Killing Off the Rabbinate Won’t Solve Israel's Jewish Conflicts

Israel's Chief Rabbinate needs to be reborn as a mirror of the diversity of Jewish life in Israel – including the non-Orthodox - rather than being infamous for its dirty wars of succession.

Shuki Friedman
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As it now stands, Israel's Chief Rabbinate has reached the end of the road. Even if it continues to exist as an institution thanks to its establishment in legislation, and its rabbis continue to be paid from the public coffers, it is in effect bankrupt.

The Rabbinate was established by Israel's first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, to bring Jews closer to Judaism; not in order to alienate Jews from Judaism. The rabbinate's conduct today is building a separation wall, not only between the Rabbinate and the public, but also between the Israeli Jewish public and its Jewishness, tradition and roots.

The new chief rabbis assumed their positions a few months ago. The campaign that preceded their election was despicable, even by the "accepted" criteria of Israeli politics. The connection between the free-for-all battle, combined with political maneuvers that wouldn't shame any bizarre party central committee, and an institution that is supposed to lead to spiritual heights and to teach values, was unacceptable to many. The chief rabbis assumed the position with almost no public trust. But even the little trust they enjoyed has been lost.

In recent weeks, the Rabbinate has also lost the little, if any, trust it had among significant sectors of Orthodox Judaism in the United States. Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as the rabbi of a leading Orthodox community in New York, discovered one fine day that he is insufficiently Orthodox in the eyes of Israel's Rabbinate.

Two members of his congregation who came to register for marriage in Israel equipped with an affirmation of their Judaism from Rabbi Weiss, discovered that his imprimatur was insufficient. Despite the Rabbinate's recent retreat from their negation of Weiss' qualifications after overwhelming pressure both within Israel and from public figures in the United States, this is hardly a change of policy, but rather a tactical withdrawal.

In effect, as far as the Rabbinate is concerned, Weiss is no longer to be trusted as a rabbi. The Rabbinate's decision was widely condemned among U.S. Jewry. Even the Anti-Defamation League called on the Rabbinate to reverse its decision. The same is true of leading rabbis in Israel.

Last week, the Rabbinate lost almost any chance to speak to most Israeli Jews, when it ruled that military conscription for girls is forbidden. It's true that this is not a new ruling. What was exceptional this time around was the biting tone and the timing. Military service, including for girls, is loaded with symbolic value in Israel, and it is at the heart of the public discourse. A sweeping ruling to the effect that girls are not permitted to serve in the army is a palpable and symbolic blow to this shared burden and dialogue.

In addition, the harsh terminology regarding conscription used by several members of the Chief Rabbinate Council is disturbing. In effect, they compared army service to idol worship or forbidden sexual relations (which, along with murder, are considered Judaism's most egregious sins). The comparison, which has no basis in halakha (Jewish religious law) was an even more serious blow to the religious girls who are already serving in the army, and to anyone to whom military service is dear.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate did not become bankrupt only due to these incidents. These, and many other disturbing cases, are only symptoms of the problem itself. The Rabbinate today does not serve anyone. Its chief rabbis, as well as the municipal and neighborhood rabbis, are out of touch with all the components of Israeli society. The Haredim never listen to the Rabbinate in any case, religious Zionism considers it a fortress that has become Haredi and is therefore not relevant to it, and the secular community for the most part is not only far removed from the Rabbinate, but considers it an anachronistic institution that is destroying Judaism and is in no way relevant to their lives.

There are some who are observing this process from the sidelines and applauding. The worse it gets, they say, the better. The more the Rabbinate continues to make itself hateful to every sector and denomination, the more it brings about its own demise, and it will soon cease to exist. That may be, but if we want to preserve the Jewish and democratic identity of the country, the Rabbinate can and must play an important role.

A possible solution is the community model. The objective of this model is to make the Rabbinate connected, relevant and democratic. Instead of being imposed from above by political makhers, rabbis should be chosen by the neighborhood community. There should be a local religious leadership that suits the character of the neighborhood and its residents. Instead of the Chief Rabbinate Council that is painted in one color, black, there should be a more varied and pluralistic council, to be chosen by the neighborhood rabbis.

This would facilitate cross-denominational pluralism, too: If a neighborhood democratically voted in a non-Orthodox rabbi, then they too will be an intrinsic part of the decision-making of the local and national, religious leadership.

Instead of an alienated establishment that doesn't speak the language of the people, we should have rabbis who address the public, listen to it and speak to it in its language. Rabbis who know how to bring people closer to Judaism, rather than frightening and distancing them.

Such a change, when it takes place, will completely transform the present structure of the Chief Rabbinate and the nature of Israel's state-supported rabbinical system. If this takes place, it could turn the Chief Rabbinate into a positive factor in the public discourse and contribute a Jewish moral voice that is so lacking. It could create a Chief Rabbinate that connects Jews to Judaism rather than estranging them from it. A body serving not only the Jews in Israel, but also Jewish communities the world over. Such a change could save the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is a law professor in the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot, and the head of the Religion and State project in Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avoda, a religious Zionist movement dedicated to a thinking, open and self-critical religious culture and to promote the values of tolerance, equality, and justice in the religious sector and throughout Israeli society.

Members of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Members of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.Credit: Nir Kafri