One year ago, after another set of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) chief rabbis was elected, I wrote in these pages that “the Chief Rabbinate’s glory is gone. Its legitimacy is shot. Its influence is on the wane. Decentralization of religious services is inevitable, and the only way to force change in the rabbinate. Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef should be under intense public scrutiny and pressure from day one.”
That is exactly what got going this week, with the decision by a very prominent group of religious- Zionist yeshiva deans and rabbis to establish their own, independent, conversion court, without Chief Rabbinate imprimatur.
Their clear goal: To force the rabbinate to becoming more halachically friendly to the conversion of many (mostly Russian) minors to Judaism.
The bold decision is clear evidence that the rabbinate’s control of all religious services and its sway over public mores is on the decline. Even the staunchly “yeshivish” (very frum, or “Torani”) religious-Zionist public has grown impatient, if not disgusted, with the official “Rabbinocracy.”
(That’s my term for the ossified and extremist rabbinate bureaucracy.) Unless the rabbinate wakes up and “converts” itself into a more compassionate halachic religious services provider, it will be bypassed and become irrelevant. Or worse, it will be taken formally apart, either by the Knesset or by Supreme Court decisions. From my perspective, this would be tragic, and perhaps still can be avoided. Alas, the current vector makes this both inevitable and necessary.
A LITTLE BIT of background is necessary.
The chief rabbis have been “chiefs” in name only, for quite some time. In the secular world, the chief rabbis have long been considered an archaic nuisance. For the haredi world, the real “chief rabbis” are the 90-year-old yeshiva sages who put-up Rabbis Lau Jr. and Yosef Jr. for the jobs. And for the religious-Zionist world, the Chief Rabbinate has been tainted almost beyond repair. It has been poisoned by haredi inefficiency, corruption, religious extremism, and antagonism.
The brazen, ugly attempt three months ago by the Chief Rabbinate Council to oust Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from his post was a watershed moment; one step too far. Had the rabbinate indeed booted-out the respected and valiant (if controversial) Rabbi Riskin, the rabbinate would have effectively dug its own grave.
The Chief Rabbinate Council seemed not to understand that Rabbi Riskin is not just a forthright and independent rabbinical figure. For many in Modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism he is truly an iconic figure: a symbol of religious broad-mindedness, moderation and intellectual sophistication. Thus the threat to crush him was considered open warfare against Modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism – and it’s no surprise those communities are fighting back.
Similarly, the Chief Rabbinate Council seems not to understand the urgency that Zionist rabbis feel about the conversion challenge in modern Israel. As far as haredi rabbis are concerned, all those Russian non-Jews who came to Israel, and their children, can remain goyim – since haredi society has no intention of mixing with that public anyway.
This approach echoes the stance of the 19th-century Hungarian halachic sage, the Chatam Sofer, who wrote regarding Reform Jewry: “Ein achrayutam aleynu,” meaning that “We take no responsibility for them.” In other words, haredi leadership is saying that since it didn’t bring “the Russian goyim” to Israel, it takes no responsibility for solving the demographic-Jewish identity problem that secular Zionism has brought upon itself.
Religious Zionists feel differently. They view the Russian-Jewish immigration as a blessing from the heavens; a gift from G-d that imposes a responsibility on rabbinical leaders of the generation to develop solutions so that intermarriage with non- Jews does not become a problem in Israel (as it has in the Diaspora).
Moreover, Zionist rabbis, such as Yaakov Ariel of Ramat Gan, argue that going the extra mile to convert Russian Jews in Israel is not halachic leniency, but rather stringency. It stringently protects the Jewish majority in this country from sinning through intermarriage.
And so the arrogant and dismissive haredi approach (“ein achrayutam aleynu”!) forces the privatization of conversion services, alongside the faint hope that such moves will willy-nilly drag the official rabbinate forward, too.
VIEWED IN THIS CONTEXT, the establishment of the Giyur ke-Halacha conversion court by the impeccable and respected Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch and his colleagues is clearly an attempt to head off, not to accelerate, the decline of the Chief Rabbinate.
They seek to set the bar for a proper synthesis of tradition with modernity, and for religious services that neither compromise Halacha nor insolently stonewall mainstream Israel. The broader goal is to challenge the official rabbinate into making change itself, and prevent its further decay and dismemberment by a disillusioned and angry public.
That has been the case also with the re-zoning of the marriage registration system. The modern-Orthodox, Zionist Tzohar rabbinical alliance forced the Chief Rabbinate to swallow open registration across regional jurisdictional lines – allowing for real competition between rabbis in the provision of honest rabbinical services.
Former Chief Rabbis Yonah Metzger and Shlomo Amar were opposed to the Tzohar initiative and fought it in the Knesset, and the current chief rabbis have tried to impede implementation of the law, too. Only an energized and aware public can ensure that this advance won’t be rolled back.
Rabbi David Stav’s valiant but failed campaign for chief rabbi had one salutary and very significant impact: He awakened and inspired many Israelis to care about the rabbinate. He aroused the general public from its slumber about the poor standards of rabbinate services. Never before has the rabbinate’s performance been such a matter of debate, and never before has the election of chief rabbis drawn so much interest.
This momentum must not be lost. Rabbis Lau and Yosef – honorable men who are quite aware both of public sentiment and of the available halachic leeway – must be cajoled to clean up the rabbinate and be responsive to the needs of Israeli Jewish society. Otherwise, they will end up as Israel’s very last chief rabbis.