Analysis: Divorcing the rabbinical courts

The rabbinical courts discourage conversion and set almost unattainable religious standards.

Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu 8 (photo credit: )
Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu 8
(photo credit: )
The appointment of 12 haredi dayanim by the Rabbinical Courts Appointments Committee on Monday, the decision of the Institute for Jewish Studies to stop sending its students to the special rabbinical conversion courts, and religious feminists' call to stop carrying out marriage ceremonies within the mainstream Orthodox framework are symptoms of the growing chasm between the rabbinic establishment and those who want a more flexible view. The battle in the appointments committee might have taken the form of just another political fracas, but beyond the sheer nepotism and power-brokering inherent to the process, there is a much more fundamental issue at stake. Most of the haredi community don't use the state rabbinical courts. Their divorce rate is low and they take most of their disputes to rabbis within the community. The great majority of litigants in the state rabbinical courts are secular, but that doesn't mean the haredi rabbis are prepared to relinquish control. Shas uses its clout as a coalition member to ensure that only a token number of non-haredi rabbis receive the coveted positions. As a result, the courts ascribe to the strictest version of Halacha, as interpreted by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. It's not just a matter of principle or politics. The rabbis sincerely believe that only strict adherence to Halacha has ensured the Jewish people's survival over millennia of persecution. The attempts by more liberal-minded rabbis to solve serious social and personal problems through more flexible views - even if they are based on Orthodox literature - are a direct threat to the infallibility of Halacha. Casting doubt on the validity or relevance of any detail could bring the whole edifice crashing down. The dayanim are the guardians of the flame. The fact that there are at least 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union living here as Israeli citizens but not recognized as Jews by the rabbinate, is neither here nor there. The rabbinical courts discourage conversion and set an almost unattainable standard of religious observance for anyone wishing to join the Chosen People. The fact that Israeli society might be split in a decade between those who are halachicly Jewish and those who are not or just don't care, won't change a thing. The directors of the Institute of Jewish Studies, which prepares young Israelis for conversion, are demanding that a new court framework be set up, with a more flexible and welcoming attitude toward prospective converts, especially toward those of Jewish ancestry. Even if accepted, it is doomed to failure since the main rabbinical courts will not recognize their conversions. That will create problems down the road when the institute's alumni want to be married according to Halacha. It's not simply a problem of procedure. The haredi leadership and those trying to solve the conversion issue are fundamentally opposed over the formula for the Jewish people's survival. In some liberal Orthodox circles, there is a growing feeling that it isn't worth fighting any longer for the appointment of Zionist rabbinical judges. The system can't be changed in any real way. Last week, veteran religious feminist Dr. Hanna Kehat told a conference that young women, especially secular ones, should be discouraged from getting married under the auspices of the rabbinate, because it puts them at the mercy of dayanim if they have to divorce. Her statement, which caused a minor uproar, was an early signal that even many religious Israelis with a basic commitment to Halacha are becoming so disillusioned with the rabbinate that they are willing to divorce from it. Meanwhile, a growing majority, not only of the immigrants who are prospective candidates to convert, but also among secular Israelis, are just losing interest. If they're not Jewish enough for the rabbinical courts, that's fine with them. They don't need them, either.