Rebel Against the Rabbinate Joins Local Jerusalem Politics

California-born Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who made headlines encouraging Jerusalem eateries to relinquish official kashrut certificates, is one of the leaders of a joint religious-secular political party.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is an Orthodox rabbi and social activist in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood, and also chairs the Lev Ha’ir Community Council which serves parts of the downtown area. But his recent decision to run for city council on a mixed religious-secular list is not just another local story.

This religious Zionist rabbi, a prominent member of the city’s Yerushalmim party headed by City Councilwoman Rachel Azaria, is leading a popular revolt against the Chief Rabbinate. It has been developing mainly in the form of restaurants claiming to be kosher although they have no rabbinate certification, but spread to other areas as well.

The recent election of a pair of conservative ultra-Orthodox as chief rabbis came as an unpleasant surprise to some religious Zionists who were entertaining hopes of modernizing the Chief Rabbinate. One of the first attempts by the disappointed to express themselves politically, Leibowitz’s plunge into politics at the head of a joint religious-secular group represents a sea change in municipal politics in the capital. His main goal is to set up alternatives to the rabbinate’s far-reaching tentacles.

“I’m both happy and sad about the rabbinate election results,” say Leibowitz. “Sad because they reflect the current awful state of affairs. But happy because now I think a battle for the rabbinate will be better fought from the outside than from within. I’m skeptical about the ability of the chief rabbi to change things from above, and thus I’m wondering whether [religious Zionist] Rabbi David Stav, from his current position, can’t perhaps leverage his loss [in the race for the Chief Rabbinate].

“I think that we have to get up our nerve and begin not just expressing positions that are more welcoming to the general public but to also take action,” he says. “I hope that an organization like Tzohar or Beit Hillel [both religious Zionist rabbinic groups] will understand that in the end nothing is stopping us from filling the void with the courage to challenge the rabbinate every step of the way, so that it either improves or closes up shop.”

Leibowitz, a California native who is connected to a neo-Hassidic community, many of whose members identify with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, heads the Sulam Yaakov Yeshiva in Nahlaot, which prepares students for their rabbinical ordination. Last November Leibowitz joined a “restaurant rebellion” against the rabbinate in Jerusalem. Today there are 12 establishments that have cut off all ties with the rabbinate, whether for financial reasons or as a political statement. The rabbinate has since fined some of these eateries for illegally advertising themselves as kosher.

Although he was putting his permit to officiate at weddings at risk, Leibowitz gave the restaurant rebellion a rabbinic imprimatur, and essentially led the campaign. He has voluntarily trained teams of workers at two neighborhood cafes to carefully observe all the rules of kashrut, so the cafes could do so without the services of an official kashrut inspector. Leibowitz believes kashrut should be dependent on the trust between the customer and the restaurant’s owner and workers, and not between the customer and state kashrut inspectors, no matter how professional the latter may be.

“This is a story of autonomy,” says Leibowitz, who champions the establishment of alternative rabbinic frameworks to deal with issues even more sensitive than kashrut, such as conversion and marriage, “albeit carefully.”

“People want to take back their ability to define their identity and behavior for themselves,” he says. “Rabbis can fight this, but people are seizing their autonomy and it would behoove the rabbis to see this and respect it. A second point is that this offers a variety of possibilities for people to express their Jewish identity, and that allows more people to find their place inside.

For him, politics is a battle against all kinds of fundamentalism. “It’s meant to break down barriers between religious and secular. These clashes between religious and secular have always typified Jerusalem politics, and the Yerushalmim list is promoting a joint vision for the city’s moderates,” he continues. “This is connected to the issue of kashrut, because it relates to the young people of Jerusalem. This is the Jerusalem of the future. The religious community has to widen the circle and break this black-and-white, zero-sum equation. It is no longer compatible with the reality in the street.”

Azaria, who heads the Yerushalmim list, is a religious woman, but the list will have both religious and secular candidates.

“Rabbi Leibowitz stands out for his integrity and his courage to look Israeli Judaism in the eye and reformulate the relationship between religion and state, secular, Haredim and religious,” she says. “He understands the importance of creating solidarity between the different groups.

“Rabbi Leibowitz led the campaign for trustworthiness in kashrut, was able to unite the pluralistic communities as head of the neighborhood administration, and is now stepping up a level into municipal politics,” Azaria continues. “His getting involved in politics is evidence of his public courage and willingness to 'get his hands dirty’ and take action on behalf all Israeli society, something which unfortunately is sorely lacking in the Israeli rabbinical world.”

Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz.Credit: Emil Salman

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