What are we celebrating?

Last week, we marked 90 years to the establishment of the Chief Rabbinate, as if the institution was a completely positive factor in Israeli life

REUVEN Rivlin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Knesset)
REUVEN Rivlin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Knesset)
Last Tuesday, the Knesset celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Chief Rabbinate, as if the institution was a positive factor in Israeli life. Considering its accomplishments, one wonders why. Both Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar took the occasion to speak of the importance of the Chief Rabbinate full authority over conversions. There is more than a little irony in this, considering the fact that if there is any area in which the Chief Rabbinate has failed, it is that.
Confronted with the urgent problem of the massive non-Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, in which over 300,000 non-Jews became Israeli citizens, the Rabbinate did nothing to encourage conversion or even to make it a viable option.
When presented with a possible solution suggested by the Neeman Commission involving the creation of a joint institute for the study of Judaism which would lead to conversion under the Chief Rabbinate’s auspices, the Chief Rabbinate responded with a vicious attack on the Conservative and Reform movements – which bordered on the libelous – and refused to cooperate with it. A Joint Institute was eventually established, no thanks to the Rabbinate, and it is only because of the efforts of that institution – often despite the obstacles presented by the Chief Rabbinate – that any conversions are done at all, including those in the IDF.
Rivlin dismissed the possibility of replacing the Chief Rabbinate with “another one, Reform or Conservative – a move that could compromise the unity of the Jewish people” and praised halacha [Jewish law] which, he opined, “we must safeguard.”
It appears that Rivlin continues the tradition of those secular leaders of Israel who do not go to a synagogue, but want the synagogue they do not attend to be Orthodox. If he is so concerned with protecting halacha, he might begin by persuading the rabbinical courts to follow the halacha of conversion which is very different from what they are actually doing. He might also ask them to take advantage of the options the halacha provides for solving the aguna [“anchored” women who are refused a divorce by their husbands] problem, another area in which the Chief Rabbinate has proved its ineffectiveness.
RIVLIN ALSO warned against what he called the “privatization of conversion.” What exactly is the Knesset speaker talking about? Does he not know that, currently, there are conversions in Israel and throughout the world conducted by Conservative and Reform rabbis that are recognized by the State of Israel? Does he not know that even if Israel were not to recognize them, they would continue to be performed? Is he totally unaware that, like it or not, the Jewish world is pluralistic? Does he not know that there are large sections of the Jewish world – the ultra-Orthodox (haredim) for example – who do not even accept the conversions of the Chief Rabbinate? As for the Rotem bill that is now frozen and that Rabbi Amar so fervently wants to have passed, the opposition to it is not the provisions that would facilitate conversion, but those that would give the Chief Rabbinate sole authority. Let Rotem remove those sections and all opposition will disappear. But it is obvious that it is specifically those sections that interest Rabbi Amar.
Even the Orthodox in America are appalled by the efforts of the Rabbinate to attain total hegemony over conversion throughout the world and to be the sole authority deciding which American rabbis can convert and which cannot.
In case there was any doubt about the intent of to dominate world Jewry, at that same celebration the Religious Services Minister, Ya’acov Margi, stated openly that he hoped to see legislation that would outlaw non-Orthodox movements in Israel, legislation that would “determine by law that there are no streams in Judaism, only one that has been passed down to us from generation to generation.”
Does Rivlin support that as well and what does Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have to say about this proposal of one of the members of his coalition? I know of no better way to alienate American Jewry than to even consider such a move.
The celebration of the Chief Rabbinate is a celebration of a backward march, one in which Israel becomes more like a religious autocracy than a modern, democratic state. It is a march into darkness which leads not to Jewish unity but to a situation in which Israel finds itself on one side and the rest of the Jewish world on the other; in which any support of Israel by American Jewry would not be because of Israel’s attitude toward religion, but in spite of it.
It is a march of folly that we – the Jewish people – can ill afford.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the representative of the Masorti/Conservative Movement on the Neeman Commission, is the author of several books including Entering Jewish Prayer and Entering Torah.