An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City.
A week ago the Interior Ministry rejected the applications to immigrate to Israel by a group of nine Venezuelan converts to Judaism, under the pretext that their community was too small to recognize them as Jews. Ironically, the ostensibly secular government ministry in issuing its own interpretation of Jewish law ignored the criteria for conversion established by the Chief Rabbinate.
According to opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of Israel’s citizenry – 65% – rejects the religious authority claimed by the Chief Rabbinate over their personal status as Jews, whether secular or religious, over the entire life cycle from birth to burial. This situation can and must be changed.
Contrary to popular misunderstanding, the Chief Rabbinate was established during the British Mandate as a part of its divide-and-conquer policy to control its subjects. To this end, the British established the Wakf to be the religious authority for Muslims, a separate authority for the Druse, nine officially recognized Christian communities, and the Chief Rabbinate – a strictly Orthodox enterprise – for all Jews.
Under the impossible pressures of the nascent state’s fight for survival, prime minister David Ben-Gurion made the shortsighted decision to continue the Mandate’s policy. The result some 70 years later is the near chaos of an Israel whose democratically elected government is dominated by ultra-Orthodox politicians who deny the legitimacy of the Diaspora’s largest Jewish communities.
In perhaps the most egregious example of the tail wagging the dog, the cabinet’s haredi members at first approved an egalitarian prayer site at the Western Wall a year ago, then reversed themselves and blocked the implementation of a measure that would guarantee the freedom of worship to the non-Orthodox persuasions of both the Diaspora and local Jews.
The Rabbinical Council of America, the leading association of Orthodox rabbis, has branded the Chief Rabbinate’s behavior in a conversion case “a disgrace” due to its rejection of conversions approved by the most senior rabbinical judge of the Orthodox Beth Din (religious court) of America, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz.
This accusation follows the refusal by Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court to recognize a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent and respected Orthodox rabbi in the US, otherwise known for conducting the conversion of President-elect Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
For more than 2,000 years of exile, the sages recognized that there are many faces to Judaism. Independent rabbinical courts were established in every community and naturally there were differences in interpretation among leading rabbis. No rabbi or rabbinical court, however, could claim to be the supreme arbiter of religious issues.
This millennial-old Jewish heritage is now being threatened by a Chief Rabbinate that constantly seeks to impose itself as the equivalent of a Jewish Vatican.
The chief rabbis – one Ashkenazi the other Sephardi – vie with each other to be the most stringent interpreter and enforcer of Halacha.
The consequences are our dysfunctional political system in which the haredim have a stranglehold on the balance of power in the coalition. This leaves one recourse: the High Court of Justice.
The court’s mandate is to defend and protect the Basic Laws that aim to guarantee our independence in the absence of a true constitution. The text of our Proclamation of Independence establishes this fundamental principle of equality, which since 1947 has been violated by the agreement reached by Ben-Gurion and the religious parties at the time, known as “the status quo” and observed religiously as if it indeed were handed down at Sinai.
Our founding fathers had the foresight to declare that Israel “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.”
It is time for the High Court to realize the promise of Israeli democracy by taking away the Chief Rabbinate’s claim of the sole right to control the country’s religious character.
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