Israel's Chief Rabbinate Doesn't Represent Anyone

It is ironic for Rabbi David Lau to berate the Conservative movement, given that he and his colleagues have done more to distance Jews from Judaism than anyone else.

Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau.
Olivier Fitoussi

Last week, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau criticized Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting a Jewish school in the United States that is affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

Speaking on the ultra-Orthodox station Radio Kol Hai, Rav Lau said, “If Bennett had asked my opinion before the visit I would have said to him explicitly, ‘You cannot go somewhere where the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past, and from the future of the Jewish People.’”

It would be one thing if Rabbi Lau were just some community rabbi, or had been speaking in a private conversation.  But he holds a public office that purports to represent the Jewish community as a whole. His public statements make it clear that “the Jewish People” to him means “those Jews who follow my lead."

That body of Jews is small, even nonexistent. The ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel don’t respect the Rabbinate’s decisions. The national-religious communities are increasingly coming up with alternatives to it. And the secular public sees the Rabbinate as a symbol of all that’s wrong with Judaism.

Contrary to what is believed in some quarters, a rabbi’s authority does not come from some mystical knowledge or “ruah hakodesh” (the holy spirit); his authority comes from the fact that people come to him with questions and are willing to follow his rulings. His authority rests entirely on trust — not trust from above, but trust from below.

Rabbi Chuck Davidson, an authority on conversion to Judaism who has been battling the Rabbinate over its unnecessarily strict interpretations of the requirements for conversion, told me via email that “post-Sanhedrin rabbinic authority is based entirely on acceptance and agreement on the part of the population served by the rabbis in question.” Yet, a solid majority of Israelis have very little trust in the Rabbinate, a report by the Israel Democracy Institute shows. "As such," Davidson says, "the Rabbinate has no Halakhic authority over the broad Israeli public, and is, in fact, an illegitimately coercive institution from a Halakhic perspective.”

Given that Rabbi Lau, his predecessors, and his colleagues in the Rabbinate have done more in recent decades to distance Jews from this official body than anyone else, his berating of Conservative Jews is indeed ironic.

What's also ironic is that Rabbi Lau himself indirectly acknowledged this dilemma. “Don’t forget,” he said, “in almost every Jewish family you’ll find a religious grandfather, an ultra-Orthodox grandfather, or even a grandfather who is a rabbi. You will not find a lot of families with a Conservative grandfather.”

Demographically speaking, Rav Lau may be right—it’s true that the Jewish affiliation of non-Orthodox families often tends to peter out from generation to generation. But if Rav Lau really believes this to be true, he should be doing everything possible to win the hearts of Jews the world over to the Orthodox way of life. Instead, he – along with the Rabbinate he leads – is doing his utmost to push Jews away from Jewish observance.

From corruption, to political maneuvering in the interests of specific population sectors, to changing halakhah in such a way that it reduces the number of Jews in the land of Israel, the Rabbinate has led the way in lowering the reputation of halakhah in the eyes of Israeli Jews.

In fact, the Rabbinate in Israel is proof that one can be a “menuval bereshut ha'Torah,” a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah.  Over 30 times the Torah commands us to protect converts, widows and orphans—meaning the weakest members of society. And yet, the so-called guardians of Torah in this country are the worst abusers of the very people the Torah tells them to protect.

Those who see the Rabbinate as the symbol of what’s broken in halakhah are right: centralized halakhic authority is a sign of stagnation at exactly the time when halakhah needs to be dynamic and evolving.

Instead, the Rabbinate has, tragically, politicized Jewish law by turning it into an object that “belongs” to the elite, who often use it as a tool with which to build siege walls around their political positions. The saying of Rabbi Tzadok in Pirkei Avot seems particular insightful in light of the current situation: “Do not separate yourself from the community Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig.”

Minister Bennett’s visit to the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan was exactly the sort of thing that someone serving as Diaspora affairs minister should be doing. I’m no great fan of Bennett, but in this case, I’d say he served as a much better example of Jewish values than the chief rabbi. In a sense, he was doing the work that Rav Lau should be doing: bringing people closer to Judaism.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Rav Lau criticized Bennett for going to a place that “distances Jews from Judaism.” There’s a saying in the Talmud (Kiddushin 70b): “a person stigmatizes another with his own blemish.”

Yael Shahar divides her time between researching organizational dynamics and Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish topics can be found at www.damaged-mirror.com.