Oznia, a blog of Israel things

~The Israeli Chief Rabbinate: Antiquated? by Yishai Schwartz
March 17, 2008, 11:04 am
Filed under: politics | Tags: , , ,


Some of you may have seen the recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Gershom Gorenberg. Others may be watching the debate over the Israeli-Rabbinate-instigated centralization of American Orthodox conversions that is playing out in The New York Jewish Week. Both raise the question: What the hell is the Chief Rabbinate and why does anyone care about them?

The answer may be shocking to those who view Israel (mostly correctly) as a pluralistic society that inhabits a primarily secular state. The ultra-Orthodox dominated Rabbinate holds total control over conversions, and all marriages and divorces between Jews. Not all Orthodox Jews. All religious, secular, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated, post-denominational, and completely atheist, Jews. The Rabbinate will not marry a Jew and a non-Jew or recognize conversions performed by non-Orthodox (and now, many Orthodox) rabbis. For this reason many Israelis have opted to bypass the Rabbinate and marry overseas, such as in Cyprus. Although the Rabbinate does not recognize these marriages, the Israeli government does.

Besides the inherent insult to the non-Orthodox denominations that its existence represents, the Chief Rabbinate has compounded its unpopularity through sheer nastiness. While needing to go before a bearded Jewish man to get a marriage license is probably always uncomfortable for the non-Orthodox, there is no reason why it has to be an entirely unpleasant experience. But it often is. Rabbis, clerks, and rabbinical judges are often abrupt, prejudiced, arrogant, and condescending. And many a happy couple leaves Rabbinate offices with a dark cloud hanging over their heads. Even worse, the Rabbinate rejects one-sided divorce and often is accused of favoring men during divorce proceedings- sometimes turning a blind-eye to extortion as proceedings drag on for years.

(This is not to say that all, or even most, individual judges are bad. Many are open-minded and caring people who do their best to enhance the lives of the people they encounter. One of my teachers is himself a community rabbi in Israel, and he is one of the most sincere, lovely people I have ever met.)

So, why keep it? Is the Israeli public stupid? Is it far more religious than we thought?

No, actually – the Israeli government is run by parliamentary system. The ruling government is made up of a coalition of multiple parties who compromise in formulating an agenda. This allows smaller parties that represent special-interests to have disproportionate influence. As such, the Ultra-Orthodox (who usually take 15-20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset) consistently join governments, push through their limited agendas, and maintain their control over, and the power of, the Chief Rabbinate. Democracy at work folks.

And as the Ultra-Orthodox have become more involved in politics, their influence has grown, and the Rabbinate has become dominated by the ultra-Orthodox camp, rather than the more tolerant Religious Zionist camp. Indeed, the current Chief Rabbis, Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, were opposed by the Religious Zionists, and are seen as strongly under the influence of the most right-wing segments of the Orthodox community.

So what does this all mean for us. I am an ardent Zionist who believes in Israel as a Jewish State and a homeland of the Jewish People. I believe it has to talk about Jewish values, encourage the study of Jewish texts and history, and protect Jews the world over. But the granting of temporal authority to religious figures was a bad idea, and it has proved itself to be a failed experiment. Let’s defend Israel, but let’s also make sure she’s worth defending.


1 Comment so far
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This just in from Haaretz:
More scandal in the Chief Rabbinate!

Comment by Charlie

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