AJC Statement on the Chief Rabbinate in Israel

Adopted by AJC Board of Governors

June 25, 2012

AJC advocates for and is committed to enhancing the security and safety of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Israel’s welfare and vitality enrich the Jewish people worldwide. AJC’s global pro-Israel advocacy also strengthens U.S.-Israel ties.

Recent actions of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate threaten to divide the Jewish people and risk an anti-religious backlash against Judaism itself within the Jewish state. Of particular concern is the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over issues of personal status – particularly marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion to Judaism. Moreover, various pronouncements of the Chief Rabbinate are anathema to many members of Diaspora Jewry and threaten to fray ties that bind all Jews wherever they may reside.

The following practices are particularly troubling:
  • The Chief Rabbinate has recently acted to nullify conversions retroactively, including those by Orthodox rabbis in America.
  • The Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious marriage has prevented the adoption of civil marriage; those deemed not eligible to marry under Jewish law must leave the country to obtain a civil marriage.
  • Pronouncements by Chief Rabbis and former Chief Rabbis delegitimizing the non-Orthodox religious movements have proven deeply offensive to American Jews.
While rightly sensitive to the role of religion within a Jewish state, Israel must balance civil liberties imperatives with those of Judaic heritage and tradition. The role of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate requires significant modifications so as to bring Israel into greater harmony with contemporary democratic norms, particularly as practiced and understood by Diaspora Jewish communities.

The Chief Rabbinate has used its authority primarily to impose detailed requirements to decide who does or does not qualify as Jewish. In fact, because of its positions on matters of personal status, the Chief Rabbinate’s pronouncements on moral issues have far less impact than might otherwise be the case.

An alternate model of a Chief Rabbinate may be its transformation into a largely ceremonial and ritualistic office embodying the Jewish nature of the State of Israel resembling the British model of an Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop possesses no tangible political power. Precisely given that the Archbishop does not invoke the coercive power of the state, his office may serve as moral conscience of the state. Transforming the office of the Chief Rabbinate from state actor to the moral teacher it should be does alter the “religious status quo” agreed to in 1948 by religious and secular bodies alike. Yet, in the 21st century, a coercive Chief Rabbinate has become, at best, an anachronism, and, at worst, a force dividing the Jewish people and corroding Israel’s international standing.

AJC calls upon the Government of Israel to undertake promptly all needed actions to the end that (a) matters of personal status may, at the election of the persons involved, be determined by civil authorities, and (b) that all organized Jewish denominations recognized by the American Jewish community, along with their rabbis and rabbinic decrees and rulings, be acknowledged and accepted by all Israeli government bodies and accorded the same rights and privileges as all other currently sanctioned religious communities present in Israel.
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