The silence of the rabbis

By staying mum as IDF conversions are challenged, the chief rabbis have shown how far the Chief Rabbinate has drifted from its original national-Zionist vision.

311_Amar and Metzger at Joseph's Tomb (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Amar and Metzger at Joseph's Tomb
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Ya’acov David Wilhelm came on aliya from Germany in 1934, during the Fifth Aliya – often called the “Yekke” aliya – and settled in Jerusalem. He was a man of integrity with a broad Jewish and general education.
Although born in Germany, he received his ordination at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Wilhelm founded the first Conservative congregation in Israel in Jerusalem, Emet Ve’emuna, in the heart of Rehavia. All of Jerusalem’s intellectuals came to Emet Ve’emuna – some as worshipers, and some as active participants in its extensive cultural program: Akiva Ernst Simon, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber – all the who’s who.
At that time the chief rabbi was Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, who established the Chief Rabbinate. He was not troubled by the liberal rabbi’s arrival. The opposite was true. Kook encouraged him to establish the congregation.
He also gave Wilhelm authorization to conduct marriages. Kook disagreed with Wilhelm, but respected him. “You will reach people that I will apparently not be able to reach,” Kook said, with courage and perception that cannot be attributed to his successors.
ANYONE INTERESTED in learning about the long road that the Chief Rabbinate has taken from its inception was given an opportunity recently in proceedings before the High Court of Justice. There, the representative of the State Attorney’s Office, attorney Yochi Gnessin, claimed that conversions (Orthodox, let us remember) conducted under the auspices of the IDF are carried out without permission or authorization.
Her declaration caused an uproar around the country, but Chief Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, who during the recent conversion legislation crisis did not cease rolling their eyes heavenward and blaming all sides for failing to understand the distress of the converts, were unable to find it in their hearts to make the necessary, unequivocal declaration in defense of the military conversion system, which has enabled thousands of soldiers, most of them from the former Soviet Union, to convert during their military service.
Oh yes, Amar did send a letter to the prime minister to inform him that “if you had passed my conversion bill, this would not have happened” and dispense, here and there, a few other stammered phrases and messages, but as to the core matter – silence. The chief rabbis were steadfast in this silence, a silence so loud that no shofar could drown out its disgrace or shame.
The Chief Rabbinate has drifted light years away from the national-Zionist vision of its early years. At best, it is a haredi bastion of little importance. At worst, but more true to reality, it is a dead letter, respected by no one. Anyone familiar with the system is well aware of just how factionalist and vindictive it is, and sometimes corrupt as well. The Chief Rabbinate is an institution that could have been the flagship of religious Zionism, but it has been captured by the haredi establishment at its worst.
In truth, this is also the most surprising aspect. How is it possible that rational Orthodox religious Zionism abandoned this arena, or shall we say, failed to conclude long ago that the historic role of the Chief Rabbinate had come to an end and that an alternative must be set up in its place? The user-friendly Tzohar rabbis, who are capable of criticizing the Chief Rabbinate with unparalleled vehemence behind closed doors, are in reality the fig leaf which has been keeping the pressure cooker from bursting for more than 10 years.
In the name of supporting national sovereignty, and with true devotion, they are presenting to the public a futile representation of a properly run Chief Rabbinate, in this way diverting the fire and preventing the public, their own constituency included, from arriving at the obvious conclusion.
Yet our sages taught that anyone who takes pity on the cruel in this world ends up being cruel to the kind. This is an injustice for which the Tzohar rabbis cannot be absolved.
The silence of the chief rabbis on this issue must provide the opening for an historic alliance between the moderates of Israeli Orthodoxy and the non- Orthodox streams, both Reform and Masorti-Conservative.
The Chief Rabbinate must be privatized; it cannot be repaired or revived.
Don’t be afraid. Many in the Orthodox world are quite capable of quoting from the legacy of Rabbi Kook. We all should consider how he knew the way to build bridges of understanding with Wilhelm.
The writer is executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel.