Saturday, July 9, 2011

North American Modern Orthodoxy and the Chief Rabbinate, Revisited

First: Please watch this new video from Rabbi Yakov Horowitz on protecting children from molestation.

After both of of last week's posts on Modern Orthodoxy outside of Israel and the Chief Rabbinate [Part I, Part II], I received an email from a new oleh asking me for leads on information about the Chief Rabbinate. In sending a few links, I noticed something that made me re-think the presentation I delivered this past Shabbos.

Specifically, it was this line from the website of the Chief Rabbinate: הרבנות הראשית משמשת לגבי הגולה לא רק כסמכות רוחנית בשאלות הלכתיות, אלא מהווה גם מרכז מידע לכל הקהילות היהודיות ולכל הגופים הנותנים כשרות בעולם. In translation: The Chief Rabbinate serves the Diaspora not only as an authority for halachic questions, but also as a central resource for information for all Jewish communities and all kosher-supervising agencies around the globe.

Would your North American community do that? Would your community, having a debate about tzedakah priorities, or kashrut policy, or the mechitzah, or interdenominational activity, send the shailah to Israel's Chief Rabbinate? I know Israelis who think that we should do this. But would we?

I hate to speak of divides between Jews inside and outside of Israel, since I believe all of us should be united and in Israel. But the truth is that the communities outside of Israel would not consult Israel's Chief Rabbinate on these matters.

I'd suggest a practical reason and a philosophical reason why we wouldn't:

Simple: The alienation that comes when we disagree with their decisions, and when we feel delegitimized over issues like conversion.


[Yes, I know this is going to get me into trouble with some fellow bloggers. It got me in trouble when I presented it today, too, although I believe that was mostly a matter of language.]

The idea that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will dictate halachah for chutz la'aretz stems from a breed of Zionism that is very Rav Kook, very Ramban, very כל הדר בחוץ לארץ כאילו אין לו אלו-ה (the gemara's statement, end of Ketuvot, that one who lives outside of Israel is as though he has no link to Gd). In this view, which I must admit I find compelling spiritually and emotionally if not intellectually, the future of the Jews lies in Israel, Israel is the place to be a true Jew, chutznikim are simply Israelis who haven't found their passports yet, and all that is outside of Israel is only a satellite, a space station, destined to descend from orbit and either burn up or land in Israel.

But North American Modern Orthodoxy embraces a political tradition which owes a great deal to the history of local rabbinic authority in Judaism, and to the founding principles of American independence, the democracy rather than the Republic. This community demands that its authorities and representatives be of its own kind, and be familiar with its unique situation. Israel's primacy does not entirely eliminate the significance of Jewish life elsewhere, and the significance of the unique demands with which Diaspora Jewry lives.

I'm not sure there is a solution for the philosophical problem of the role of the Diaspora; any disagreement will lead to trouble when it is decreed that Israel should rule on issues affecting Diasporites. But at least for the practical problem, and to avoid the disagreements that trigger the philosophical objections, one solution may be to look for ways to make sure the selection process and decision-making process are inclusive and embracing.


  1. In the UK, there's a simpler answer: we already have our own Chief Rabbinate (although in practice, the Chief Rabbi rarely answers questions, leaving them to the London Beth Din). Of course, our Chief Rabbinate is becoming less popular too.

  2. others would say you have to be close to the facts on the ground.

    I would say halevai - but imho authority, like respect, is not demanded but earned.
    Joel Rich

  3. When Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger visited Cleveland a few years ago for a NCYI Shabbaton, someone asked him what his daily schedule was like.
    In a very candid answer he replied that it was comprised primarily of sorting out the messes that came into the country as a result of the CHuL community's lack of a central Rabbinate that everyone uses (he was speaking specifically about the States, obviously). Because there is no central office recognized by everyone, every Rabbi of the community does as he sees fit concerning halachic processes that should by all accounts be standardized.
    But he wasn't complaining that we don't use the Israeli Rabbinate standards, but rather that we have none of our own, which adversely affects those who need to use the Israeli rabbinate later on...

  4. "others would say you have to be close to the facts on the ground."

    i once asked the rosh yeshivah where i had learned a question. he wouldn't answer it because he said he wasn't up to date with the situation in america (he himself was an american oleh). he told me to ask someone local

  5. Another one of the Gadlus of Rav Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach zt"l.
    He answered for Eretz Yisroel.
    He referred chutz la'aretz questions and bowed to Rav Moshe's decisions.

  6. I would argue that non-centralized authority was the norm in Diasporic Judaism. The Rambam himself wrote in his introduction to Mishnah Torah that each community beis din was independent and could not be dictated to by another beis din. For this reason, I'm not convinced by Shmuel's argument, as much of the "mess" that is being created in the US is the result of the Chief Rabbinate's deciding that for them, it is a mess; there's no need for a centralized authority in order for a local rav's conversion to be effective. While being from Israel certainly provides a certain status/mystique to the chief rabbinate, location alone would not allow it to overrule local authority.
    I think the chief rabbinate would be more respected in the US if it included rabbinic representatives from Diaspora communities, so that local concerns were taken into account. This would also solidify the relationship between Israeli and US Orthodoxy, and bring the Chief Rabbinate closer to the fulfillment of the centralized, Sanhedrin-like role that some of the early religious Zionist thinkers envisioned. If the Torah terms the Sanhedrin "edah," that means that the rabbis need to be in touch with the situation of the people they represent.