A man wears a kippa embroidered with US and Israeli flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I have been called many things in my long career as a rabbi and teacher, but never had anyone called me “evil.” Until recently, and by the chief rabbi of my home city of Jerusalem, no less, Rabbi Shlomo Amar (The Jerusalem Post, June 15, 2016).
Rabbi Amar, who in his previous position of chief rabbi of Israel was famous for his refusal to do anything to help solve the problem of conversion for non-Jewish Russians, decided the other day to try to take possession of the Robinson’s Arch area of the Western Wall, for years now a place the government had granted to the Masorti Movement for mixed prayer services. Under police protection – of whom was he afraid? – he invaded the area, and planted the flag (or in the case a mechitza) of his brand of Orthodoxy and at the same time spoke of the “evil people” who had dared to pray there. Who are these “evil people” he condemned? I am included in this group, but I am not alone. It includes thousands who live in Israel and millions of Jews throughout the world who identify with the various non-Orthodox movements. I am proud to be in the company of so many “evil people.”
May they multiply! For three days I waited for a response from our Israeli leaders. Finally, only after the clashes at the Kotel Thursday afternoon when an egalitarian service was held at the Kotel plaza by the Masorti and Reform Movements, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who always speaks of himself as the leader of world Jewry, issued a statement condemning “those who would prefer to divide our people and even to say that other Jews are wicked or aren’t Jews at all.” Unfortunately he refrained from saying who it was who had said that or from calling for Rabbi Amar to step down from his post since it is inconceivable that a man in such an important public position would say such a thing. Jerusalem was perfectly content for years not to have a Chief Rabbi. It would be wonderful to return to that situation, but as of this writing, no such call has been made by any government official. The silence has been deafening. I am still waiting for the rest of the cabinet and the political leadership of the Jewish State to say something when millions of Jews have been maligned.
When I made aliya in 1973, one of the reasons was my desire to work to strengthen the presence of an alternative to the choice Israelis had between various brands of Orthodoxy and total secularism. I did not then and do not now view Orthodoxy as the enemy, but I did not realize sufficiently how the institution of the chief rabbinate was an obstacle to creating that alternative and how badly it limited religious freedom in Israel. In the years that have passed since then the Masorti Movement was created, with its many congregations and youth movement, the Schechter Rabbinical School and Institute were founded and indeed today there are strong alternatives to the old either/or of Judaism that was Israeli reality.
But each step of the way the rabbinate and its political supporters stood in the way and that continues to be the sorry situation today. For all the advances that have been made, the Jewish religion in Israel continues to be the prisoner of the monopoly of the Orthodox chief rabbinate, to the consternation not only of Masorti and Reform Judaism, but also of more moderate forces in Modern Orthodoxy who are stifled in their attempts to change the religious situation. Thankfully the situation in the Diaspora continues to be different. Otherwise all of Judaism would be perceived as a narrow version more suited to the past than to the present.
Consider the problems we face today. Just recently we have had the problem of the mikvaot. The courts have ruled that as public institutions paid for by the national budget – i.e. our taxes – they can be used by all groups.
The rabbinate objects and wants complete power over who uses them and how, so the political parties introduce new legislation that will grant them that power and the government suggests we waste resources building a few separate ones for the non-Orthodox – but the money will have to come from overseas and from the groups themselves. Then there is the Western Wall. After long negotiations an agreement is reached and the government accepts it but when the rabbinate begins to object the prime minister holds everything up to see what adjustments can be made and by now the entire scheme is in danger.
Does the word of the government mean nothing? And now when Rabbi Amar interferes and vilifies all non-Orthodox in the crudest way, the government says nothing.
Is it any wonder that world Jewry begins to question its relationship to the State of Israel? Then there is also the problem of kashrut certification, when the court has found in favor of the rabbinate but only because that’s what the current law seems to say, not because it’s right.
And need we add the fact that the rabbinate has absolute power over marriage and divorce and has strengthened its power over conversions, reversing more liberal legislation passed previously – all with the approval of the government? Let us be honest and speak the truth. The promise made at the founding of the state of freedom of religion has not been kept. Jews in Israel do not enjoy the freedom they have in all other democratic, Western countries to practice their Judaism according to their desires. They cannot be married by the rabbi of their choice or in a civil ceremony. Any divorce must be religious and must be done only by the official rabbinate. They can worship in a synagogue of their choice, but cannot expect government financing unless it is an official Orthodox synagogue. Israeli citizens are captives of a rabbinate that denies their freedom of choice and enforces a religious viewpoint that is unsuited to a modern democratic state.
When will we attain the freedom we have been promised and that we deserve? It is time for the chief rabbinate to cease to exist as an arm of the Israeli government with power over the lives of all Jewish citizens. It is time for it to become a private organization, competing with other organizations and adhered to by those who wish to be governed by it and not by those who see it as an anachronism and an impediment to true religious belief and practice. Are we truly “evil people” because this is our belief? The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Practice.