This Normal Life: Abolish the rabbis

‘Every time I hear another inflammatory, racist, homophobic or misogynist statement coming from the religious Right, I ask myself: Why not abolish the whole institution?’

Jewish wedding (Illustrative) (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Jewish wedding (Illustrative)
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
A radio campaign called Hatuna Shava – a play on the Hebrew for a wedding that is both egalitarian and “worthwhile” – has been running over the past month in Israel. The spot urges young couples to get married, but to keep the Chief Rabbinate out of it.
Hatuna Shava is a collaboration of the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel, and the Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel) organization. The campaign aims to build on a growing trend where one out of every five marriages in Israel today bypasses the rabbinate. This includes not just same-sex or mixed-faith couples who cannot get married according to Jewish law, but liberal Orthodox Jews who are fed up with what they see as the corruption and insensitivity of Israel’s religious establishment.
THIS IS not just a theoretical issue for our family. My daughter is getting married in the fall, and she and her fiancé have to decide what kind of wedding they want.
Keeping the rabbinate away from the nuptials means the couple won’t be listed as married in the population registry, and they might miss out on some tax benefits, but any children who come out of the union will be fine. (This means they won’t be classified as mamzerim, a term used in Halacha for someone born from a relationship between a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man who is not her husband and who is able to marry only another mamzer.)
Hatuna Shava would like couples getting married to use a non-Orthodox rabbi affiliated with one of the sponsoring organizations.
But I’d go one step farther.  Why bother with a rabbi at all?
My respect for religious leadership in Israel – never particularly high – has been battered in the past month.
First, it was the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s rejection of a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi in the United States, despite protests led by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and backed up by Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi party chairman Naftali Bennett.
Then there was the revelation that incoming IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim had in the past made disparaging statements against women, gay people and non-Jews.
Karim implied that it was permissible for IDF soldiers to rape non-Jewish women during wartime, that women should not fill combat roles in the army, and that gay people should be treated as “sick or disabled.”
Karim has since backtracked, but the damage was done.
A few days later, another army-related religious leader, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, who co-founded and heads the Bnei David pre-military religious academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, repeatedly referred to gays as “perverts.” While he was roundly condemned by many public figures, 350 rabbis subsequently signed a letter supporting him.
These kinds of outrageous statements by religious leaders are nothing new. Shortly after I first arrived in Israel, in 1985, then-interior minister Yitzhak Peretz placed the blame for a horrendous train accident that killed 22 junior high school pupils on the fact that a movie theater was allowed to remain open on Shabbat.
It’s not my intention to paint every religious leader with the same black brush.
There are many rabbis who do excellent work. But every time I hear another inflammatory, racist, homophobic or misogynist statement coming from the religious Right, I ask myself: Why not abolish the whole institution?
What do we need rabbis for anyway? We don’t actually need them to perform a wedding – for that you just need a couple of witnesses, a ketuba (marriage contract) and a short ceremony involving an object of value (usually a ring). There are also Orthodox synagogues that don’t have a rabbi, but rather a ritual committee that decides on matters of Jewish practice for the community.
Kashrut doesn’t need rabbis either. The Hashgacha Pratit (literally “private kashrut oversight”) initiative was spurred by several Jerusalem restaurant owners who were fed up paying money to the Chief Rabbinate for kashrut inspectors who showed up for all of a couple of minutes a month yet still demanded their full payment.
Hashgacha Pratit creates a multi-sided learning compact where a restaurant’s staff is trained in what it takes to keep kosher, and then signs a “contract of faith” that requires “total transparency toward the customers.” The responsibility for kashrut rests primarily with the restaurateur and its patrons rather than outside rabbis. (A recent court ruling, however, forbids Hashgacha Pratit from actually using the word “kosher.”)
Why not extend this do-it-yourself approach to all aspects of Jewish life? After all, Judaism is supposed to be built as a community of scholars, of serious men and women who study Torah. Why can’t we decide on issues ourselves and jettison the temptations that come with coupling a restaurant’s kashrut to a particular type of lettuce, or the sanctity of a wedding to the color of the rabbi’s kippa?
NOW, I know that what I’m proposing would probably lead to chaos and anarchy.
You’d have two Jews, three synagogues and no one would agree to anything. How could we eat in each other’s homes?
But even if this is a mere thought experiment, the very fact that at least some of you might be nodding your heads in agreement means it’s worth playing out on a small stage – like a wedding without the rabbinate.
As Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti movement in Israel and one of the backers of Hatuna Shava put it, “Young couples are done with declarations and demonstrations. They are simply voting with their rings.” 
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