an opportunity to mention the more than 700 rabbis who have already signed a petition against the ban on selling or renting to Arabs.

No longer need we listen to the Gang of 300 when they tell us what the Almighty wants.

From apocalyptic rulings shielding settlements, to the brutal stranglehold on conversion policy, they are making up Judaism as they go along. And, in the process, by stating that non-Jews have no place here, annihilating the democracy that pays their very salaries.

How are we to understand these public remarks by officials of the state of Israel? What is it that they are telling us, these apparatchiks in Armani? That non-Jews can no longer be Israelis? That Arabs can no longer live here?

That Zionism turns out to be a form of racism, after all? Or, is it Judaism itself?

For years, we let this go on. We paid their salaries in taxes, in Jewish Federation contributions, in bribes disguised as clerical service fees, in bribes disguised as donations.

Does it surprise anyone that it would be these men who, in the space of one rabbinic open letter, would declare Israel's Declaration of Independence invalid?

These are the people whom we allow to decide who can be a Jew.

No more. Let people decide on their own.

Who am I to say this? A nobody.

But one who believes that it's hard enough already to be Jewish in this world, and a person who cares about Israel in this world, without having to run the gauntlet of self-elected Torah Jews whose Judaism is a product of, by, and for, a stateless people.

I'm a nobody, like the people who stood at Sinai, every Jew in this world, who received the Torah every bit as personally as the members of the Gang of 300.

Oh, and one other thing. I was once a Dayan, a rabbinical court judge. Years ago, newly in Israel, newly finished with my IDF service, bearded and short-haired because of it, I donned a skullcap and sat in the Beer Sheba Rabbinical Court, waiting to vouch for the Jewishness of a friend who was about to be married.

The Beer Sheva institution being what it is, that afternoon a divorcing couple came together one last time to physically assault one of the dayanim hearing their case. He wound up in Soroka hospital, and I was abruptly plucked from the bench and pressed into service as an appropriately bearded, if bewildered, alternate.

Its the end of a very tough year. As a Dayan B'Yisrael, I say, if you tell me you're Jewish, that's good enough for me. And if you're not, let's talk real estate.



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