Dov S. Zakheim and Steve Bayme
November 13, 2013
In the 1950s, prime minister David Ben-Gurion queried 50 Jewish intellectuals worldwide as to whom they would define as a Jew. In the 1980s, Israeli religious parties wished to define who qualified as a rabbi in the Diaspora. By the 1990s, the question became who was a convert to Judaism in Israel.
Today a new low has been reached in this endless quest for conformity, as the Chief Rabbinate has rejected the testimony of American Orthodox rabbis concerning the singlehood and Jewish status of couples wishing to marry in Israel.
In particular, the Chief Rabbinate arrogantly dismissed a certification to this effect signed by the well-known New York City Orthodox rabbi, educator and pro-Israel activist, Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Throughout his career, Rabbi Weiss has vouched for the personal status of Jewish singles wishing to marry in Israel.
Shockingly, his name now no longer appears on a secret list of “approved rabbis” whose testimony regarding Jewish and single status are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.
The end result is personal shock for a Jewishly-committed young couple, a potential rift in Israel’s relationship with world Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular, and yet another crisis of credibility for the integrity of the Chief Rabbinate as an official institution of the State of Israel.
At first glance, one might interpret this outrage as one more illustration of a growing “haredization” of Israeli society.
While this is certainly true, the actual context lies in the aftermath of the recent elections for the Chief Rabbinate.
Reportedly, Chief Rabbi David Lau owed his election to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) supporters, and now promises to apply their most stringent criteria to matters of personal status.
Indeed, he appears to have reached an agreement to that effect with Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the rabbinical appeals court judge who invalidated, on a retroactive basis, thousands of conversions carried out by the respected Rabbi Haim Druckman. The price of this latest capitulation to haredi extremism is the risk of forfeiting inclusivity for all Jews wishing to return to the Jewish homeland – the very rationale for Israel’s existence.
No specific reason was given for the rejection of Rabbi Weiss, notwithstanding his long record of service in the Orthodox rabbinate. Weiss does represent a moderate and progressive voice within American Orthodoxy, and has drawn considerable fire for establishing what he terms an “Open” Orthodox rabbinical school and a counterpart institution for the training of women religious leaders with the title of “Maharat.”
Needless to add, these expressions of an “open” and “modern” Orthodoxy are anathema to haredi forces, who have become increasingly less hesitant to stoop so low as to prevent born single Jews from marrying one another.
This highly offensive and divisive incident may, of course, be resolved expeditiously, assuming cooler heads will prevail. Nonetheless, the implications for Israeli society are consequential.
Haredi parties are now excluded from the governing coalition, and haredi society itself is undergoing crisis.
Haredi leaders, threatened by the specter of military conscription (or alternate service) and the economic necessity for their male followers to abandon the yeshivot and enter the workforce, fear the loss of influence and political power within Israeli society.
In that context, the Chief Rabbinate is mounting a lastditch effort to protect its monopoly over matters of personal status as the last redoubt of tangible haredi power.
It is the height of irony that a leading institution of religious Zionism, the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, has fallen into the hands of non-Zionist haredi leaders over the past four decades. Rather than accept this status quo, however, the opportunity now exists for all those Jewish Israelis who care about their link to their co-religionists in the Diaspora to form a new social contract between the secular and religious elements of their society.
The Chief Rabbinate is rapidly losing its constituency, as few look to it for religious leadership and legitimation. The current governing coalition, consisting of secular and national religious parties – if it has the will to do so, and if it had the full support of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – could easily break the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over personal status issues.
Should those efforts succeed, Israel would be strengthened as a democracy in which the ethos of Judaism permeates Israeli society, but absent coercion of individuals to adhere to religious practices to which they object on grounds of conscience.
Put simply, there is likely to be greater respect for, and expression of, Judaic tradition if there are no laws mandating it.
In this debate over the meaning of a Jewish state, the voices of American Jewry must be heard and taken into account.
Delegitimation of American Jewry and its rabbis results in the weakening of the attachment of American Jewry to Israel, and attenuates its will to engage in pro-Israel advocacy.
That, in turn, could do longterm damage to the special relationship between the US and Israel.
In other words, diminished American Jewish attachment to Israel could be harmful to Israeli security.
No less importantly, Israel was established as the state of the Jewish people. Efforts to divide Jewry, which the actions of the Chief Rabbinate in delegitimating the personal status of American Jews may clearly bring about, risk undermining Israel’s very raison d’être – the return of the Jews as a people to homeland and sovereignty. In other words, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Dov Zakheim and Steven Bayme serve, respectively, as chairman and director of AJC’s William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Commission (www.ajc.org).