Israel's Rabbinate - a Disaster Already Happening

The institution has made large and growing numbers of Israelis hate Judaism.

These days, as the question of who will head the Chief Rabbinate is being decided, we should remember that the insitution is responsible for two serious disasters. The first touches on the past and present, the second on the present and future.

The first is related to the fact that most secular and traditional Jews in Israel won't read this article. At best, they're apathetic; otherwise, they're hostile to the Rabbinate and the religious establishment. This is why the vast majority of Israelis distance themselves from Judaism in general; Judaism is for the religious – bearded rabbis who speak strangely, for whom the Israeli is the ultimate "other," opposed to everything they represent.

In other words, the Rabbinate's sin is that it has made large and growing numbers of Israelis hate Judaism. The corruption, arrogance, contempt and abuse of both immigrants who want to convert and the so-called chained women who can't receive a divorce – these are severe expressions of the long tradition of alienation between this fossilized institution and the public.

The second disaster is the future one; actually, it's already here. Our Zionist forefathers put conversion in the hands of the moderate Mizrahi religious-Zionist rabbis of the 1950s. Our leaders assumed that these comrades would be flexible, do what had to be done and keep the Jewish people together: a united people. But that's not what happened. The Rabbinate has distanced itself from the public. The chief rabbis have become more and more ultra-Orthodox.

In recent decades, a few problematic things have happened. The conversion process has stopped and thousands of Israeli couples are voting with their feet and not getting married by the Rabbinate. And most overseas Jews – Reform, Conservative and others – are becoming ever more distanced from the extremist and uncompromising line of Israel's religious establishment regarding conversion and the laws governing marriage, divorce and similar issues.

We face a serious danger. Within a decade or two there will be two peoples here – an Israeli people and a Jewish people. In the Chief Rabbinate's basement there will be secret marriage lists for the religious and ultra-Orthodox, who won't want to marry certain members of the Jewish people. Some observers say these lists already exist. In Israel, the isolated religious establishment is irreversibly separating Jews from Jews – a problem we had avoided in our 3,000-year history.

No "nice" rabbi like David Stav will help; Stav is the candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi who has reportedly won supporters among nonreligious Israelis as well. The Rabbinate is one of Judaism's greatest disasters in the current generation. And if the secular-traditional majority doesn't stop this process of extremism now, our grandchildren will live as two peoples in one country.

The writer is the executive director of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture and the head of the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv.

Members of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Nir Kafri