Walls of folly; Have we lost our moral compass?

I have been told that there is an official “rabbi of Ramot,” we have lived in that Jerusalem neighborhood for 23 years, yet never met him.

July 6, 2017 19:58
4 minute read.
Israel demonstration

A demonstration held on Saturday outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem against the overturning of the Western Wall agreement and the contested conversion legislation. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Growing up in South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, the term “rabbi” signified lofty piety.

We would surely rise from our seats whenever our rabbi walked into the room and the notion of calling him by his first name was beyond thought.

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This reverence was not bestowed casually.

He was a man whose spirituality was something to aspire to. Almost all the rabbis I knew led a congregation. Although human like the rest of us, the learned man who guided us through moments of joy and sorrow was beyond politics and materialism.

One of aliya’s greatest culture shocks was the downgrading of the “rabbi concept” from vocation to occupation. I was dismayed to discover that here in Israel most congregations do not have a rabbi and most rabbis are employed in functionary positions.

Of course, there were and are great figures of learning, intellect and leadership.

I have never been quite able to accept that the rabbinate is just another of the many institutions making up the officialdom of our society with no more accountability than the next. What compounds this aberration is the intrusion of base politics into an institution that ought to be sacred.

On June 25 the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved advancing a haredi conversion bill that would grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over recognized conversion in Israel. This bill is designed to prevent the possibility of recognition of conversions performed by independent Orthodox rabbinical courts, as well as Reform and Conservative conversions.

Once again, another cardinal issue that should have been debated in depth, discussed at length and resolved by mutually respectful men and women of wisdom and compassion was used as a football.

This was kicked around casually by a bunch of cynical self-important players, religious and secular, in their little game of deciding the fate and future of tens of thousands of human beings, all for the proverbial pot of stew.

A society that confers on politicians the power to grant a monopoly on issues of faith, such as conversion, is in itself extremely disturbing. But much worse is the nature of that organization to whom these politicians intend to bestow that fundamental right.

After some 1,900 years of exile, the establishment of a Chief Rabbinate in the State of Israel should have been a jewel in the crown of Jewish sovereignty; and at its conception it may have been. But through the years we have seen it morph into a bloated consortium that operates more like a syndicate than a sanctum.

There are of course exceptions, wonderful, well-meaning men and women working for the benefit of the constituency they are employed to serve. However, the overriding atmosphere is antithetical to the spirituality that should pervade its halls. Here are just a few of countless examples.

• Our previous Ashkenazi chief rabbi recently admitted guilt to bribery, money laundering and income tax violations.

• This year’s State Comptroller’s Report again contained a searing critique of the kashrut certification process, citing widespread mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.

• A few weeks ago, an employee of the Chief Rabbinate was questioned by police on the suspicion that he was working to obtain rabbinic certification for a member of the Rishon Lezion municipal council in return for bribes.

• I have been told that there is an official “rabbi of Ramot,” who draws a salary at our expense. We have lived in that Jerusalem neighborhood for 23 years, yet neither I nor any of my local friends have ever had the privilege of meeting the esteemed individual, whoever he may be.

The debate on Conservative and Reform conversions is beyond the parameters of this article. On the other hand, those rabbis who would be precluded from performing state-recognized conversions include some of the great Torah luminaries of our time.

Rabbis Nahum Rabinowitz, Shlomo Riskin, Yisrael Rosen and David Stav, among others, are synonymous with profound learning, outstanding service to community and loving kindness. Their exclusion speaks volumes for the vacuum of morality at the top of our political pyramid.

The government’s reneging on its previous agreement to create an officially sanctioned egalitarian prayer space at an extension of the Western Wall is similarly appalling. I have visited the designated section a number of times as I personally prefer its serenity, devoid of the hustle and bustle that often pervades the main square.

The initial agreement had been widely applauded by large swathes of the Jewish community for its sense of inclusion, fairness and compromise, which represents all that can be good in our people.

Have those who tout the suspension of this agreement in the name of God, unity and uniformity, asked themselves if their action moves Jews closer to Judaism or farther away? Can we not imagine the windfall for our tribe if we collectively injected benevolence into the theological discourse? As an Orthodox Jew, citizen of Israel and human being, I am outraged. I believe that these two shocking, short-sighted decisions are contrary to the will of the people of Israel. It is incumbent upon us to stand up and be heard. 

The author is a Jerusalemite who conducts the Ramatayim Men’s Choir, writes poetry and is an exhibited photographer.

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