The Rabbinate Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Israel's official religious monopoly is far from being the unifying force that its advocates claim it to be – it is driving a wedge into the Jewish people.

Gil Cohen-Magen

It is not surprising that Rabbi Ari Shafran would defend the Orthodox monopoly in Israel as necessary to preserving the unity of the Jewish People. Yet even he – as spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America - has difficulty defending the Chief Rabbinate. In what may be one of the world’s greatest understatements he writes, “There may well be legitimate complaints about the Israeli rabbinate’s bureaucracy.” Bureaucracy is the least of it. This is an anti-democratic institution characterized by corruption, prejudice against women and distortion of  Jewish Law. Far from being the uniting force that it claims to be, it is driving a wedge into the Jewish people.

There are two areas in which one might have expected the rabbinate to solve religious problems that trouble our society: conversion, and marriage and divorce. In both of these the Chief Rabbinate has been the problem, not the solution. Everyone from Orthodox leaders to non-Orthodox Jewish groups and the secular public attests to this, as attempts to get around the rabbinate have ranged from the orthodox Tzohar rabbis to the failed attempts by Israel's national religious sector to introduce additional conversion courts, which was undermined by the coalition agreement.

The claim that the rabbinate upholds the common denominator of the Jewish people by hewing to time-honored halakha is baseless. Many respected Orthodox rabbis in Israel feel that if anyone has deviated from halakha it is the Israeli Rabbinate with its demands of converts that have absolutely no basis in Jewish law. The rabbinate’s refusal to recognize Conservative/Masorti conversions, for example, is a matter of politics and power, not halakha - conversions performed here and elsewhere through the Conservative/Masorti Movement uphold the demands of halakha completely.

By giving the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly, Israel has not contributed to the unity of the Jewish people. Rather, it has legalized its disunity. Non-Orthodox converts are already recognized by other Israeli authorities. They marry Israelis and bring children into the world – children who are recognized as Jewish by some Jewish authorities but not the rabbinate. It would indeed be desirable if the various streams of Judaism could reach an agreement that would result in a conversion process recognized by all, and attempts have been made both in America and in Israel. I was involved in one such attempt, the Neeman commission, which ended in utter failure purely due to the rabbinate's refusal to have anything to do with other groups.

The rabbinate failed to solve one of the major conversion challenges facing Israel over the last few decades: the massive number of immigrants from the FSU who are not Jewish according to halakha, but wish to convert. The rabbinic courts should have dealt with them decades ago. Their conversion could have been handled according to Jewish law, but not according to the unnecessarily ridged requirements that the Chief Rabbinate has insisted upon.

The rabbinate's monopoly over marriage and divorce in Israel has also contributed to the disunity of the Jewish people. Its policies have driven Israelis by the thousands to avoid the rabbinate altogether, either by having a civil marriage abroad or by simply forgoing marriage completely. We are all deluding ourselves if we think that unity can be achieved by religious coercion, which is what the current Israeli system entails. All it does is create animosity and anti-religious sentiment both in Israel and abroad. As Haaretz stated in a recent editorial, the religious intolerance being increasingly shown here under this government is causing an enormous gap between Israel and diaspora Jewry. But these actions and statements by this government should be eliminated not only because of what they do to Israel-Diaspora relations, but because of their effect upon Israeli life and society, because of their unfairness and injustice affecting our lives and corrupting Israeli society.

The monopoly of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate does not represent the will of the people but the political compromises our system of government encourages. Poll after poll has demonstrated that a significant percentage of Israelis favor the recognition of non-Orthodox streams and non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel.  Most Israelis want the freedom to choose their own rabbis and to have marriages performed by the rabbi of their choice.

Israel prides itself on being a democracy. Democracies do not force individuals to submit to religious authorities not of their choosing. In the Declaration of Independence, Israel declared that “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

The current situation denies freedom of religion to Jews and is therefore intolerable. Allowing true religious pluralism and freedom in Israel will not harm Judaism. It will only strengthen it and eliminate the injustice that currently reigns. Democracy demands it. Religious freedom demands it.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a founder of the Masorti Movement and the Schechter Institute.