Israel's Rabbinic Leadership Is Turning Its Back on the State

The rabbis of the current generation want to carry on the dynasty of leadership, but their actions raise doubts about whether they are up to the task.

Yedidia Stern
Yedidia Stern
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Yedidia Stern
Yedidia Stern

Rabbis are influential in Israeli society. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 54 percent of Israel's Jewish citizens believe that rabbis should be consulted when the country makes diplomatic decisions. So it's important to examine how rabbis use their influence. The following was the harvest of recent weeks, a source of pride: Religious Zionist rabbis issued the "rabbis letter" that seeks to exclude Arabs from Israeli cities, the book "The King's Torah" permitted killing them, Rabbi Dov Lior refused to obey the rule of law, and dozens of rabbis supported this refusal.

The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate is also doing great things: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef courageously approved army conversions, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv threatened to hold a contemptible rally, the Shas rabbis bowed obsequiously to the ultra-Orthodox extremists, and a "compromise" was reached that continues to question the status of the thousands of converts in the Israel Defense Forces. It's all racism, refusal, inhumanity and deceiving converts in the name of religion.

What a far cry is the current rabbinic display from the rabbinic tradition in Jewish history. The experience of reading texts created by rabbis of all generations - religious law, thought and every other religious creation, in the context they were written - evokes astonishment at the rabbis' ability to lead communities in the harsh reality of the Diaspora and religious persecution. Responsibility for the public welfare, broad-minded judgments, the balance between the political and religious - all these were a driving force with which the rabbis preserved our uniqueness as a religious and ethnic group. And the whole nation repaid them with respect and devotion.

The rabbis of the current generation want to carry on the dynasty of leadership. But their actions when faced with the challenge posed by the Jewish state raises doubts about whether they are up to the task. For the first time, the Jewish collective has the authority and responsibility of wielding tools of power, with all the consequences. But the rabbis, instead of sharing in the burden of sovereignty, shake it off. The undercurrents of their positions show a lack of recognition of the importance of the central Jewish phenomenon of our time: the Jewish state.

When the mainstream of religious Zionist rabbis stands behind Lior's refusal, it is using superficial judgment, with tragic characteristics, that amounts to defiance of Jewish sovereignty in our generation. Just last Shabbat we read how the Prophet Elijah ran before the chariot of King Ahab, the idol worshipper, because he wanted to show respect to the government. Well, the State Prosecutor's Office is not as bad as Ahab, and Lior is not on the level of the Prophet Elijah. Why then does the religious leadership choose to act against the tradition dictated to us by Elijah, the zealous prophet?

When the Chief Rabbinate closes ranks with ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists (or at least tries to appease them, the facts are not yet clear ), it is leaving us with a social time bomb of mixed marriage, family pedigrees and the creation of a new national group, neither Jewish nor Arab, in the Jewish state. The rabbis are choosing the easy way out - it's easy to be strict and hard to be lenient. Thus the gates of Judaism are locked before a third of a million Israelis, most of whom have Jewish roots.

Where are the rabbis who will develop Zionist Jewish law that will grant religious meaning to the sacrifice and readiness to share a common fate of those immigrant soldiers who this week are completing the paratroopers' initiation trek? The soldiers are shouting, through their deeds, "your people are my people," and this generation's rabbinic leadership is turning its back on them.

The rabbinic influence on Israeli society in our time is undeniable. They have the power to intervene in the national agenda, move masses to action and even topple governments. But in a broader, multigenerational and fully Jewish perspective, the rabbis will be judged with particular harshness. They have the chance to be important partners in shaping Jewish sovereignty, which is such a rarity. And they are working to break it up.

The writer, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University, is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute.



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