311_Amar and Metzger at Joseph's Tomb.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Ya’acov David Wilhelm came on aliya from Germany in 1934, during the Fifth
Aliya – often called the “Yekke” aliya – and settled in Jerusalem. He was a man
of integrity with a broad Jewish and general education.
Although born in
Germany, he received his ordination at the Conservative Jewish Theological
Seminary in New York.
Wilhelm founded the first Conservative congregation
in Israel in Jerusalem, Emet Ve’emuna, in the heart of Rehavia. All of
Jerusalem’s intellectuals came to Emet Ve’emuna – some as worshipers, and some
as active participants in its extensive cultural program: Akiva Ernst Simon,
Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber – all the who’s who.
At that time the chief
rabbi was Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, who established the Chief Rabbinate. He
was not troubled by the liberal rabbi’s arrival. The opposite was true. Kook
encouraged him to establish the congregation.
He also gave Wilhelm
authorization to conduct marriages. Kook disagreed with Wilhelm, but respected
him. “You will reach people that I will apparently not be able to reach,” Kook
said, with courage and perception that cannot be attributed to his
ANYONE INTERESTED in learning about the long road that the
Chief Rabbinate has taken from its inception was given an opportunity recently
in proceedings before the High Court of Justice. There, the representative of
the State Attorney’s Office, attorney Yochi Gnessin, claimed that conversions
(Orthodox, let us remember) conducted under the auspices of the IDF are carried
out without permission or authorization.
Her declaration caused an uproar
around the country, but Chief Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, who during
the recent conversion legislation crisis did not cease rolling their eyes
heavenward and blaming all sides for failing to understand the distress of the
converts, were unable to find it in their hearts to make the necessary,
unequivocal declaration in defense of the military conversion system, which has
enabled thousands of soldiers, most of them from the former Soviet Union, to
convert during their military service.
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Oh yes, Amar did send a letter to
the prime minister to inform him that “if you had passed my conversion bill,
this would not have happened” and dispense, here and there, a few other
stammered phrases and messages, but as to the core matter – silence. The chief
rabbis were steadfast in this silence, a silence so loud that no shofar could
drown out its disgrace or shame.
The Chief Rabbinate has drifted light
years away from the national-Zionist vision of its early years. At best, it is a
haredi bastion of little importance. At worst, but more true to reality, it is a
dead letter, respected by no one. Anyone familiar with the system is well aware
of just how factionalist and vindictive it is, and sometimes corrupt as well.
The Chief Rabbinate is an institution that could have been the flagship of
religious Zionism, but it has been captured by the haredi establishment at its
In truth, this is also the most surprising aspect. How is it
possible that rational Orthodox religious Zionism abandoned this arena, or shall
we say, failed to conclude long ago that the historic role of the Chief
Rabbinate had come to an end and that an alternative must be set up in its
place? The user-friendly Tzohar rabbis, who are capable of criticizing the Chief
Rabbinate with unparalleled vehemence behind closed doors, are in reality the
fig leaf which has been keeping the pressure cooker from bursting for more than
In the name of supporting national sovereignty, and with true
devotion, they are presenting to the public a futile representation of a
properly run Chief Rabbinate, in this way diverting the fire and preventing the
public, their own constituency included, from arriving at the obvious
Yet our sages taught that anyone who takes pity on the cruel
in this world ends up being cruel to the kind. This is an injustice for which
the Tzohar rabbis cannot be absolved.
The silence of the chief rabbis on
this issue must provide the opening for an historic alliance between the
moderates of Israeli Orthodoxy and the non- Orthodox streams, both Reform and
The Chief Rabbinate must be privatized; it cannot
be repaired or revived.
Don’t be afraid. Many in the Orthodox world are
quite capable of quoting from the legacy of Rabbi Kook. We all should consider
how he knew the way to build bridges of understanding with Wilhelm.The
writer is executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
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