Judaism: Open Season on the Chief Rabbinate
Rabbi Steven PruzanskyThe writer is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey and anoted lecturer and author.. A past President of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, he also served as a Vice-President of the Rabbinical Council of America, is a trustee of the RCA on the Board of the Beth Din of America, as well as a dayyan on the Beth Din itself, is a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, and was American co-spokesman for the International Rabbinic Coalition for Israel. Ordained at Yeshiva Bnei Torah in Queens, NY, he also has a Juris Doctor degree from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.
“There were heretics among the Jewish people who burdened Moshe [with their carping]. If Moshe left home early, they would say ‘he must be having some trouble at home,’ and if Moshe left home later they would say: ‘Why has the son of Amram tarried at home? What do you think? It must be because he is sitting and scheming against you’” (Rashi, Devarim 1:12). Whatever Moshe did – it didn’t matter – the whiners found some fault with it. No wonder that at one low point, Moshe exclaimed to G-d: “Master of the Universe! There are seventy independent empires in the world – and You had to command me to go to the Jewish people?!” (Vayikra Raba 2:4)
It is impossible not to think of the way the Jewish people treated the great Moshe – he who brought us the Torah from Heaven and is characterized as G-d’s “confidante,” so to speak – if we hope to gain some perspective on the open season – the hunting season – currently underway against Israel’s Chief Rabbinate (Rabbanut). The attacks, the slurs, the wholesale disparagement, the demands that the institution be torn down and replaced (with what, no one seems to suggest) or simply torn down, period, are relentless.
The recent kerfuffle is a case in point. A noted American rabbi, as detailed here, temporarily had his authorization suspended to submit attestation of Jewishness letters on behalf of his congregants allegedly because his credentials as an Orthodox rabbi are being widely questioned. Another American rabbi – an educator, and a fine person known to me – also had his letters rejected allegedly on the grounds that only pulpit or community rabbis can submit letters to the Rabbanut. Should the Rabbanut – or some other organization, such as the RCA – vet prospective letter signers? Of course. In matters of marriage, divorce, or conversion, we are dealing with Kedushat Yisrael, the sanctity of the Jew and membership in good standing in the Jewish people that affects the nation, not just individuals. And that vetting will necessarily involve regulations, standards, and policies that must be navigated. Perhaps some light can be shed by reference to my own personal experience.
My letters have been routinely accepted by the Rabbanut for many years already – except for three occasions when they were summarily rejected. When they were rejected (one, just two months ago), I didn’t immediately run to the media or hire PR firms, or lawyers. Instead, I laughed, and turned to one of my colleagues for assistance.
What happened? The first letter rejected was when I affirmed the Jewishness of my parents for the Rabbanut, the second when I affirmed the Jewishness of my oldest daughter and her children when they made aliya several years ago, and the third was when I affirmed the Jewishness of my youngest daughter and her children as they plan their aliya this summer. How could it be that my letters were rejected? Because the Rabbanut does not accept attestations from family members, and these were my closest relatives. But…but…but, aren’t I a reliable informant? Am I not trusted to certify other people? Yes. So what sense does it make that I can’t now certify my own family? Because that is the policy.
Does the policy make sense? Not really, until we recognize that the policy is rooted in halakha, not secular, political or emotional logic. For example, I have served as a witness to marriage well over 100 times – but I was not qualified, according to Torah law, to be a witness at my own children’s weddings. How could that be? The Torah says so. It is a categorical exclusion, not based on lack of credibility.
The Rabbanut’s logic is actually quite sound in this instance. I accept the policy (even as I keep trying to flout it, hoping it has changed!). In each case, one of my colleagues (actually, the same one) drafted the necessary letters. Indeed, Rabbi Berel Wein tells the story of having his own credentials as a rabbi rejected by the Rabbanut because he had to have another rabbi certify him – even though his name appeared on the registry as recognized by the Rabbanut to certify others.
Every bureaucracy has rules, and those rules usually have some internal logic. Regarding the second case mentioned above, it seems clear that the Rabbanut does not accept attestation letters from educators. Does that make sense? Well, yes, although I can see both sides. In truth, whenever an educator has a question about the Jewishness of a child, he/she generally turns to the pulpit rabbi to ascertain the requisite information. That is why the Rabbanut relies on pulpit/community rabbis. The rejection was not personal; simply, the affiant was not qualified to make such an attestation under current rules.
The first case has already been addressed, but is the Rabbanut’s categorical exclusion of the affirmations of non-Orthodox rabbis unreasonable? Consider this bit of news: the Wall Street Journal (January 18, 2014) reported on the newly-elected rabbi of the prestigious Reform temple, the Central Synagogue of Manhattan, one Angela Warnick Buchdahl, heralded as a “pioneer.” And she certainly is. Born of a Korean Buddhist mother and an American Jewish father, she has diverse experiences, qualifications, and talents – and is even a cantor. Alas, the new “rabbi” is not Jewish according to Jewish law, apparently a trivial detail to her electors. Should her testimony regarding the Jewishness of her members be accepted by the Rabbanut? Of course not.
Anyone who maintains that the Rabbanut – or Israeli society – should accept the conversions performed under non-Orthodox auspices lacks a complete understanding of both Jewish identity and the catastrophe unfolding in American Jewish life. Anyone who wants to tear down the Rabbanut and replace it with something “that mirrors the diversity of modern Jewish life,” as one writer put it, is obviously hostile to Torah, whatever their personal practices might be. And anyone who thinks that the Rabbanut blundered here because of unfamiliarity with American Judaism should think again; perhaps they know it too well, but we just don’t like what they see.
Could the bureaucracy be streamlined, improved and made more user-friendly? Of course, and that applies to all bureaucracies whose weakness is not usually policy but that the consumer is at the mercy of indifferent clerks who get paid whether or not they are pleasant or efficient. And that could be true of the Rabbanut bureaucracy, as it certainly is of the motor vehicle bureau, the utilities companies, the cellphone companies, the passport office, etc. – and in any country on earth.
Other writers, conflating their opinions with reality, have accused the Rabbanut of being anti-woman (and thus opposed to Rabbi Weiss), or being on a power trip (a projection that could be equally applied to rabbis who unilaterally try to change the mesorah simply because they want to), and even of struggling to retain their power in light of the coming changes in curriculum or conscription (risible, as the Rabbanut is not involved in those areas at all).
Among recent screeds, one writer viciously castigated the Rabbanut for opposing women’s service in the IDF. In that, of course, they deviated from the opinion of their predecessors not one iota. The Rabbanut has always opposed women’s service in the IDF, and instead encourages National Service. Even the previous IDF Chief Rabbi, Rav Avichai Ronsky, openly opposed women’s service while at the same time vowing to protect their interests if they chose to serve. So this was another baseless accusation.
For sure, I have my own complaints. I wish the Rabbanut would be more outspoken on issues relating to Israeli society. I wish they would have been more forceful in opposing the Oslo madness. I wish the Rabbanut would be the address for the government of Israel not only for technical halachic issues but on public policy issues – on how the Torah addresses the variety of challenges a modern state faces. And I wish the election procedures were more dignified, the electorate much smaller, and was comprised only of people who value Torah and the Rabbinate. It is permissible to wish.
It has become commonplace that any discussion of today’s Rabbanut must include a lament about how it has never met expectations as an institution, and how all successors pale before the great Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi. And for sure Rav Kook was a giant among men, a genius in Torah, a lover of all Jews, and a fascinating blend of Hitnagdut and Chasidut.
That lament will always include a reference to the fact that Rav Kook endeavored to bring all Jews closer to Torah, as opposed to today’s Rabbanut “that drives Jews away from Torah.” And yet, for all his greatness, I do not recall reading that all Jews in Eretz Yisrael in Rav Kook’s day were Shomrei Mitzvot; in fact, relatively few were, unlike today. I do recall reading of Rav Kook’s frustrations when his opinions were not sought or not followed by the Histadrut, the Jewish Agency or other official bodies. His opposition to a Biblical Criticism department at the new Hebrew University was ignored. He admonished Jews – with limited success – not to pick up their mail at the post office on Shabbat or Yom Tov.
Rav Kook’s Rabbanut, notwithstanding his greatness, was a constant struggle against the establishment and the widespread indifference to Torah in the general population. We should lose the nostalgia. The main imperative of the Rabbanut of Rav Kook – to ensure the kashrut of marriages and divorces – is what is now being challenged by today’s critics. In any event, we “only have the judge in our time” (Rashi, Devarim 17:9). We don’t live in the past.
I have met Rav David Lau on numerous occasions. He is an honorable person, a talmid chacham, a mentsch, a patriot who served with distinction in the IDF’s Intelligence Corps, and a leader who is spending long hours trying to rectify the weaknesses in the bureaucracy – and who still teaches Torah daily across the country in as many settings as he can reach. He doesn’t deserve the “Moshe” treatment, except, perhaps, in this sense: “And what are we? Your complaints are not against us but against G-d!” (Shmot 16:8).
It is as if we will decide how we worship G-d, not G-d (memo to teenage girls wearing tefillin, the latest act of self-absorption, self-worship and mimicry of men masquerading as piety).
The Chief Rabbinate is enduring the same slings and arrows as did Moshe and as are rabbis across the globe. They are the prime targets of modern man who resents authority, resents being told what they can or can’t do, and resents (and chafes under) any limitation on his autonomy. It is as if we will decide how we worship G-d, not G-d (memo to teenage girls wearing tefillin, the latest act of self-absorption, self-worship and mimicry of men masquerading as piety). That is the real problem.
There are many Jews, even some nominally Orthodox or neo-Conservative, who scour the sources to permit themselves to do what they want to do, who are uncomfortable with the Mesorah, who want validation for every deviation, and who therefore rail against any source of authority. They will not want any Rabbanut or any rabbinical authority, except as the verbalizer of platitudes and officiant at ceremonies. We hear that “the Rabbanut does not speak to the modern Jew!” Perhaps it does, but the real problem is the modern Jew chooses not to listen because he doesn’t like what he hears.
A Boston politician running for re-election used to say, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Is the alternative a Rabbanut without authority, or a Torah that speaks in the language of benign suggestions rather than absolute commandments? Is the alternative sought an Israeli society where anything goes, hefkerut reigns, where religion and state are as distinct as in secular countries? Such a state would not be a “Jewish state,” nor, if the Torah has any meaning, would it long survive.
In a Jewish state, one who wants to intermarry – or a kohen who wants to marry a convert or a divorcee – might have to go to Cyprus (better they not get married altogether). But if they have to go to Cyprus, so what? It is a small price to pay to maintain the integrity of a Jewish state. Indeed, individuals often pay a greater price to provide for the nation. Secular “coercion” (army, taxes, laws, etc.) seems to have more backers than religious “coercion.” But a Jewish state honors its Torah, its rabbis, its land and its people. It honors its Shabbat, its kashrut, its family purity and its ethical laws.
Those Jews – observant of mitzvot – who are calling for the dissolution of the Rabbanut and the separation of religion and state in Israel are trying to curry favor with the anti-religious, liberal left, thinking somehow they will make common cause in the future. But in so doing they have essentially given up on Israel as a “Jewish state” by divesting the phrase of all substance and meaning.
So, perhaps, before insisting that the “Palestinians” recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” we should insist that Jews recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” – including prime ministers, rabbis and other public figures. Maybe then, at least for a brief time, they will hold their fire, and try to build rather than destroy.