The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate.
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
Though this is not their intention, the rabbis behind a new conversion initiative are bringing closer the day when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel loses its monopoly over religious services such as marriage and divorce, conversion and kashrut supervision. And for this, they should be praised.
On Monday, a group of leading religious-Zionist rabbis broke with the Chief Rabbinate’s hegemony over determining “who is a Jew?” and set up their own rabbinic courts that will oversee the process of transforming a gentile into a Jew.
This group – which includes Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, a big-league halachic scholar and head of the Birkat Moshe hesder yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumin, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the charismatic chief rabbi of Efrat – seem to be motivated primarily by their desire to save the Jews of Israel from intermarriage.
The wave of immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the late 1980s and early 1990s brought with it hundreds of thousands of people who are not Jewish according to Halacha. These are people who are eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they are married to a Jew or have a father or a grandparent who is Jewish, but were not born to a Jewish mother.
By converting these people – particularly the female children and young adults who are not yet married – these rabbis hope to prevent the spiritual dander of mass assimilation. To accomplish their task they are implementing a more lenient, user-friendly conversion process that makes the transformation of gentile to Jew as easy as possible within the limits of Halacha.
These rabbis’ argument with the Chief Rabbinate has to do with the prioritizing of spiritual dangers. The Chief Rabbinate – which in recent decades has been taken over by more conservative haredi elements within Orthodoxy – is fearful of cutting corners in the conversion process.
Doing so would produce thousands of “converts” who masquerade as Jews but who are really gentiles, they fear.
In contrast, the dissident rabbis are more concerned with the dangers of assimilation. Failing to rise to the challenge presented by hundreds of thousands of non- Jews living among us, serving in the IDF, attending our schools and universities and working with us, will lead to thousands of marriages between Jewish Israelis and non-Jewish Israelis. The only solution is mass conversion.
The problem is that both positions stem from a parochial, patronizing perspective held by Orthodox rabbis that rejects the right of the individual to choose. Neither group wants to do away the monopoly the Chief Rabbinate has over marriage and divorce, kashrut and conversion.
The breakaway group of rabbis failed to get their candidates for chief rabbi elected. So they are trying to impose their position from outside the Chief Rabbinate.
The haredi rabbis who run the Chief Rabbinate, meanwhile, claim they are in control and it is their prerogative to make the decisions regarding conversions.
Proponents of the haredi position draw parallels with secular institutions. Would it be acceptable, ask the defenders of the Chief Rabbinate’s present leadership, if an alternative body to, say, the Supreme Court were created every time someone did not like a ruling? How about an alternative police force or army or tax authority?
The problem with this argument is that unlike the legal system, police force or army, which draw their powers and jurisdiction from the State of Israel, Orthodox Judaism’s authority exists irrespective of the State of Israel. Despite what Israeli law states, food can be kosher whether or not the Chief Rabbinate says it is; a couple can be married in accordance with Halacha even if the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize it; and a gentile can become a Jew whether or not the Chief Rabbinate gives its stamp of approval.
In this day and age, religious authority has become a personal choice. The individual decides whether he or she submits to the obligations of a religious lifestyle.
Adherence to religious strictures should not be imposed by the state or forced on the individual through coercive measures.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in Israel. But by challenging the Chief Rabbinate with regard to its authority over conversion, the renegade rabbis are making a very important point – the Chief Rabbinate does not have a monopoly over how to interpret Jewish tradition.