Guest Columnist: Time to revamp the Rabbinate

Potential immigrants deserve to have their gov't provide them with religious services in a caring and respectful manner without judging their personal approaches to religion on any level.

arrivals 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
arrivals 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A staff member from the English Speakers Division of Am Shalem showed me an article from The Jerusalem Post Magazine from two weeks ago, entitled “Jewish (officially) at last!” (February 10), about Danielle Grossman- Vitory. The article described Danielle, an immigrant from the US, who wanted to marry her Israeli boyfriend but was faced with rabbis who were not prepared to make this easy for her. No story demonstrates the need for a major transformation in the Israeli rabbinate better than Danielle’s story.
Let’s review the facts. Actually, there should be no facts to review. She has a Jewish mother. She is Jewish! Case closed. But the extremist and unwelcoming Israeli rabbinate did not accept her fully observant rabbi saying she was Jewish, and she was forced to jump through hoops to prove her Jewishness.
The second-saddest part of the story was the rabbinate demanding that she have all her documents translated from English to Hebrew, a process that cost her NIS 200 per page, since the rabbis in Israel said “they don’t know English.” The saddest part of the story was the apology the rabbinate issued after all the confusion was sorted out: “We’re sorry, we thought you were Russian.”
How tragic that someone being Russian has become an accepted, valid excuse for harassing a person who wants to live as a Jew in Israel! AS I have traveled the country spreading the word about the Am Shalem movement, I have been exposed to similar stories which have further strengthened my resolve to succeed in our revolution. The following story, which Ben from Tel Aviv related to one of our activists while sitting at a café in Tel Aviv, serves as a perfect example.
Ben grew up in a secular home with almost no Jewish education. He married a girl who grew up on a kibbutz that was not only secular, but anti-religious. As part of the marriage process, they had to register with the rabbinate, which includes studying the basics of family purity laws that Jews have practiced for thousands of years. Ben’s then-fiancée was actually excited about this, since she saw the concept of family purity as spiritual, something that could add more fulfillment and meaning to her life.
She and Ben entered the offices of the rabbinate for their study session with awe, when they were suddenly met by an older woman who looked at them sternly and barked, “Sit!” The two of them immediately sat down as the woman pressed play on a tape recorder and left the room. They were expected to listen to a tape for 45 minutes.
That was the “study session.” The two of them walked out after a few minutes, dejected over having been robbed of what they had hoped would be a meaningful Jewish experience.
During the meeting with this Am Shalem activist, Ben related that both he and his wife plan to support me as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi because they want to make sure that their daughter has a different experience when she is ready to marry. They believe that only an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who is willing to challenge the status quo can make the necessary changes happen.
And they are right.
Today’s Chief Rabbinate is under the strong influence of extreme and anti-Zionist organizations and political parties that act with animosity instead of love, as if it were created to provide people with religious burdens instead of religious services. This approach is foreign to the Jewish tradition passed to us from community rabbis throughout the generations, including the original chief rabbis of Israel. They strove to demonstrate love to all Jews and tried to share the beauty of Judaism with everyone.
Our greatest spiritual leaders, especially from North Africa, where I was born, always attempted to provide rabbinic and religious services in the spirit of Beit Hillel – the students of the sage Hillel – with a tolerant approach and sensitivity to the public’s understandable fears of religious coercion.
As a community rabbi myself, I saw the effectiveness of this approach firsthand in terms of the Jewish pride it instilled in people from all walks of life. The rabbinate needs to be the vehicle to restore this Jewish pride to the State of Israel.
FOR THIS to happen, however, nothing less than a revolution is needed. First, a state committee must be established to define the role of the chief rabbi, city rabbis and neighborhood rabbis. Second, a committee must be established to select the rabbis, similar to the already existing state committee that chooses judges. The committee should consist of both religious and secular people who will ensure that rabbis are chosen solely based on their qualifications and suitability for the position, and not according to their political connections or their family backgrounds.
Third, all rabbis of cities and settlements must be subject to a set of uniform rules for decisions of Jewish law as set by the Chief Rabbinate, which they must uphold regardless of their personal opinions or inclinations regarding each specific issue. If they cannot adhere to these moderate policies, they should be removed from their positions.
Fourth, there must be substantial changes to the way religious services are provided. These services must be delivered with a tolerant and lenient spirit, and through a welcoming and loving approach. This change from the current strict and distancing attitude must be reflected in the rabbinate’s dealings with people in the areas of marriage, divorce, mikve, kashrut and burial. We must educate the rabbis and their office staffs regarding these precise expectations.
Finally, and most importantly, rabbinic services must be supervised like any other public service in modern society, with evaluations taking into account the degree of satisfaction the recipients of these services express. We must be prepared to commend or reprimand individual rabbis and local rabbinates as warranted and necessary.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, from zera Yisrael (Jewish descent), seeking to convert as clearly allowed by Jewish law deserve to be embraced by a moderate rabbinate that aims to solve problems rather than create them. Potential immigrants from the US like Danielle, and Israeli citizens like Ben and his wife, deserve to have their government provide them with religious services in a caring and respectful manner without judging their personal approaches to religion on any level.
The time has come for Israeli citizens to demand this radical shift, and I hope to lead the charge toward this change in the next Knesset. When this transformation takes place, it will change the face of Israel and Judaism worldwide, with the restoration of unity and Jewish and Zionist pride.
The author is a Knesset member, an ordained rabbi and the founder and chairman of the Am Shalem movement.