Dear Chief Rabbi Lau,
When messages started to flood into my inbox, “proud of you,” I didn’t know what I had done to deserve such accolades. Then I saw your list. I was one of the 160 Conservative, Orthodox and Reform rabbis your office blacklisted. Usually, being blacklisted is a stain on one’s reputation. But for my congregants and for me, this was a badge of honor.
We have never met. But I have written to you several times letters such as this one:
Dear Rabbi Lau,
This is to confirm that Sarah is Jewish. She was born to Jewish parents and has grown up as an active member of my congregation before making aliyah. I have known Sarah for 17 years. I know her parents and grandparents who are also Jewish. I have watched Sarah grow up, celebrated her baby naming and bat mitzvah. I am proud of her decision to move to Israel and know that her presence will bring blessings to the Jewish State.
Sarah already submitted to you a copy of her parent’s ketubah as you requested. If you have additional questions from me regarding her Jewish status, please be in touch.
Rabbi Alexander Davis
As you know, I wrote these letters to attest to the Jewish identity of people from my congregation who have applied to your Office of the Rabbinate to marry in Israel. I have written these letters on behalf mostly young adults who left their family and their comfortable lives in America to move to Israel. They are people who have worked professionally in my community to educate about and advocate for Israel before making aliyah themselves. These are people born to two Jewish parents, as well as sincere gerei tzedek [righteous converts], who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish people and converted according to Jewish law.
I am proud of them and proud of their parents and grandparents who planted within them a love of Israel. I am proud of their teachers who taught them ahavat tzion, a love of Zion, proud of their shuls and schools, camps and communities which nurtured and supported their dream to move to Israel. And I am proud of my colleagues, good, smart, honest rabbis, committed to teaching Torah and ahavat yisrael, who work tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish people.
But for all that pride, in equal measure, I feel bewildered and ashamed by the State of Israel’s official rabbinic body. You see, since I never heard back from you expressing any concerns, I had no reason to think that my letters were questioned. Then I saw the blacklist - which can only be seen as a slap in the face to Diaspora Jews.
After the story broke, you expressed dismay that this list was published without your knowledge or approval. But Rabbi Lau, what is disheartening is not that it was released but that such a list exists. Far be it from me to remind you of the Talmudic sugiya in Yevamot 13b in which we read that though they held different opinions on the halakhic status of Jews from the other camp, members of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, nevertheless, did not refrain from marrying each other.
In spite of this teaching, I have no doubt that you defend the need for such a list. Indeed, this Talmudic passage in its continuation can be used for just such a justification. And if I am completely honest, I can understand and accept that such a list exists for use by members of your own Orthodox community. You see, I too check to make sure that the people with whom I stand under a chuppah are Jewish according to the standards of my movement. My synagogue’s wedding application asks explicitly, “Are you Jewish?” “Did you convert?” etc.
But Rabbi Lau, here is the difference: my impulse is to welcome, yours to exclude. I attempt to “judge all people on the scale of merit” by trusting in fellow Jews and showing respect for other rabbis—even those with whom I differ. You, on the other hand, show contempt for rabbis and Jews outside your community and abuse your power by imposing ultra-Orthodox standards on all Jews.
That an Orthodox rabbi does not accept my testimony, I sadly accept. But the fact that the Jewish state, representing the entire Jewish people, endorses only one narrow version of Judaism by compiling a blacklist, is tragic. The fact that the Jewish State defines who is a Jew in such a way that it alienates the majority of Diaspora Jewry is heartbreaking.
But here is the even bigger shanda - the fact that my colleagues and congregants are proud of me for being included in this blacklist. For, it is a sign of the utter contempt and disregard for the office of the Rabbinate that you have wrought among Jews of all denominations. That is an embarrassment for your office, for the State and a danger for the Jewish people.
Coming so closely after the recent eruption over the Kotel issue, it only reinforces the sense that you are either dismissive of or willfully ignorant of the feelings of the vast majority of Jews worldwide. Coming at the start of the Three Weeks, when we recall in Jewish history destruction that resulted from internal Jewish strife, it further weakens and splinters our people, something we can little afford.
Rabbi Lau, your predecessor, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Kook taught that in the face of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, we need ahavat chinam, baseless love, expressed in mutual trust. As you administer the applications for couples wishing to unite in love under a chuppah in Israel, I ask you to be mindful of Rav Kook’s teaching.
And if you have a question about one of the applicants, please be in touch. Perhaps if we talk, we can clear things up. And maybe through that contact we can even grow in understanding and bring about the vision of the Talmud regarding Hillel and Shammai about whom it was said: “This is to teach that they showed love and friendship towards one another.” Then will the sounds of bride and groom rejoicing in the courtyards of Jerusalem truly bring joy to the Jewish world.
Rabbi Alexander Davis
Rabbi Alexander Davis is senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis, Minnesota and co-chair of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association.
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