Israel's Chief Rabbinate needs the courage to reform - opinion

Seventy years of religious repression, civil marriage and intermarriage have brought many people of Jewish descent to Israel who are not halachically Jewish.

 RELIGIOUS SERVICES Minister Matan Kahana sits next to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a session in the Knesset plenum earlier this month. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
RELIGIOUS SERVICES Minister Matan Kahana sits next to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a session in the Knesset plenum earlier this month.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Before our aliyah, we considered ourselves deeply concerned American Zionists, who felt that we identified closely with the unfolding of Jewish history in Israel. However, to use a phrase coined by others, we were fans but we weren’t really players on the team. By making aliyah, we changed our status from outsiders looking in to insiders who have truly thrown our lot in with the people of Israel. Hence, we are seeing the reality on the ground from a new vantage point, and we wanted to share some thoughts on a critical subject currently being debated in Israel.

Those among us who were followers of American politics in the late 1960s may remember that Ted Kennedy ended his eulogy for his brother, Robert, with Robert’s own words: “Some men see things as they are and say ‘why’. I dream things that never were and say ‘why not.’”

Regarding dreams in a different vein, upon viewing the destroyed and barren Temple Mount, Rabbi Akiva comforted his disconsolate colleagues by telling them to look forward and not backward. Dream in the field of dreams and eventually, when you build it, they will come.

In another context, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory, used to begin his first class of the year in Yeshiva University with an exaggerated prediction of how many pages of Talmud would be covered in class in the following ten months of study. A skeptical snicker would be heard in the classroom. Rav Aharon’s reply was, “If I tell you that we will cover a realistic forty pages, then indeed, that is probably what we will do. But if I say an unrealistic fifty pages, then maybe we will cover forty-five pages. Your reach must exceed your grasp.”

Great leaders understand that. Our sages say that the wise man has peripheral, forward-thinking vision (Talmud in Tamid 32a; Mishna in Pirkei Avot 2:9). Great builders see the big picture and then fill in the parts that will enable its fulfillment.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/LAHAV ARARAT)Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/LAHAV ARARAT)

The word reform is an unpopular term in Orthodox Rabbinic circles in Israel. Reform is an English word that was adopted into the Hebrew language. Its original meaning has been distorted. The American English version of the Oxford English Dictionary defines reform as [transitive] reform something: to improve a system, an organization, a law, and so on, by making changes to it.

The early Reform stream in Judaism saw itself as improving upon traditional Orthodox Judaism. From the perspective of the Orthodox, the opposite was true. The rabbis felt that the Reform stream in Judaism deviated significantly from the halachic norm, which is a valid observation.

What is not valid is the assumption that many in the Orthodox rabbinic establishment make, that anything that bears the generic term, reform is dangerous. But that is false, because the word reform means to improve.

Rav Eliezer Melamed is an independent visionary rabbi who sees the need for reform in different areas of religious life in Israel. He is a first class Torah scholar who has shaken up a very conservative rabbinic world by his independence. He is an outstanding pastoral community rabbi. His books have made Jewish laws available to the masses through their clarity and relevant presentation. 

He has had the courage to have a civil, human conversation with a French Reform female rabbi. He did not discuss halachic change with her. Theirs was a conversation between two Jews who live two dramatically different religious lives. Why is that a sin? Many Orthodox Jews in business in Israel interact daily with Jews of all different attitudes toward religious observances. Everyone benefits from these relationships.

THE CHIEF RABBINATE in Israel has always controlled two important areas of Jewish life: The kashrut of food and conversion to Judaism. On one level, the objective halachic standards in these areas are inviolate. But on the other hand, that does not mean that they cannot be reformed. Reformed does not mean changed. It means improved upon.

We live in a dynamic world. Israel has been the beneficiary of a huge immigration from the former Soviet Union. Seventy years of religious repression, civil marriage and intermarriage have brought many people of Jewish descent to Israel who are not halachically Jewish.

There is a courageous leader in Israel who sees Kashrut and conversion as they are and says, why not improve those areas through constructive reforms. Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana wants to enhance the authority of the Chief Rabbinate over these two areas. He does not want to change Halacha. He wants to reform it in the sense of improving it. A few rabbis and heads of yeshivot have endorsed his efforts.

Until this point, no real efforts have been made to address this serious demographic and religious issue. There are many Russian olim, male and female, with Jewish surnames who are not halachic Jews. Like their fellow Israelis who are Jewish, they speak Hebrew, mix with Jewish Israelis in the universities, army and workforce. They will marry Jews in some venue and many of their offspring will not be Jewish. This is not a good situation for a Jewish state. 

The sticky point within the process of conversion is the requirement to “accept the yoke of mitzvot.” For the very strict constructionists, that means to become a fully Orthodox Jew. But there are views of legitimate authorities who allow for a more flexible application of this law in “an hour of need.” That is the call of these times.

The kashrut and conversion authorities have essentially functioned for seventy-three years without making adjustments to the realities on the ground. Decentralizing kashrut control to local authorities and enabling local courts to do conversions for people they know could be a major improvement. The Chief Rabbinate will remain the supreme authority; Halacha would not be compromised, but it might be presented with a more personal and softer face. Minister Kahana is proposing to answer the call by trying to address the problem with a legitimate, but lenient, Halachic solution. He should be commended and not criticized!

Recently, twenty-two prominent rabbis signed a declaration Mesoret HaPesikah BeYisrael, (The Tradition of Halachic Decisors in Israel) decrying Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s conversation with the female Reform rabbi and criticizing parts of his halachic masterpiece, Peninei Halacha. In addition, he is criticized for looking positively on the Kashrut and conversion policies of Minister of Religion Matan Kahana.

Kahana and Melamed should be applauded and not condemned. Neither of them is a threat to anything; they are both lights unto our nation. We should all bask in their enlightened rays.

A new oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

A new olah, Rookie Billet recently retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin and halachic consultant in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.