In search of religious leadership

The toxic combination of religion and politics in Israel has led to a broad estrangement of Israelis from the state institutions of religion.

May 7, 2017 21:36
3 minute read.
Prayer at Western Wall

Prayer at Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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The chief rabbis may not have noticed, but the Chief Rabbinate’s legal monopoly on marriage and divorce in Israel is eroding from below. Among secular Israelis, a full 68 percent are in favor of civil marriage. In the past month, the Reform and Conservative movements openly and proudly advertised a non-Orthodox alternative to marriage under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. Even in national-religious circles, increasing numbers of young couples choose marriage outside of the rabbinate.

The religious establishment is reacting like a deer caught in the headlights. Unfortunately this is not an isolated case.

Faced with the challenge of 300,000 Israelis who are not halachically Jewish, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their families, the rabbinate did precisely nothing. Rather than bravely facing the challenge of the hour, and finding an appropriate solution, the Chief Rabbinate preferred to spend its energy on other issues. So it was left to a handful of brave rabbis and politicians to find a solution, outside the rabbinate and the religious establishment.

The Western Wall, a symbol of the deepest connection of the Jewish people to God and this land, became a political football. How many of our religious leaders showed understanding, compassion and good sense? How many were willing to admit that this was a national symbol and not someone’s private synagogue?

The most prominent voice in the Jewish world over the past few months has been Rabbi Yigal Levenstein. This firebrand is hardly representative of Orthodox Judaism. Nor is he the first rabbi to express extremist views. But Rabbi Levenstein has become a “symbol” of Orthodoxy because he fits an Israeli narrative about what has become of Judaism – intolerant, belligerent, close-minded and completely out of touch.

Make no mistake, this is part of a global trend. Our post-modern world faces a crisis of leadership and the crumbling of once-great institutions. The president of the United States attacks the press and the judiciary. Totalitarian waves advance from Turkey to South America. Marine Le Pen, who says the French bear no responsibility for the death of 13,000 Parisian Jews during the Holocaust, becomes a strong contender for the French presidency. The leadership of the enlightened West is either incompetent or deeply worrying.

These trends are evident here in Israel too. There is little trust in politicians, the Knesset or the press. And after 69 years, the toxic combination of religion and politics in Israel has led to a broad estrangement of Israelis from the state institutions of religion.

This country is in desperate need of a new brand of Jewish leadership. It needs to be bottom-up. It needs to come from the communities, from the field. It needs to speak the language of Israelis. It needs to represent Torah in all its beauty and glory, and address the questions of our time.

This Shabbat a different Jewish voice will be heard in about 80 communities across Israel. It will be the voice of Orthodox women’s spiritual leadership. In this, Kolech’s second annual Shabbat Lamdaniot, woman scholars, leaders and teachers and will speak in synagogues across the country. They will present a new prototype of Israeli religious leadership.

There is no one answer to the crisis of religious leadership in Israel. There’s no silver bullet. But perhaps the incredible female spiritual leadership that has arisen here in the past 20 years will be part of the solution.

The author is the executive director of Kolech relating to this upcoming shabbat – the Dorshot Tov shabbat, in which 50 female Torah scholars will be scholar in residence in approximately 80 Israeli communities.

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