Hunting season was just declared on Israel's Chief Rabbinate. Last week the American Jewish Committee began “heading up an unprecedented effort to form a broad coalition, here and in Israel, to limit, if not end, the rabbis’ authority.” Before that, Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wrote in Tablet: “It Was Never About Rabbi Avi Weiss,” declaring that the real struggle for U.S. non-Orthodox Jewish leaders should be far broader: Against the Chief Rabbinate and its standards altogether.
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This unprecedented effort is dangerous to Jews around the world and especially in Israel, where Israelis now risk finding out quite how difficult life can be without a centralized rabbinate.
Recently, the Chief Rabbinate refused to recognize controversial American Open Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss' certificates of Jewishness. Eventually, the Rabbinical Council of America developed a system together with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which allowed for the certificates of Jewishness of members of the RCA to be automatically accepted in cases where the member rabbi – including Rabbi Avi Weiss – documents the Jewish identity of the antecedents of the applicant and establishes that among those antecedents were neither converts nor divorcee women (and there are no concrete reasons to disqualify the certificates of the member rabbi in question). Otherwise, cases will be reviewed by the RCA'S Beth Din of America, and thus a certificate could still be issued with the institutional backing of the BDA, which will have investigated the dicey cases.
Immediately, Rabbi Weiss' lawyer issued a statement turning a technical solution to a bureaucratic problem into a vote of confidence for Weiss, who has been involved in a series of controversial institutions, to the point that the Orthodoxy of those institutions, their students and Weiss himself is being debated by a sizeable number of RCA members and many others. In a blurb that was first published by the JTA but shortly afterwards taken down by them after a clarification by the RCA,Weiss’ attorney in Israel, Assaf Benmelech said that “In the decision of the Chief Rabbinate, one can see recognition of the life work of Rabbi Avi Weiss in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and of the halakhic legitimacy of open Orthodox rabbis, who are contending with the challenges of our generation within the limits of the Halakha.” Rabbi Weiss thus spun the agreement as his personal victory.
This convoluted saga should prompt us to consider three questions. First, what are the functions of the Chief Rabbinate? Second, what would happen if the most controversial responsibilities were removed from the Chief Rabbinate? And finally, is the RCA's latest agreement with the Chief Rabbinate just politics or is it “good for the Jews?”
The Chief Rabbinate in Israel, like its counterparts around the world, is charged with two types of responsibilities. On the one hand, they represent Judaism, whether domestically, in diplomatic settings, at major policy events or in the media. They remind us of our responsibility to tackle poverty, protect the weak, heal the sick and live a morally uplifting, honest and spiritually inspired life. Needless to say, the chief rabbis must perforce be exemplars of these values. They must be able spokesmen, for they lead not only by example, but through their pronouncements. When the above has not always been realized, it has indeed been a loss to the nation.
However, they are also in charge of a bureaucratic apparatus, which is no less important. Included within that responsibility is maintaining rabbinical courts: Establishing who is Jewish by halakha, whether by birth or by recognized Orthodox conversion.
That responsibility is very great and thankless. It is the responsibility I enjoyed least in over a decade serving communities in Europe. But someone regrettably needs to do it, and it is best done at the national level.
Recently my family visited a U.S. consulate to apply for a passport for our youngest daughter. The clerk requested evidence that the U.S. citizen among us had actually lived for at least five years in the U.S. Our protestations that passports had been granted to our older children notwithstanding, we were told that we needed to follow the rules. It was unnerving, even more so when we were told that a statement by a previous employer did not suffice, even though said employer has been dutifully paying sales, income and employment taxes for several decades, but such are the rules. Why? We might have obtained a previous passport under insufficient premises, and so it needed rechecking, not unlike what happens when one opens a marriage or divorce file with the Rabbinate.
The problem is that after a century of assimilation, many people grow up believing they are Jewish, while halakhically they are sadly not. There are also people who converted in good faith, but who were so woefully uninformed, that it cannot be said that their commitment is serious. There are people who turned to the wrong rabbis to convert, not realizing that those rabbis' conversions would not be recognized.
Many Jews do not care about halakhic status. Someone may be "Jewish enough" as a love interest or as a future son or daughter-in-law. But over time, pluralism in this area will prove disastrous. Already, in the United States, one cannot necessarily marry another person who believes he is Jewish! Before any marriage under Orthodox auspices, each spouse's Jewishness must be ascertained. Sadly, many members of the Jewish community find themselves unable to produce evidence of their Jewishness. The lack of a central rabbinate forces them to spend countless hours tracing their genealogy, attempting to prove their status, which is not always possible.
In Israel, however, the great majority of Jews do not need to worry about this. They are documented Jews and so will their children, recognized by all segments of Jewish society. It is tragic that a considerable number of Israeli citizens who came to Israel under the Law of Return cannot be easily confirmed as Jews, and it is our collective responsibility, including the Chief Rabbinate's, to seek the welfare of those people, too.
However, if we were to release the Chief Rabbinate of the responsibility to establish Jewishness or cancel its monopoly, the results would be far worse. Over time, there would not be one, but several Jewish peoples. Particularly, it would drive a wedge between the more secular and more traditional segments of Israeli Jewish society. Once someone married a spouse who was not certified, a cloud of suspicion would hang over the children's heads, and by implication, since we won't have every person running around with a database of who is a Jew, upon entire families and neighborhoods. Such a wedge is too terrible to contemplate.
Kurtzer called the respective Jewish communities of Israel and the U.S. “two extraordinary, vibrant Jewish centers that did not look the same, that confronted radically different Jewish challenges in navigating Jewish identity and ascensions to power.” We can respect that reality without imposing the failed experiments of one community upon the other.
Knowing all this, we can now answer the final question: Is the RCA's latest agreement with the Chief Rabbinate good for the Jews? It definitely is. Together, the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate have created a structure that allows for more Jews to be recognized with minimal fuss and in a manner that is transparent and accountable. Unlike Benmelech’s claims, it does not entail any recognition for Rabbi Weiss' controversial ventures, and does not exclude that he could be reprimanded or even lose his recognition over those innovations. However, it has restored his dignity along with that of all members of the RCA without weakening the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's standards. This agreement can serve as a model of how to strike a balance between regulation and empowerment.
Rabbi Arie Folger is the honorary Chief Rabbi of Munich and its immediate past Senior Rabbi, now on sabbatical writing a doctoral thesis at Heidelberg's School of Jewish Studies. He is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America's Executive Committee and the Conference of European Rabbi's Standing Committee. He is writing in a personal capacity.