There was hardly a murmur when former chief rabbi Yona Metzger was arrested for the second time and placed under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering, bribery and obstruction of justice.
This lack of reaction to such a scandalous event reflects the depths to which the Israeli rabbinate has descended. Yet, at the same time and despite a lamentable absence of spiritual leadership, there has been an extraordinary renewal of interest in Jewish religious values in recent years throughout Israeli society.
In its early days, the country was dominated by aggressive secularism. Observant Jews were viewed with disdain, and there were harrowing tales of young immigrants from North African religious families diverted to secular educational institutions designed to wean them away from “religious superstition”.
Later years regrettably saw many of the formerly moderate religious Zionists becoming obsessed with a messianic vision of retaining a Greater Israel but neglecting the broader religious issues affecting society. Against this background, the ultra-Orthodox incitement against Zionism intensified, increasing the polarization between the religious and secular.
Yet despite this and the immigration over the past two decades from the former Soviet Union of a million preponderantly secular Jews, mainstream Israelis are seeking a Judaism that is meaningful and relevant. This is reflected both in the mushrooming of institutes of Jewish learning and the increasing number of observant MKs among most parties in the Knesset.
Two principal factors have contributed to this. Firstly, unlike Ashkenazim, secularized Jews from Sephardi backgrounds were nurtured by their families to respect Jewish tradition and retain many family and life cycle rituals. The non-observant Sephardi Jew would frequently attend synagogue on Shabbat to say Kaddish for a parent, even if he subsequently went to a soccer match, and he would selectively adhere to Jewish rituals, such as fasting on Yom Kippur and eating matza on Passover.
The second was the rise of nationalist political parties that displayed respect for Jewish tradition, in contrast to the passionate opposition to religion by many of the socialists. However, the state religious leadership regrettably not only failed to respond to these trends, but an endless spate of ethical and social scandals involving rabbis has brought it to an all-time low and made it difficult to identify more than a handful of rabbis worthy of being considered inspiring spiritual leaders.
The Chief Rabbinate and religious councils are today dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom are aggressively anti-Zionist and refuse to even recite prayers for the state or the IDF in their synagogues. They lack the desire and the skills to communicate with average Israelis and are separatists who regard worldly knowledge as an assimilatory process. Maimonides, recognized as a role model for a pious Jew steeped in Torah and worldliness, would be denied a teaching role in most of today’s haredi educational institutions.
They have spawned a community whose values conflict with the national interest on two key issues: economics and military service. The haredi yeshivas’ directive to students to devote their lives exclusively to learning, at the expense of obtaining a trade or profession, has created a dependence on state welfare that is an aberration in Jewish history. This blatantly defies Maimonides’s dictum “Whoever thinks he can study Torah and not work, and relies on charity, profanes God’s name.”
The unwillingness to fulfill their civic obligations by serving in the IDF or at least participate in some form of national service is anathema to the mainstream Israeli experience. An example of the shameful depths to which opposition to the draft has descended was a primitive outburst of a former chief rabbi who claimed, “When yeshiva attendance is low, as on holiday evenings or prior to the Shabbat, more IDF soldiers are killed.”
The Chief Rabbinate sets the tone for religion in the state. Whereas it could have spearheaded a new religious mission, instead the ultra-Orthodox – who until recently held the institution in contempt – hijacked the Rabbinate. They have exploited it as a vehicle to further their interests and impose excessively stringent interpretations of halacha regarding the fundamental issues of marriage, divorce, conversion, burials, kashrut and more. Of late, they have also become obsessed with gender separation and issues of “modesty.”
Their stringent attitude towards marriage has led to thousands of Israelis traveling abroad each year for civil marriages in order to avoid dealing with the Rabbinate.
Recently, a woman converted by Rabbi Adin Steinsalz, one of the world’s outstanding Torah scholars, was obliged to marry abroad because her conversion was not considered legal in Israel.
There are 350,000 Israelis, including young soldiers in the IDF, who are not halachically Jewish and who have been actively dissuaded by the Rabbinate’s conversion tribunals from becoming Jews. Alas, there is no Ashkenazi or Sephardi rabbi today of the stature of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who refused to be intimidated and courageously addressed the halachic problem of the Jewishness of the Ethiopian aliya. The current leadership of the Chief Rabbinate itself symbolizes the decline of the institution. In the past, it was headed by distinguished Zionist rabbis like Rabbi Isaac Herzog and Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who were certainly more learned and no less pious than recent incumbents.
Rabbi David Lau, the haredi son of former chief Rabbi Israel Lau, was recently elected Ashkenazi chief rabbi. It was subsequently disclosed that he had entered into a pact with the extreme ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Avraham Sherman, giving him the power to veto any changes in the Rabbinate’s position on conversion, marriage or divorce. Rabbi Sherman had previously achieved notoriety when he had retroactively disqualified thousands of conversions recognized by the Chief Rabbinate – a move unprecedented in Jewish history.
But these problems extend even beyond the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists and encompass “hardal” elements within the Tekuma faction of the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party – who, while totally committed to Zionism and excelling in military service, share similar approaches with the haredim on halachic stringency and a world view. Their role model is Rabbi Dov Lior, Kiryat Arba’s chief rabbi, who described Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in Hebron, as “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.”
Despite promises to launch major reforms in the rabbinical arena, Bayit Yehudi has been remarkably silent on these issues. Under pressure from his right-wing elements, Minister Naftali Bennett seems to have soft-pedaled from his commitment to involve the haredim in the workforce and contribute towards the draft or national service. Moreover, if implemented, the initiative by some of the hardal elements to form a religious Zionist counterpart to the Shas Council of Torah sages would spell the death knell of the traditional religious Zionist movement, which adamantly insisted that rabbis should not be in a position to veto or influence political decisions.
One major positive change has been the passage of the Tzohar Bill, which allows couples to register with rabbis of their preference for their marriages. Tzohar is an extraordinarily important and constructive organization of devoted rabbis who reach out to the disenfranchised masses in their effort to imbue compassion and understanding and counteract the prevailing negative rabbinical image. Other dynamic organizations such as Beit Morasha and Itim are also seeking to build bridges and actively address such major issues as conversion that have been woefully neglected and even violently opposed.
If the status quo is maintained, we will suffer further polarization. With haredi parties currently lacking the political leverage to impose their will on the nation, there is now an opportunity to introduce major reforms and bypass the bureaucratic and corrupt rabbinical administration. The Chief Rabbinate should be decentralized. This will prevent cronyism, allow reform of the current structure of the religious councils and their grossly inflated salaries and enable individual Jewish communities to create their own rabbinical tribunals (batei din). Haredim should be free to practice their lifestyle but not to impose their standards on the nation. Orthodox Jewry survived throughout thousands of years in exile, scattered in different parts of the world without a centrally controlled rabbinate. We have the opportunity today of establishing a compassionate Zionist rabbinate, well versed in worldly knowledge as in sacred texts, to respond to the needs of the entire nation.
The writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.
com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.