In the 1950s, prime minister David Ben-Gurion queried 50 Jewish intellectuals
worldwide as to whom they would define as a Jew. In the 1980s, Israeli religious
parties wished to define who qualified as a rabbi in the Diaspora. By the 1990s,
the question became who was a convert to Judaism in Israel.
Today a new
low has been reached in this endless quest for conformity, as the Chief
Rabbinate has rejected the testimony of American Orthodox rabbis concerning the
singlehood and Jewish status of couples wishing to marry in Israel.
particular, the Chief Rabbinate arrogantly dismissed a certification to this
effect signed by the well-known New York City Orthodox rabbi, educator and
pro-Israel activist, Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Throughout his career, Rabbi Weiss
has vouched for the personal status of Jewish singles wishing to marry in
Shockingly, his name now no longer appears on a secret list of
“approved rabbis” whose testimony regarding Jewish and single status are
accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.
The end result is personal shock for a
Jewishly-committed young couple, a potential rift in Israel’s relationship with
world Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular, and yet another crisis
of credibility for the integrity of the Chief Rabbinate as an official
institution of the State of Israel.
At first glance, one might interpret
this outrage as one more illustration of a growing “haredization” of Israeli
While this is certainly true, the actual context lies in the
aftermath of the recent elections for the Chief Rabbinate.
Chief Rabbi David Lau owed his election to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) supporters,
and now promises to apply their most stringent criteria to matters of personal
Indeed, he appears to have reached an agreement to that effect
with Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the rabbinical appeals court judge who invalidated,
on a retroactive basis, thousands of conversions carried out by the respected
Rabbi Haim Druckman. The price of this latest capitulation to haredi extremism
is the risk of forfeiting inclusivity for all Jews wishing to return to the
Jewish homeland – the very rationale for Israel’s existence.
reason was given for the rejection of Rabbi Weiss, notwithstanding his long
record of service in the Orthodox rabbinate. Weiss does represent a moderate and
progressive voice within American Orthodoxy, and has drawn considerable fire for
establishing what he terms an “Open” Orthodox rabbinical school and a
counterpart institution for the training of women religious leaders with the
title of “Maharat.”
Needless to add, these expressions of an “open” and
“modern” Orthodoxy are anathema to haredi forces, who have become increasingly
less hesitant to stoop so low as to prevent born single Jews from marrying one
This highly offensive and divisive incident may, of course, be
resolved expeditiously, assuming cooler heads will prevail. Nonetheless, the
implications for Israeli society are consequential.
Haredi parties are
now excluded from the governing coalition, and haredi society itself is
Haredi leaders, threatened by the specter of military
conscription (or alternate service) and the economic necessity for their male
followers to abandon the yeshivot and enter the workforce, fear the loss of
influence and political power within Israeli society.
In that context,
the Chief Rabbinate is mounting a lastditch effort to protect its monopoly over
matters of personal status as the last redoubt of tangible haredi
It is the height of irony that a leading institution of religious
Zionism, the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, has fallen into the hands
of non-Zionist haredi leaders over the past four decades. Rather than accept
this status quo, however, the opportunity now exists for all those Jewish
Israelis who care about their link to their co-religionists in the Diaspora to
form a new social contract between the secular and religious elements of their
The Chief Rabbinate is rapidly losing its constituency, as few
look to it for religious leadership and legitimation. The current governing
coalition, consisting of secular and national religious parties – if it has the
will to do so, and if it had the full support of Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu – could easily break the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over personal
Should those efforts succeed, Israel would be strengthened
as a democracy in which the ethos of Judaism permeates Israeli society, but
absent coercion of individuals to adhere to religious practices to which they
object on grounds of conscience.
Put simply, there is likely to be
greater respect for, and expression of, Judaic tradition if there are no laws
In this debate over the meaning of a Jewish state, the
voices of American Jewry must be heard and taken into
Delegitimation of American Jewry and its rabbis results in the
weakening of the attachment of American Jewry to Israel, and attenuates its will
to engage in pro-Israel advocacy.
That, in turn, could do longterm damage
to the special relationship between the US and Israel.
In other words,
diminished American Jewish attachment to Israel could be harmful to Israeli
No less importantly, Israel was established as the state of the
Jewish people. Efforts to divide Jewry, which the actions of the Chief Rabbinate
in delegitimating the personal status of American Jews may clearly bring about,
risk undermining Israel’s very raison d’être – the return of the Jews as a
people to homeland and sovereignty. In other words, the stakes couldn’t be
Dov Zakheim and Steven Bayme serve, respectively, as chairman and
director of AJC’s William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Commission