Editorial: Free us from the rabbinate

The only conclusion for those concerned about Judaism's public image.

barzilai hospital ashkelon 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barzilai hospital ashkelon 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The time has come to do away with the Chief Rabbinate. This is the only conclusion any clear-headed observer, concerned about the way Judaism is being represented in the public domain, can draw.
The Barzilai Medical Center fiasco, the disparaging treatment of converts and the tendency toward holier-than-thou stringency are just some of the most publicized recent examples of how the Chief Rabbinate has become not merely obsolete but downright inimical to the Judaism it purportedly represents. Held captive by extreme haredi elements, it is failing to uphold its responsibility to faithfully represent the rabbinic tradition while grappling with the contemporary challenges faced by the reborn Jewish nation.
All too well known by now is the travesty of allowing the remains of dead bodies dating from the Byzantine era to delay the building of an emergency room that would provide the sick and the wounded with protection from rockets fired from Gaza by murderous Islamic extremists. Less known is the fact that a weak, foot-dragging Chief Rabbinate is the source of much of the present turmoil. Two years ago construction on the site was halted, shortly after it began, when graves that could be either pagan or Jewish were discovered. A year later, in a ruling one halachic expert referred to as a “no brainer,” the rabbinate’s governing body, headed by Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, permitted disinterment. Several days later, however, the council backtracked under pressure from haredi rabbis.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, ITIM, an organization headed by Orthodox Rabbi Shaul Farber, whose raison d’etre is to untangle red tape produced by the rabbinate, petitioned the High Court against its policy vis-à-vis converts. In recent years several city rabbis have ignored express rabbinate directives obligating them to recognize conversions performed by special conversion courts and by IDF conversion courts. Instead, converts attempting to register for marriage in cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon, Rishon Lezion and Rehovot are rejected by city rabbis who do not consider them to be Jewish. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has done nothing to help.
Then there is the successful campaign by Tzohar, an organization of modern Orthodox, Zionist rabbis, to put an end to stringencies adopted by the Chief Rabbinate in its kashrut policies for Pessah. Thanks to Tzohar, the rabbinate will stop labeling canola oil “for eaters of legumes only.” It has already lost a High Court battle with Tzohar over its overly stringent kashrut policy during the Shmita [Sabbatical] year.
SADLY, THE Chief Rabbinate has abandoned its original mandate, first articulated by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook. Instead of meeting head-on the unique spiritual and religious challenges faced by modern Jewish sovereignty after nearly 2,000 years of exile, the rabbinate, acting as if it were still an embattled, persecuted minority living in a hostile gentile country, has been deflected by an obsession with defending narrow haredi interests, losing touch with the vast majority of the Israeli public.
It has become nothing more than a source of jobs for haredi rabbis alienated from the taxpayers paying their salaries. Jerusalem has been without a chief rabbi since 2003, and who really cares? It’s an absence best replicated at the national level. Besides kowtowing to haredi interests, Rabbis Metzger and Amar have done little during their stint that is worthy of distinction.
In contrast, privately funded organizations such as ITIM and Tzoharhave exhibited the kind of dynamic, original thinking and sensitivityto public needs characteristic of competitors in free markets. So havenon-Orthodox bodies such as the Masorti (Conservative) Movement and theReform Movement, as well as many private haredi outreach organizationssuch as Arachim and Chabad. The rabbinate, in contrast, is plagued byall of the symptoms of centrally controlled monopolies: complacency,stagnancy and a lack of incentive to improve.
ONE OF the themesof the Exodus story which we celebrate Monday evening is freedom. Inthe case of the Jews who came out of Egypt, this was a freedom fromsubjugation to slavery.
Modern expressions of this idea arefreedom from mistaken self-conceptions, dogmatism, social constructionsand old modes of thinking. In the same vein, we should free Judaismfrom the concept of a Chief Rabbinate – not only for the betterment ofreligious services but for the sake of Judaism.