Has the Chief Rabbinate outlived its usefulness?

There is a profound distinction between the national and religious covenants: citizens of a nation-state are bound by laws promulgated by the legislative, judiciary bodies of that polity.

ministry of religious services 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ministry of religious services 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A number of weeks ago I read with great anguish that the renowned author Yoram Kaniuk wished to remain a citizen of Israel, but was resigning as a member of the Jewish religion. Two days after that a couple came to see me, requesting that I marry them in a religious ceremony, but insisting that their wedding not be officially registered within the Israeli rabbinic establishment.
Ironically, the very next day I was informed by Rabbi David Stav of the religious Zionist Tzohar organization that the Ministry of Religious Affairs would no longer allow couples to choose Tzohar rabbis to marry them, but was rather insisting that a couple can only be married by the rabbis of the community in which they live.
What are the origins of an official religious establishment in Israel, and what is causing the negative feelings towards the Chief Rabbinate and its judiciary system? The frustrating conundrum of Israel, as well as the secret of our eternity, lies in our hybrid personality as both a nationality and a religion. Our status as a nation was formed in the Biblical covenant between the parts when Abraham, the first Hebrew, was guaranteed eternal seed and was granted the geographical borders of a national homeland. It was forged in the Biblical insistence that every human being is created in the Divine Image, thereby guaranteeing the inalienable rights of human freedom and human inviolability. Hence our national narrative enjoins us to re-experience our formative servitude in and freedom from totalitarian Egypt, so that our national mission has been informed with spreading the ideals of loving the stranger, compassionate righteousness, and moral justice throughout the world.
Our status as a religion was formed at the covenant of Sinai. This gave concrete expression to our national mission in the form of ethical, moral and ritual laws, which would hopefully shape a God-fearing, sacred nation and kingdom of priest-teachers. Hence, our Torah and our Hebrew calendar – replete with panoply of feast and fast days with both historical and spiritual significance – serve as national as well as religious expressions. This is what makes a simplistic separation between “synagogue and state” in Israel a near impossibility, but this is what also gave us our ability to survive and recreate our national status after almost 2000 years of exile.
Our national covenant kept alive the dream of our return to Zion despite the destruction of our Temples and our worldwide persecution; and our complex legal system provided our nation with boundaries even though we had no geographical area to call our own.
There is, however, a profound distinction between the national and religious covenants: the citizens of a nation-state are bound by laws promulgated by the legislative and judiciary bodies of that polity, to which they must comply as long as they are residents within that nation-state. Religious law, on the other hand, which its adherents believe has its origins in Divine Revelation and its legal system interpreted by religious legal authorities in every generation, is dependent for compliance upon the free choice of the individual. As my revered teacher, Rabbi J.B.
Soloveitchik, was wont to say, the term religious coercion is an oxymoron; no truly religious act for the sake of heaven can be legislated by legal force and still retain religious significance for the one who performs it.
I BELIEVE with all my heart and mind that the State of Israel ought to feature a Chief Rabbinate as an official and revered representative of Israel before world Jewry and before humanity – for all the historical and existential reasons relating to our miraculous survival for the past 4,000 years. According to recent surveys, fully two-thirds of Israeli Jewry consider themselves to be on the spectrum of “traditional” Judaism.
Most Israelis have profound respect for and even personal involvement in our time-honored rituals of life-cycle passages such as circumcision, marriage under a nuptial canopy, burial in the ground and shiva, and festive occasions such as Friday evening familial kiddush and meal, Passover Seder, Shavuot Torah study and Chanukah menorah lighting. I do not believe that most Israelis are ready to join Yoram Kaniuk in adopting the Jewish nation but resigning from the Jewish religion.
They are not yet ready to join Yoram Kaniuk, that is, but the establishment rabbinate is doing everything in its power to bring them to the brink of doing just that. Once upon a time even so-called secular Israelis were proud of chief rabbis, men like Rabbis A.Y. HaKohen Kook, Isaac Halevi Herzog and Shlomo Goren (all of blessed memory) because these rabbis were inclusive rather than exclusive; they sought to embrace every Jew and bring him or her closer to tradition. These mighty individuals looked to halachah to solve questions of personal status, not to complicate them.
At a time when an unfriendly and inflexible Chief Rabbinate and its courts of law are driving young couples to Cyprus so as not to get married “in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel,” thankfully the rabbis of the Tzohar organization have been finding user-friendly and welcoming halachic solutions to include them under the Jewish marriage canopy.
Now, in their infinite wisdom, the Chief Rabbinate and Ministry of Religious Affairs have closed yet another door (in addition to the doors of meaningful Jewish divorce and conversion) – the door of Jewish marriage – to a confused and disgruntled Israeli public. All “for the sake of heaven.”
I understand that the present controversy between Tzohar and the Ministry of Religious Affairs is on the road to resolution. But the general and underlying problem still remains in full force. Local religious councils are still setting up difficult roadblocks before well-meaning secular couples who have never heard of Tzohar but who want to be married by a rabbi – if it isn’t too much of a hassle to do so. The rabbinic courts remain extremely reluctant to force husbands to divorce their wives in accordance with halacha no matter the difficulties of their marital situations, and no matter how unreasonable the husband’s demands may be as his price for the giving the get.
Furthermore, close to 350,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union – “Kanukian” Israelis under the right of return but not halachically Jewish – are still awaiting the establishment of user-friendly ulpanim and courts for conversion devoid of small-minded bureaucracy and whose conversions will not be nullified later on by one of the Chief Rabbis’ court judges.
Our sacred Talmud and the Responsa of Jewish law have loving solutions for the overwhelming majority of problems engendered by these situations; “It din” the law is flexible, but “let dayan,” many of the judges are not, as the Talmudic saying goes. Let us only pray that until the proper changes in the system are put into effect, a disgruntled Israeli populace will not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Postscript The story is told of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the famed tzaddik of Jerusalem, who once spotted a young soldier on a short furlough from the army. The rabbi knew the young man from the neighborhood in Geula, and so he crossed the street in order to extend his hand in greeting. “Shalom Aleichem,” said the venerable sage. “Please come to my home. I would very much like to drink tea with you and hear about your activities.”
The young soldier seemed uncomfortable.
“I don’t think it’s right for me to come visit you,” he said. “I don’t wear a kippa anymore.”
Rabbi Levin, in his black hat and black kaftan, smiled warmly at the young man and took his hand in his own.
“Don’t you see?,” he said, “I’m a very short man. I see you, but I cannot look up so high as to notice as to whether you are wearing a kippa. But I can see your heart – and your heart is big and kind, and that’s what counts.
You are also a soldier placing your life at risk for all of us in Israel. Please drink tea with me; your kippa is probably bigger than mine.”