AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man stands near a display of pictures of rabbis and religious leaders for sale outside a shop in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Chief Rabbinate has its share of critics, with good reason. Like other parts of Israeli government bureaucracy, the red tape is endless. An intensive Dale Carnegie seminar should be mandatory for rabbinate employees to learn the principles of customer service. Several English-speaking employees and a high-tech overhaul would do wonders.
As a rabbi in Silicon Valley, however, I can tell you that beyond protecting the State of Israel’s Jewish character, the Chief Rabbinate provides expatriate Israelis with an irreplaceable gift. It is a priceless heirloom bestowed upon their children rather than themselves: the gift of a bona-fide Jewish identity.
Israelis who live here in California come to my office to request that I officiate at their wedding, or, sadly, to arrange a get (Jewish divorce). They bring their sons to our synagogue for a brit mila and pidyon haben
(redemption of the firstborn). They call upon me with their non-Jewish girlfriend and speak with me about an authentic conversion.
Why do they come to me, out of all the rabbis in the phone book? Because they know that when they return to Israel, they will have a marriage, divorce, or circumcision for their child that is universally accepted. They know that their children will be able to marry anyone within the Jewish community.
Furthermore, the standards of the rabbinate protect them from falling prey to the quickie, sham conversions or ineffective Jewish divorces so readily available here in California.
There are those who loudly protest that in order to have Jewish unity, all practices must be equally accepted. The American Jewish community is a case study of what occurs when there is no baseline standard.
There are growing numbers of Americans who self-identify as Jews yet are not Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law). This is a result of a number of factors, including the Reform invention of patrilineal descent and the liberal movements conducting conversions that fail the standards set by centuries of written Jewish legal precedent.
Regretfully, these individuals are not considered Jewish by American Orthodoxy, which is the fastest- growing and youngest Jewish movement in the US. These individuals understandably resent being in a no-man’s land of personal identity, and are often convinced by their liberal clergy to blame the intransigence of others for the question mark upon their Jewish status. Yet the fault for this state of affairs lies not with the Orthodox, who have maintained a conversion process that dates back to pre-Talmudic times, but with those who manufactured new definitions of Jewish identity.
This being the case, organizations that help couples bypass the rabbinate are doing a tremendous disservice to their clients and future generations. It is they who are fragmenting the Jewish community through their actions.
There is historical precedent which proves this point.
Almost 2,000 years ago, a Jewish sect created shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple similarly changed the laws of conversion and identity. Within 50 years, the Jewish status of their members was questionable at best. After 100 years, the mainstream Jewish community was forced to consider all of them to be gentiles. Today, this sect is known as Christianity.
The rabbinate’s clear guidelines and definitions are a gift to the Israeli community, which remains acutely aware of these issues. It is that very knowledge that protects their Jewish identity for generations.
For my child to marry yours, we must begin with a universally accepted definition of Jewish identity.
Then, together, we can forge true Jewish unity.The author is the rabbi of congregation Am Echad.