Op-Ed: Protecting Israel From the Tragedy of American Jewry
One way or another, whether through hateful anti-Semitism or through loving acceptance and intermarriage, the Exile is being liquidated. And we Orthodox rabbis live with that reality.
A ground-breaking agreement has been announced by which the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will accept Certifications of Jewishness by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), when rabbonim (Orthodox rabbis) who are RCA members submit to RCA their attestations to individuals’ halakhic Jewish status.
This agreement explicitly will not cover attempted attestations by non-RCA members.
The Rabbinical Council of America dates back almost a century to the 1920s. It is perhaps the largest rabbinical organization in the world, comprising a spectrum of rabbis who best might be described as adhering to Centrist Orthodox Judaism.
Some RCA members lean closer to an Agudath Israel perspective; some are more towards the liberal side. But the over-all flavor is that of Centrist Orthodoxy, a world view compatible with that of the world of the Religious Zionist Bnei Akiva Yeshivas in Israel.
RCA members are profoundly devoted to Israel, with a deep support for the permanency of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
Most RCA members have university educations, although not all have opted to pursue secular advanced degrees.
However, RCA members are bound by a deep commitment not only to the centrality of Torah observance and the eternal truth of the Oral Torah as well as the Written Torah, but also by a deep reverence for Mesorah, the power of Tradition and deference to the leading Torah authorities of each generation.
American Jewry is in chaos. Politically, religiously. Most American Jews no longer care how a Presidential candidate stands regarding Israel. If he will pursue a blanket liberal platform, that will win two-thirds of American Jewish votes. And if that political platform means sacrificing Judea and Samaria . . . and Jerusalem . . . and Israel itself — well, for most non-Orthodox American Jews, that is a small political price to pay for assuring a controversial new healthcare plan.
Religiously, more than half of all American Jews now are “marrying out” — that is, marrying non-Jews. The vast majority of those intermarriages are of Jewish men with non-Jewish women, meaning that close to half of all children being born in households with a Jewish parent are themselves not Jewish. Yet their Jewish parents call them Jewish. Those non-Jewish children are reared from infancy in America being told they are Jewish. Reconstructionist, Reform, and many Conservative rabbis agree to “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah” them, reinforcing the mendacity that denominates them as Jewish. To paraphrase the prophecy of Jeremiah, they say: “We are Jewish, we are Jewish. But they are not Jewish.”
There is little that American Orthodox rabbis can do but to investigate each and every unknown person who approaches them to be married or to be certified as Jews. For those who are members of a local rabbi’s congregation, where the rabbi personally knows the family, the status of Jewishness is easily confirmed. However, we rabbis all are approached often by unknown people, unaffiliated, who wish to marry or, sometimes, to relocate to Israel. They ask us to attest to their Jewish status, but they come with no prior identifiers. So we must investigate.
We ask people to bring us photographs from old cemetery tombstones, to bring copies of several generations’ birth certificates, dating back to a time when Jews did not intermarry, except for outliers. We investigate and investigate.
This is the price of living in the Exile. Galut is not simply dispersion, Diaspora; it is Exile, and the Exile is being liquidated. One way or another, whether through hateful anti-Semitism or through loving acceptance and intermarriage, the Exile is being liquidated. And we Orthodox rabbis live with that reality.
It is imperative that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel protect Israel from the religious chaos and Jewish tragedy of America. There absolutely must be a central religious body in Israel to prevent the spiritual illness of America from taking root and gaining a foothold in Israel.
As much as the Chief Rabbinate truly needs to gain sensitivity and to evolve into something greater than it is, to evolve into something more like what we all wish it would be, there still is no greater vehicle in Israel for preserving the sanctity of the Jewish People than the Rabbinate.
Nevertheless, there has been a nagging logistical difficulty: When an American Jewish clergyperson — now, for example, there are female rabbis not only in American Reform and Conservative, but also in American “Open Orthodoxy” that was the brainchild of Rabbi Avi Weiss — how can a central rabbinical body in Israel know which rabbinical attestations from across the ocean are trustworthy in halakhic terms?
If every American rabbi who considers himself Orthodox expects his and her letters to be accepted at face value — “I, Rabbi X, personally attest to this person’s Jewish status (or to the legitimacy of this person’s conversion to Judaism)” — how can a Chief Rabbinate in Israel know whom to believe in halakhic terms? The challenge is impracticable.
For the purpose of conversions, the Chief Rabbinate previously has entered into an agreement with RCA: if you establish conversion rabbinical panels (batei din) that adhere to certain halakhically required “Gerut Policies and Standards” (GPS), then we in Israel will accept any conversion that you attest was conducted through such an RCA GPS panel (bet din).
Yet that left a gap: What about rabbinical attestations to the halakhic status of Jews who were born as Jews? That is, if a Jew seeks recognition in Israel as a Jew with legitimate matrilineal descent, how can the Chief Rabbinate in Israel know what truly transpired in the lineage of this American applicant?
It cannot be expected fairly that the Chief Rabbinate can or should accept rabbinical attestations from every Rabbi Tom, Dick, and Mary who writes them. Under the new agreement, however, the gap is closed and the riddle solved. If an RCA member writes an attestation to the Jewishness of someone whom that rabbi knows to be Jewish, the rabbi can submit the attestation to the RCA, and the RCA can confirm and certify that attestation to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
This agreement will not cover non-RCA members, but there are nearly a thousand Orthodox rabbis who are RCA members.
And everyone should remember: at the end of the day, it is not about the ego and personal glory of the rabbi supervising a conversion or writing a letter of status.
Rather, at the end of the day, it is about the person who converted to Judaism and her progeny for generations to come.
It is about the born-Jew making aliyah or seeking status to marry.
Such people deserve a centralized body in America and another in Israel to assure and preserve their status in a way that the Jewishness of their as-yet-unborn great-grandchildren never will be questioned.
For that, in a world where American Judaism is in chaos, the only possible solution is the new agreement between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America. It is a great thing.
Rav Dov Fischer is Rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, now in his fourth year as a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (for identification purposes only), an adjunct professor of law at two prominent California law schools, author of General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine (Steimatzky) and Jews for Nothing (Feldheim), and formerly was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review.