Analysis: Whither the chief rabbinate, whither religious-Zionsim?

Israelis in their thousands have flocked to the Tzohar rabbinical association to get married due to the often unwelcoming attitude and sometimes corrupt practices of local rabbinates.

The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The announcement on Monday by senior rabbis in the national- religious community of the establishment of an independent network of rabbinical conversion courts to convert non-Jewish Israeli minors from the former Soviet Union generated TV headlines and front-page stories across the spectrum of Israeli media.
But asides from the thorny issue of conversion and the implications of Jewish intermarriage in Israel, it is the ramifications of this move firstly on the Chief Rabbinate but also for the national-religious community itself that are most significant.
The Chief Rabbinate has in recent years experienced a serious decline in the trust and faith of the Israeli public in its services.
Israelis in their thousands have flocked to the Tzohar rabbinical association to get married due to the often unwelcoming attitude and sometimes corrupt practices of local rabbinates and rabbis in registering people for marriage and conducting weddings.
Public trust in the rabbinate’s kashrut supervision is in steep decline due to the severe conflict of interests represented by the fact that the rabbinate is both service provider and regulator, and this has led to the rise of Hashgacha Pratit, a flourishing independent kashrut supervision service.
Women coming to the rabbinical courts for divorce and other concerns face severe difficulties and women’s rights groups have increasingly made use of legal means to force change in the system, and even call for breaking free of it.
And scandals involving the senior officials at the highest level in the rabbinate, former chief rabbi Yona Metzger, as well as lower level criminality in local rabbinates, only enhance the perception of a corrupt, disreputable, out of touch institution that does not serve the public interest.
So the “rebellion”, as it was widely labeled, by the rabbis who have set up the new conversion court network, Giur K’halacha, constitutes just the latest in the series of alternative services that have taken root in the wake of the collapse of public trust in the Chief Rabbinate.
And there have been an increasing number of voices from within the religious community, including figures among the women’s rights organizations and the liberal wing of the national-religious movement who have begun to call to boycott the Chief Rabbinate or to start a new one altogether.
Concomitant with this phenomenon is that many of these issues are now ending up in the High Court of Justice. There are petitions pending which challenge the refusal of the Chief Rabbinate and the state to recognize conversions performed through independent Orthodox rabbinical courts, and a petition against the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over kashrut.
Should the courts rule against the establishment on these issues it would constitute a crippling blow to the authority and standing of the Chief Rabbinate.
It seems that the more the rabbinate tries to hold on to its exclusive control of religion in the State of Israel, the greater difficulties it is experiencing in achieving its goal of standardizing and centralizing the governance of Jewish life in the country.
Although it seems unlikely, at least in the near future, that the entire edifice of the established synagogue in Israel will collapse, the confrontation with the Chief Rabbinate over Jewish conversion is yet another example of how its decreasing legitimacy and relevance have spawned yet another challenge to its authority.
The other striking element of the new conversion courts is the very fact that it is members of the national-religious rabbinical elite who have so dramatically decided to circumvent the Chief Rabbinate, the institution established by the founding father of religious Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook.
His vision, and that of the national-religious community, is that the Chief Rabbinate should serve as the central Jewish authority in the Jewish state and be the sole legitimate body that governs Jewish life in Israel.
It is seen as an essential part of the return to Zion and the end of the Exile in which a disparate number of Jewish communities were scattered around the world and in which Jewish practices and customs were governed by an equally disparate and unconnected array of rabbis and leaders.
Rabbi David Stav, one of the primary proponents of the Giur K’halacha conversion network, ran to be Ashkenazi chief rabbi but was defeated by the incumbent Rabbi David Lau. On Monday, Stav explained however that the decision to go around the Chief Rabbinate regarding conversion was taken out of a sense of responsibility for the future of the Jewish people and of Israeli society.
However, there are serious opponents within the national- religious camp to damaging the authority and standing of the Chief Rabbinate in this way.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, another of the most senior and influential national religious leaders with weighty political clout, denounced the new conversion courts for exactly this reason, even though he tacitly acknowledged that they would conform to the requirements of Jewish law and is himself a proponent of increasing conversion among the non-Jewish population of immigrants from the former USSR.
But as Bayit Yehudi party chairman Bennett said in his statement, it is also possible that the Chief Rabbinate will “regain its composure” and work together with the new conversion courts, or at the least engage in its own efforts to increase conversion rates.
It does seem however that the chances the Chief Rabbinate will abandon its narrow vision of Jewish life in Israel and its centralizing fervor are smaller than the possibility of a deeper rift in the national-religious leadership.