Wanted: Spiritual leaders

The Chief Rabbinate must face the reality: Israel is not a religious state. That may be unfortunate, but it is a reality.

WHO WILL guide this man? The author argues we need better spiritual leaders. (photo credit: REUTERS)
WHO WILL guide this man? The author argues we need better spiritual leaders.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 The recent pronouncement by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel about setting aside an area near the Western Wall for “egalitarian” (Conservative/Reform) services is another sad link in the chain of deterioration of rabbinical leadership in Israel.
The Chief Rabbinate seems to believe that it will promote Orthodox, halachic Judaism if it rams halachic requirements down the throats of the worldwide Jewish populace. One would have thought that they were smart enough to realize that this is not true. There is a reality out there. There are Jewish people who are not halachic, and twisting their arms will only make them more anti-halachic than before. The Jewish people are a stubborn people – even Conservative and Reform Jews are stubborn. They are all blessed with the Jewish characteristic of being stiffnecked.
We are all descendants of those Jews in Egypt of whom the Bible relates: “the more they are tortured, the more they multiply.” Jews grow up on stories of martyrdom.
The Chief Rabbinate’s pronouncement on prayer at the Western Wall will at best turn off millions of Jews around the world; at worst, it will distance them even further from Judaism.
This saga reminds me of a similar episode some years ago when Rabbi Yitzchak Peretz, now the chief rabbi of Ra’anana, was interior minister, and thus in charge of the Population Registry. He related the story recently in a speech in Ra’anana. A young woman had converted to Judaism through the Reform movement in the United States. The Supreme Court ordered Rabbi Peretz to register the woman as Jewish. Rabbi Peretz, in his speech, sought to explain how important it was to be devoted to halacha. He said that the woman’s conversion was a “kishkush” (nonsense). Indeed, he punctuated nearly every sentence in his speech with the word “kishkush” which he applied to the process, to the woman, to the movement, and so forth. Ultimately, Rabbi Peretz proudly declared, he resigned his position and did not sign the registration documents.
I sat in the audience and wondered: did Rabbi Peretz ever consider that the woman was not a “kishkush”? That she was a sincere, motivated individual who was attracted to those elements of Judaism which have been adopted by the Reform movement – such as a day of rest on Shabbat (albeit not the type of rest that Halacha requires)? Did he ever consider what a sacrifice the woman had made to leave her home, her environment, her family, her language, her culture, and come to Israel? Had he met with her to determine whether she was a “kishkush”? By the end of his speech both my bile and my ire arose.
The same feeling of disgust arose when I read the Chief Rabbinate’s pronouncement – laden with “cheap shots” against the Reform and Conservative movements. I recalled similar pronouncements of leading rabbis against the “Dati Leumi” movement. The bottom line is that if one does not wear the black hats of the Chief Rabbinate (which has the fear of Shas and Agudat Yisrael over its shoulder), then one is a “kishkush” and should not even be allowed to pray.
The Western Wall is not the Temple. It is not even the Temple Mount; it is not a synagogue. It is a tourist attraction in that it is the closest place to the site of the Temple, and there are various legends as to its closeness to God. I personally have never felt particularly inspired by praying at the Western Wall. At times I even feel repulsed by the conduct of the people there, by the persistent beggars, by the dress of visitors, by the shouting across the mechitza, by the machers who produce bar mitzvahs for rich tourists, and so on. But that is the nature of tourist attractions – some find them inspiring, some find them interesting or cute and some find them garish.
The rabbinate accommodates various sectors of society at the wall. There are Sefardi Torah scrolls and Ashkenazi Torah scrolls, there are prayer books of different customs, different groups can set up their own prayer quorums.
It might be an idea to have a section reserved for those who pray with ecstatic movements and another one for those who pray quietly. (I would go with the quiet ones.) Perhaps one section should be for those who pray in the traditional fashion with a tallit and tefillin in the morning, and another section for those who plunk a cardboard skullcap on their heads, kiss the wall and go home. If there are a significant number of people who wish to pray in a non-halachic fashion (e.g. women reading the Torah), then give them a section as well. (I would not go there.) I wonder, has the Chief Rabbinate ever met with leaders of the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the women’s prayer movement, the egalitarian movement, etc.? These meetings could be conducted out of the public eye. No one is suggesting that the rabbis deviate from halacha. But should not the rabbis try to understand their adversaries? Perhaps such meetings would bring about some mutual understanding, for the benefit of the Jewish people? Perhaps such meetings would provide all concerned with the telephone number, the contact, to discuss issues of mutual concern in a substantive atmosphere and not in the eye of the press, which eagerly awaits every possibility to undermine religion in the State of Israel.
The Chief Rabbinate must face the reality: Israel is not a religious state. That may be unfortunate, but it is a reality.
In many ways, the establishment is anti-religious. As chief rabbi Herzog once wrote so eloquently with regard to the conversion issue, if the president of the State of Israel and the prime minister of the State of Israel are overtly non-observant and sometimes anti-religious, how can we assume that any convert has properly accepted the halachic requirements and will be “better” than the leaders of the country? The Conservative and Reform movements see precisely the same situation. The Chief Rabbinate tells them that they are non-legitimate, yet the political leaders of Israel are themselves non-halachic.
A week or so ago, the Templeton Prize for an outstanding spiritual leader in the world was given to former UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I am personally far from a fan of Rabbi Sacks’ publications, which I find to be too far removed from traditional yeshiva dialogue. But I will be the first to recognize that he is an outstanding spiritual leader, who is consulted by political figures when issues of ethics and morality arise. I asked myself: which rabbi in Israel could be a candidate for a prize as a leading spiritual leader. Not the rabbis who answer obscure (albeit important) questions about what type of toothpaste is permitted for use on Shabbat. Certainly not the two former chief rabbis who are under indictment, nor the former chief rabbi of Haifa who entered into a plea bargain which required him never to serve again in a public position. The rabbi of one of Israel’s larger cities is also under indictment yet continues to serve as rabbi and a member of the Chief Rabbinical Council. None of the above, nor any of the rabbis from the Shas party who have gone to jail, nor the religious judges, whose appointments are mainly political and who allow files to linger for years and years, are great spiritual leaders in my mind.
The Western Wall situation was an opportunity which the Chief Rabbinate could have used to speak to the public, to explain its principles in a convincing, subdued manner.
Instead it published calumny against 80 percent of the Jewish population throughout the world.
If the Chief Rabbinate really had a backbone, it would announce that in light of the non/anti-religious nature of the state and its leadership, it transfers the Western Wall to the Tourism Ministry.
The Chief Rabbinate has every right to maintain its position and to defend halacha as it sees fit. It may not try to ram halacha down anyone’s throat. The Chief Rabbinate must state its position with respect and sophistication, after dialogue, discussion and consideration of the costs and benefits involved. Only thus can the rabbis serve as spiritual leaders.
The author is an advocate and attorney at law with Weksler, Bregman & Co.