More harm than good

The rabbinate causes harm by alienating many Diaspora Jews who are not Orthodox, and even some who are.

February 12, 2007 23:34
3 minute read.
More harm than good

jerusalem rabbinate 248.88. (photo credit: Knesset Channel)


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The Prime Minister's Office has had the good sense, in a letter to Masorti (Conservative) Movement leaders, to reject Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar's proposal to amend the Law of Return so that converts would no longer be automatically allowed to become Israeli citizens. At the same time, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, has said: "Whoever wants to celebrate a bar mitzva, but does not want to do it according to Jewish custom, should go elsewhere." Once again, we are seeing how the rabbinate, an institution whose raison d'etre presumably is to advance Judaism and unify the Jewish people, must be prevented by secular authorities from doing the opposite. The problem seems to be that the rabbinate equates one form of Judaism - more precisely, one form of Orthodox Judaism - with the religion and people as a whole. According to such luminaries, anything that strays from Orthodoxy is a threat to be fought. Individual Orthodox rabbis, of course, have a right to such a point of view. They can refuse to accept non-Orthodox conversions, and they can also wish they did not have to share the Western Wall with all of the Jewish people. The rabbinate, however, is not speaking for individual rabbis but for Israel, which is the state of all Jews, not just the Orthodox. The rabbinate's refusal to recognize any distinction between representing Orthodoxy and representing Israel chronically harms the cause of Judaism, both in the world and in Israel. It causes harm by alienating the vast majority of Diaspora Jews who are not Orthodox, and even some who are. To many Israelis as well, the rabbinate, far from representing a Jewish ideal, is identified with corruption, politics and coercion. Despite the fact that it no doubt includes many dedicated individuals, as an institution the rabbinate is currently causing so much harm to Judaism that it would be better dissolved if it cannot internalize and fulfill its intended role. Presumably, the rabbinate would rather dissolve itself than share power or authority with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, a fact which in itself illustrates the problem. The damage that the rabbinate is currently imposing on the Jewish state and people, however, is not inherent in the monopoly that Orthodoxy has over Jewish representation of the state. One can imagine an Orthodox rabbinate that is a source of inspiration for Jews of all stripes and that works to unite the Jewish people without denigrating and delegitimizing other streams of Judaism. On the conversion issue, for example, the rabbinate has concerns that should not be dismissed about differing standards for conversion and their impact, especially over the longer term, on the ability of Jews to marry each other and be recognized as Jews in their communities and in Israel. The solution to this problem, however, is not as Amar suggests, to simply reassert the Orthodox monopoly over the intersection between religion and state. It is to revive previous failed efforts to hammer out a joint standard for conversion that is recognized by all Jewish streams. For such an effort to have any hope of bearing fruit, all the streams would have to be willing to compromise for the sake of what should be their common cause, advancing Judaism among and beyond the Jewish people. As the Bible tells us, and as everyone knows, the Jewish people is minute in global terms, consisting of less than the population of just one of the largest cities. Despite this, the Jewish people has no shortage of both enemies and challenges. Is it too much to ask, under these circumstances, that rabbis from all Jewish streams show more willingness to work together on something as basic, necessary, and reachable as a joint standard for conversion? The compromise under which the Robinson's Arch area of the Western Wall has being opened for non-Orthodox prayer services does not thrill any of the three streams. It does seem, however, to be a workable compromise, and one that might reduce conflicts between Jews over this holy place. It is a shame that the chief rabbi of this area could not find a more inclusive way of expressing himself, and that such comments are typical of the rabbinate's seeming disinterest in promoting Jewish unity.

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