Monday, July 4, 2011

Part I - Our love for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

I've been recruited to speak in a panel discussion this coming Shabbos, on Rabbinic Jurisdiction in Israel. Since I'm the North American on the panel (beside Rav Dovid Stav and Rabbanit Pnina Neuwirth), my responsibility is to talk about how North American, "Modern Orthodox" Jews feel about Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

I think this should be more than a litany of the controversies involving that beleaguered institution. True, issues of Jewish identity [conversion, Russians, Ethiopians] are front and center in our minds. Other issues, like shackle-and-hoist shechitah, heter mechirah, problems facing people navigating the rabbinic bureaucracy and the corruption charges of several years ago are all major fault lines in our relationship with Israel's government-linked rabbinic leadership.

But, to my mind, in order to speak intelligently and appropriately (a modest goal) about these issues and the state of the relationship, we first need to understand why the North American, Modern Orthodox Jew is predisposed to love Israel's Chief Rabbinate. It's that love which makes the relationship so difficult; I believe we would not be half as exercised by our frustrations if we didn't long to embrace the Chief Rabbinate and call it our own.

I see three primary reasons for our affection:
1. History
The institution of the Chief Rabbinate reminds us of Rav Kook ודעימיה, religious leaders who promoted a serious, rigorous Torah observance while working hand-in-hand with secular Jews - a vision which mirrors idealized versions of our own communities, and for which we are nostalgic.

2. Concept
In theory, the Chief Rabbinate is a government-associated voice of religion, offering the possibility of a Judaism-guided administration in the State of Israel, while still allowing for the separation of church and state which appeals to North American Jews.

3. Practical
We want structure for our religious organizations, as seen in the creation of the OU and Young Israel synagogue movements. We resist imposed order – something I'll also discuss in the session – but we love order itself. Centralized authority offers that.

Then, we get into our disappointment in the institution, and what we might do about it...


  1. How much of the "disappointment" stems from failure to install a like-minded candidate, as if the office belonged to a specific group or stream?

  2. Bob-
    I have a list of four reasons for the disappointment; perhaps I'll use that as a Part II to this post.

  3. You said that the Rabbanut "still allow[s] for the separation of church and state which appeals to North American Jews". How do you see Separation of Synagogue and State in Israel? Because i don't see it, and i've never heard anyone else claim that it exists. Unless you just mean that the Rabbanut doesn't control the [rest of the] government in a theocratic fashion?

  4. Steg-
    That was in the Concept segment. To go back to the beginning of the sentence - "In theory".

  5. Okay, but I've never heard that in theoretical terms either.

  6. IMHO the disappointment stems at least partially from the political overtones that are part of a lack of distance between the church and the state. I think another source is that they are percieved halachically as Laying low (i.e. always looking over their right shoulder) rather than seeking out the poorer quarters
    Where the ragged people go
    Looking for the places only they would know

    Joel Rich

  7. To go back to #1 - History. Earlier Chief Rabbis, all the way to Rav Avraham Elkana Shapiro and Rav Mordechai Eliyahu (my bias is showing), displayed a real concern and interest in the public welfare. They travelled around the country, visited communities, spoke with citizens and soldiers. Then they went home to Jerusalem and worked demonstrably hard to find ways to address the problems of the country and the public. One only has to peruse their responsa and correspondences to see this. They were also involved in actively promoting the Zionist enterprise. I recall Rav Manny Marcus z'l telling me what an impression it made when Rav Uziel called upon American rabbanim to come on aliyah in the 50s.

    The disappointment lies in all the above qualities not being so obviously evident anymore.

    Rav Chaim Brisker's characterization that the rav's job is to defend the widows and orphans isn't so evident these days; and the public wants it. I think that is true, too, for the North American public when they look to Israel (as the exiles historically have) for the light of instruction and kedushah.

  8. Joel, R' Mordechai-
    Agreed, and well said.

  9. Still have no clue where democracy supposedly appears in the Torah, like so many proclaim, and thus I do not see the relevance of no. 2.

    I accept that it is a temporary, necessary, Western evil for today. Unfortunately, not too many people are ready to begin planning the re-institution of qorbanoth, the rebuilding of the Miqdash, the re-institution of a Sanhedrin, and the establishment of a king (who according to the Ramba"m does not initially have to be from the line of David).

    To think that we must wait around for Mashiah to do all the work is just silly, and a philosophy which has not had such a great hold on Am Yisrael, save for the last 500 years.

    At best, the Chief Rabbinate does damage control, but even that is pushing it, especially now that the courts have begun telling the Rabbinate which [messianic] bakeries and treif meat companies to give a heksher to.

    It's only a matter of time before your "separation of church and state" becomes non-existent.

  10. Esser-

    Who said anything about democracy, or waiting for mashiach, in this post?