Is It Good Enough for the Jews?

Three organizations from different Jewish streams have launched campaigns calling for a fundamental reform of the Chief Rabbinate. They may not change the religious status quo but could shake up the political landscape.

Does the Chief Rabbinate belong to all religious Israelis, or only to the ultra-Orthodox? Is the best way to mend its flaws to strengthen its status, turning it into the supreme spiritual body in the Jewish world? Or would it be better to divest the Rabbinate of its authority and disband it? Would it be possible to privatize religious services in Israel, or would it be better to stick with the present, consolidated model in which one monopolistic entity is vested by law to ordain rabbis and pay their salaries, decide what meets kosher standards, determine who is married, and decide who is a Jew?

Three religious-ideological organizations have released platform statements about religious services in Israel, hoping to influence the Rabbinate - or at least instigate a public discussion about its roles and function. And perhaps also attract the attention of secular political parties ahead of the next Knesset elections. These groups argue that secular Israelis should express views about the Rabbinate - a governmental body that influences their lives when they marry, divorce, die, check into a hotel or simply pay taxes.

The three statements, drafted by Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah, the Reform movement and Tzohar, all differ. Yet the documents share a common assumption: Israel's Rabbinate should undergo wholesale change.

A week ago the Tzohar organization - associated with the moderate mainstream of the religious Zionist movement - initiated a sweeping, expensive public campaign to "strengthen the Chief Rabbinate." Hundreds of rabbis who deal with marriage and other ceremonies, primarily for Israel's nonobservant Jewish population, belong to Tzohar. Alongside stickers on buses and a Facebook page which encourages members of the public to raise state and religion issues, Tzohar has also released a pamphlet that delineates its position on the Rabbinate.

In the eyes of contemporary Orthodox Jews, this booklet will be regarded as being quite liberal. Among other things, Tzohar calls for alleviations in conversion requirements, formalizing procedures in the drafting of prenuptial agreements and monitoring over the appointment of state religious judges (dayanim ).

Appealing to the inclusive vision of Mandatory Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Tzohar wants to transform the Rabbinate into a "body representative of all the people of Israel, and one which brings hearts closer together." In this vision, the Rabbinate would deal with Jewish identity, education, Jewish law rulings and even the conferral of opinions regarding proposed laws, before they are voted on by the Knesset.

Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, the rabbi of Rehovot, is upset about Tzohar's use of the memory of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, his great uncle. In a statement delivered this week at Jerusalem's Hurva Synagogue, at a conference marking seven years since the evacuation of Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip, this heir of the Kook rabbinic dynasty claimed that public posters and declarations made by Tzohar are incorrect. "I climb onto a bus to travel and see a picture of Rabbi [Abraham Isaac] Kook on Egged buses. It makes me happy to see a picture of Rabbi Kook, that's wonderful. And it's written that the army is a sacred entity ... and this statement is signed by several people. This constitutes rank disdain toward all members of the Chief Rabbinate, and it is incredibly humiliating. That makes me ask questions about Rabbi Kook's outlook. I believe the Rabbinate was part of Rabbi Kook's outlook," Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook said. He dismissed Tzohar campaign advertisements as "lies."

Elections for the Rabbinate are scheduled for March 2013. Tzohar intends to back two of its own candidates. The two will challenge ultra-Orthodox candidates who seem to have front-runner positions in these elections: such Haredi candidates include Rabbi David Lau, the rabbi of Modi'in (and son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau ), and Rabbi Avraham Yosef from Holon (the son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ).

Tzohar's chairman, Rabbi David Stav, defends his organization's actions. "We are discussing a question we think bears critically upon the state of Israel and the Jewish people," he says. "Should the present situation continue, in 20 years the state of Israel will be constituted of two peoples - a Jewish-traditional population and a Jewish-Gentile population - and I am talking on the basis of Jewish law parameters, not cultural parameters. If Central Bureau of Statistics data pertaining to the increase in civil marriages are correct, and should new immigrants from the U.S. and Russia not be able to prove that they are Jews, they and their children will not be regarded as Jews. In another 20 years, some 2.5 million Israelis will live in the country with their status as Jews clouded by doubt ... we are talking about the common Jewish identity of the state's citizens. The purpose of the struggle concerning the Chief Rabbinate is to ensure that our children - religious and secular - will remain as children of one Jewish people."

Many clauses in the Tzohar manifesto are declarations attesting to principles of nonpartisan patriotism, mutual obligation and public responsibility, and many wonder whether the organization's program could really have any practical utility. "The best thing I can say [about Tzohar] is that they are 30-40 years behind the times, and dream dreams that are not relevant, not in terms of current realities with the Rabbinate, and not in terms of what the Israeli public wants," claims Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Reform movement ).

"On a less optimistic reading," he continues, "this can be seen as an attempt to serve as a fig leaf for an establishment which fundamentally infringes human rights, and coercively imposes itself upon a large portion of the citizens of Israel. This is an establishment that should have no place in a democratic system, or even in a Jewish state. Its [Tzohar's] proposal to create a more friendly, smiling Rabbinate, one that has greater awareness about providing services and which deals with efforts to bring Jews together, cannot affect the fact that family law in Israel today mortally infringes women's rights, that the conversion crisis occurred under religious Zionism's watch, that they lack any substantive program, and that the conflation of religion and state is a corrupting force.

"There is an attempt here," Rabbi Kariv adds, "to conceal a bitter pill in shiny wrapping paper; and this is a pill which a large portion of the Israeli public would rather not swallow. This program features nothing substantive ... Even should Tzohar rabbis win [in Rabbinate elections], the process by which Israel's Rabbinate becomes ever more ultra-Orthodox will continue."

Tzohar's campaign was launched on the day Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook passed away, 77 years ago. In contrast, the Reform movement launched its campaign a year ago, on a date marking 107 years since the death of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl. The Reform leaders emphasize Herzl's position in favor of the separation of religion and state. In contrast, Tzohar quotes Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's statements about an inclusively spirited Rabbinate.

The Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah program was released recently as a well-polished, new manifesto, but the truth is that it was originally presented two years ago. The Orthodox organization's proposal, drafted by Dr. Hadar Lipshitz, calls for the disbanding of the Rabbinate and for the provision of services to all Jewish streams and circles in the country on a democratic basis. Each citizen would be entitled to register with the community suited to his or her spiritual outlook (including non-Orthodox communities ), and powers would be transferred from the current central establishment to each community on the basis of the size of its membership. Each community would handle its budget on the basis of its values and character. There would no chief rabbis in cities; recognized rabbis would be those who receive budgets from each community and from the state.

Community model

Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah formulated this program not as a vision for some distant future, but rather as a practical proposal to be implemented gradually, starting now. The movement has ideas to reform the current religious system; such reforms could be implemented even before the new community model of religious leadership takes root.

Rabbi Ilay Ofran, rabbi of the Yavneh group and a leader in the Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah organization, claims that both the Reform movement and the Tzohar rabbis propose strengthening the current model of consolidated rabbinical authority. "Tzohar's model is really a string of declarations, and it lacks a message. It's like the speech of a beauty queen who talks about world peace but doesn't have a clue about how to bring that about, and about what should be done tomorrow morning. The Tzohar platform strengthens the Rabbinate.

"In our model," Rabbi Ofran continues, "the Rabbinate would only have symbolic status. The idea of vesting authority for the provision of religious services in one person's hands - no matter how pleasant and cordial that figure might be - is utterly wrong. Let's suppose that Rabbi Stav would become Chief Rabbi; that means that in the next elections, somebody would inherit this form of religious authority consolidation.

"The Reform Jews also talk about concentrated religious power," he adds. "They seek status for three streams - the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Reform Jews in Israel, who have some 30 synagogues, represent an ephemeral but wealthy force and should be recognized as a Jewish stream. The religious-Zionist movement, which is 200 times larger, would not be recognized as a stream. We don't count streams; I don't know whether Judaism has three or 30 streams. In contrast to Tzohar and the Reform Jews, we want to democratize Judaism. The Reform Jews have a mortal fear of democracy, because it would kill them. The moment democracy were to be instituted in religious life in Israel, Reform Jews would disappear."

Rabbi Ofran believes that "due to its hyper-conservative approach, Tzohar figures depend on the power concentration model. We say Jews should be able to decide what they believe in. Market forces would do their work. Every private citizen should say whether he wants services, what he wants, and how he wants them."

While the three programs differ from one another, they share a common purpose: each holds that the Rabbinate is in need of fundamental change. Given current political circumstances, these programs have little hope of realization, yet they might perhaps stir public discussion. When the Rabbinate elections are held, the programs will meet their first practical test; and the elections will constitute a particular test of strength for Tzohar.

Rabbi Ofran claims that Ne'emanei Torah is conducting contacts with secular political parties, trying to convince them of the virtues of the organization's community model. "The social protest movement last summer contributed one major innovation - Israel's public stated its views in a number of spheres. Perhaps in the next elections, new topics - including that of state and religion - will capture the spotlight. After all, ideological differences between Kadima, Likud and Labor pertaining to the territories and the peace process have narrowed and blurred. There is a feeling in the air ... that the public has interests beyond the situation at Migron. The feeling is shared by the religious," Rabbi Ofran states.