Rabbis, blacklists and politics

Mixing religion and politics is always a bad idea.

The Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs holds a meeting  to hail the Genesis Prize on Monday June 5, 2017 (photo credit: NATASHA KUPERMAN)
The Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs holds a meeting to hail the Genesis Prize on Monday June 5, 2017
(photo credit: NATASHA KUPERMAN)
Mixing religion and politics is bad for religion and bad for politics. It’s bad for religion, because it introduces crude and narrow interests into a faith that strives for selfless subordination to God’s will. It taints honest desire for closeness to the spiritual with cynicism and egoism.
Conversely, it’s bad for politics, because there can be no pragmatic compromise with religious zealots. Religious doctrine cannot be negotiated. Conflicts become intractable, zero-sum games.
All the negative effects of mixing religion and politics were on display in the latest controversy surrounding our nation’s Chief Rabbinate, which is empowered by the State of Israel with far-reaching influence over religious services and marital status.
It has emerged that the rabbinate has compiled a “blacklist” of some 160 Diaspora rabbis. These are rabbis whose opinions were rejected by the rabbinate on issues such as determining the Jewishness of immigrants to Israel for the purpose of marriage or overseeing conversions to Judaism.
A number of prominent US rabbis were on the list, including Avi Weiss, who is known for promoting women to quasi-rabbinic positions, and Yehoshua Fass, the founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel.
In all, 65 US rabbis were on the list, a fifth of whom are Orthodox and the rest Reform or Conservative. Twenty- eight rabbis were from Argentina. There were also rabbis from the UK, Europe, South Africa, Greece and Mexico.
The list was made public thanks to Israeli democracy and grassroots activism. ITIM, the religious-services advisory organization, filed a freedom of information request forcing the rabbinate to reveal the list.
But democratic checks and balances are not enough. The problem is more deep-rooted. Since its inception, the State of Israel has empowered the Chief Rabbinate with a near monopoly over a wide range of religious functions. The Rabbinate wields power in a variety of ways: by giving jobs to rabbis, kosher supervisors and religious functionaries in religious councils across the nation. More to the point, it determines the criteria for determining who is a Jew, which is really a question of who is a rabbi.
Historically, control over the Chief Rabbinate has been a source of political power. For the first few decades after Israel’s establishment, the rabbinate was the fiefdom of the National Religious Party, thanks to its political pact with the ruling Mapai Party.
In the 1980s and 1990s, with the rise of Shas and United Torah Judaism, haredi parties gradually took control. All along, both religion and politics suffered. Rabbis were appointed not because they were the best qualified or had the most profound spiritual gifts, rather because they had the right political connections.
The blacklist of 160 rabbis is simply an exportation of Israel’s internal politicization of religion to the Diaspora.
These rabbis should be proud of being on this blacklist. It means they are doing something right: They are dynamic and innovative leaders who have roused the rancor of a politicized and highly unpopular and irrelevant rabbinate.
Rabbis have every right to ban one of their members for failing to live up to what they believe to be the standards of Jewish practice. This is the way Judaism’s boundaries are maintained. Rabbis have squabbled among themselves for centuries and they will continue to squabble.
But we do not believe that the State of Israel should be dragged into this fighting. The State of Israel should be a place where every Jew is welcome, all Jewish expression is encouraged, and Jewish unity is promoted. Mixing religion and politics defeats this goal.
Instead of allowing rabbis with political agendas to wield power via the rabbinate to intimidate and discredit Diaspora rabbis, transparent criteria should be set for determining who is a Jew for the purpose of marriage. These criteria should not change in accordance with the political faction that succeeds in taking control of the Chief Rabbinate.
They should not be hidden away on secret blacklists and they should be open to all of the different Jewish streams, whether Conservative, Orthodox or Reform.
Mixing religion and politics is always a bad idea. We should be aware of its dangers and take steps to prevent narrow political interests from hijacking the Jewish religion.