Attacking Israel's Chief Rabbinate - in the NY Times
Attacking Israel's Chief Rabbinate - in the NY Times

After reading an article in the NY Times this past week written by Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York, that strongly criticizes the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, I found myself asking the following questions:

How could a Zionist Jewish leader write an article portraying Israel as negatively as he did for a newspaper whose anti-Israel bias is often featured on Arutz Sheva?

Why would an Orthodox rabbi write on issues that are clearly halakhic in nature in a non-Jewish newpaper? Most NY Times readers would accept what is written there without question, as their knowledge of the topic is minimal at best, but that certainly cannot be the motive of a respected rabbi - remembered well for his part in the struggle for Soviet Jewry and the battle to free Jonathan Pollard.

And the timing seems as questionable as the venue – Israelis are being pressured severely by Obama and Kerry's plans for the Jewish state, so why bring up internal controversies in "The Gray Lady"?

And unfortunately, the article  telling Israelis - from overseas - how to run one of that country's institutions, contains partial and misleading information. 

Rabbi Weiss writes: "The modern institution of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate was created for the Jewish community in Palestine by the British during the Mandate period and kept in place when the independent state of Israel was established in 1948."

That certainly sounds like something outdated and possibly unnecessary - to readers. However, it omits the fact that the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, revered religious Zionist leader and Torah sage Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook saw the institution as an important part of the fulfillment of his religious Zionist vision for a Jewish state and that this vision is part of the religious Zionist credo.  

1. In Rabbi Kook's vision, a Jewish state has an inherent spiritual component, symbolized by the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbi's mandate is to raise the spiritual level of Israel's Jewish citizens and act as the focus for Jews and rabbis all over the world. Rabbis Herzog, Goren, Shapira, Eliyahu, Yossef are just a few of the rabbis who did precisely that.

2. Many halakhic questions affecting the entire Jewish people would arise in a Jewish state, and be arbited by the Chief Rabbinate. Events proved Rabbi Kook correct, and some of these decisions were recognition of long lost immigrant groups as Jews, conditions for heart transplants, the Temple Mount's status, to name but a few.

3. Most challenging is the judicious application of halakha in the Jewish state. Whereas in the Diaspora, each congregation had its own independent rabbinic courts with limited ability to enforce decisions in a non-Jewish country– the Jewish state itself could function as a single empowered kehilla (congregation) in certain instances. Agreed-upon civil Jewish laws  could be part of the makeup of the state's legislation. Their observance would then be under the optimal conditions envisioned in the Torah, which is tied to the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

An example of this is in facilitating Jewish divorce. Over twenty years ago, the Knesset passed the law (presented by religious Zionsts in the spirit of Rabbi Kook) allowing rabbinic courts to punish men who refuse their wives divorces, which in Jewish law must be granted by the husband. That revolutionary way of looking at the halakhic issue in a Jewish state has the police confiscating credit cards, meting out prison terms, etc. to recalcitrant husbands – as opposed to the powerlessness of rabbinic courts in the rest of the world. Yes, there is a way to go, but this is the road to take to get there.

4.  As opposed to the problems extant in the Diaspora (and this over 70 years before the Pew Report of 70% intermarriage rates in the USA that shows the dismal results of rabbinic decentralization – a post modern concept that is the often-wrong vogue on every issue today), the Land of Israel would guard the continuity and unity of the Jewish people by having personal status issues resolved in a central forum. The Chief Rabbinate would do so according to Orthodox norms which are the only ones accepted by every Jewish group.

True, the Chief Rabbinate has been under criticism for becoming more stringent on certain issues and not user-friendly enough to secular Jews during the past two terms, the period in which the positions were filled by hareidi rabbis who see the position somewhat differently from Rabbi Kook. (In the recent elections, a backlash gave rise to a Zionist contender for the position who saw the rabbinate's main goal as becoming streamlined and more user-friendly to secular Jews and who saw both vision and Torah greatness as not necessary to fill the position).

This does not automatically imply that all the Rabbinate's current decisions are to be fought (after all, the Chief Rabbinate Council includes respected religious Zionist rabbis and so does the Chief Rabbinic Court)  – or that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater, as Rabbi Weiss seems to want to do ever since his attestation to an immigrant's Jewish status faced rejection by that body.

Rabbi Weiss writes: "Not only does it [the Rabbinate] impose Orthodox religious law on all Jews, but it also demands ultra-strict standards in most areas it oversees." He does not mention that those "imposed " Orthodox religious areas are few in number, existing only in spheres that affect Jewish continuity (i.e. personal status as Jews; that's where his criticism is actually directed) and the ability to join forces as a nation (kosher food in the IDF and the Knesset, kosher certification), minimal Sabbath and holiday atmosphere in a Jewish state. That's it.

In Orthodox Judaism, one works from within the halakhic framework. There is no demand for Judaism to enlarge its framework to fit politically correct and liberal realities, but instead to accept only what can fit within that framework. Halakha might even trump liberal interpretations of democracy in some cases.

I have read a good many articles by graduates of Rabbi Weiss' yeshiva and members of the Open Orthodoxy he founded and while his description of Open Orthodoxy in the NY Times article says all the things a liberal society wants to hear, it leaves out details that would make the hesitation of the Chief Rabbinate understandable.

Rabbi Weiss writes: "Those who identify with this vision believe in the divinity of the Torah" – but I have read Open Orthodox rabbis who raise doubts about the authorship of parts of the Torah (Maimonides lists this belief as 8th in his 13 principles of faith) and the very existence of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Patriarchs and the Exodus.

He continues: "We believe in an Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; ...welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance; and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people".

I, too, believe in women's involvement and empowerment where it is halakhically permissible, but that means that modesty is a deciding factor in addition to mathematically logical interpretations of specific Jewish laws  - making being a cantor for parts of the service, as Rabbi Weiss allows in his synagogue, untenable.

Human beings are not rejected by Judaism, but homosexual relations are specifically forbidden, so having gay relationships welcomed and recognized in ceremonies - as one Open Orthodox rabbi suggested - in Open Orthodox synagogues would certainly explain Chief Rabbinate qualms.

It is the Chief Rabbinate's responsibility to feel confident in accepting attestations. It is to be expected that it has reservations about attestation if a rabbi has promoted radical changes in observance and custom that have not received widespread Orthodox rabbinic approval. And that seems to be what Rabbi Weiss has done. So why doesn't he try to convince mainstream Torah figures, rather than NY Times readers, that he is still within the framework? Has he tried and failed?

It is possible that Open Orthodoxy's rabbis, worried about increasing assimilation in the United States, hope that adopting changes that are in keeping with current American liberal lifestyles - where everyone's lifestyle is just fine, feminist demands are always justified and all faiths sing in the same choir - will bring  back some of those who are lost to Judaism. That doesn't work and never has. The growing disappearance of  Conservative Jewry is one proof of many that watered down forms of Judaism do not last.

So please don't try to get the above recognized in Israel, using liberal mantras and jargon. People in democratic Israel can live as they wish, affiliate or not as they wish, but the Orthodoxy of the Chief Rabbinate and its interpretation of personal status must be kept inviolate.

The Chief Rabbinate is responsible religiously for the first Jewish state in 2000 years. It has to take the long view because the Jewish state must not and can not be the place where the continuity and halakhic unity of the Jewish people is destroyed! - even if that means making unpopular and unpopulist decisions.  

That is why the fringe left-liberal Orthodox Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah proposal that "communities elect their own religious leadership and matters like marriage and conversion, communal standards would be taken into consideration instead of dictates imposed from above" has no place in the Jewish state, especially since the Orthodox believe those dictates actually do come from Above.  

The innovations in Open Orthodoxy are geared to being accepted, to being au courant in a post-modern world. But Orthodox rabbis are not supposed to be au courant, they are supposed to be the steadfast pillars that uphold eternal G-d given tradition.

"It would have been easier to remain quiet and avoid the embarrassment that rejection had caused me", the rabbi writes. It would have been wiser as well not to make one's embarrassment a cause célèbre for attacking a Chief Rabbinate that is not perfect, but has played a central role in countless instances where its intervention was of crucial significance for the future of the Jewish People..