Isn't it time?
By Rabbi Meir Azari | 29/04/2010
I would like to take this opportunity to turn to the Orthodox rabbis who understand what is happening in the world. Isn't it time we amended this situation? Hasn't the time come for a real dialogue between you and the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism? Meir Azari, the rabbi of the Reform Beit Daniel synagogue in Tel Aviv, is demanding that the Orthodox community start dealing with the decidedly non-Orthodox reality of the vast majority of today's Jewry
Photo: Frederic Brenner
Rabbi Nahman of Braslav recounted that Satan found it difficult to corrupt the world all on his own, and consequently appointed respected rabbis from various regions to help him do the job. Clearly, many would say that the work of Satan is far easier today and that quite a few respected rabbis have done an “outstanding” job. I am sure that many of you are certain, just as I am, that were our prophets Amos or Isaiah – who were so impassioned about justice and fixing the world, and who sought to hear the voice of the living God – to contend for the position of chief rabbi today, they would not know how to wrap up a political deal that would get them elected to the position, or even a seat on the rabbinical council, the way it looks today.
The truth is that when Bambi Sheleg asked me to write a few words and thoughts about the chief rabbinate in Israel, I considered turning down her request; I was also tempted to perhaps leave a blank page to symbolize the achievements and future of the rabbinate as I see it. The chief rabbinate – as it is viewed by many in the Jewish world, both by secular Jews and many religious Jews, including the majority of those from the Reform and Conservative denominations – is an irrelevant institution whose role boils down to issuing kashrut certificates and dominating by force all matters related to marriage, divorce, conversion and burial. In the eyes of many, the chief rabbinate has no commitment to the Jewish people as a whole, because its only commitment is to a fossilized, obsolete institution.
Nevertheless, I have decided to write on the subject. I do not intend to discuss the question of the chief rabbinate and its failures in dealing with issues of conversion and kashrut, marriage and divorce. Every member of Israeli society with eyes in his head has already formed his or her own views regarding the behavior of the chief rabbinate and its leaders. My words are directed at those among you, both ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews, to whom the future of Judaism is dear: Can a chief rabbinate headed by Rabbi Metzger and Rabbi Amar serve as a source of hope and inspiration, a voice of compassion and sanity for the majority of Israeli and Diaspora Jews? Is it capable of seeing the broader picture of the complexity of Jewish existence in the land of Israel and the Diaspora?
A call for renewal
Rabbi Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, among the most important Orthodox philosophers in American Jewry, who immigrated to Israel towards the end of his life, wrote the following in an article entitled, “A state-appointed rabbinate – A disaster for Torah Judaism”: The ‘official rabbis' are entrenched in a citadel that the law of the state built for them. We are facing a number of completely new challenges today, challenges the like of which we have never encountered in all our history. Clearly, the new roles and new problems in the area of Jewish law, morality, society and Jewish philosophy call for innovation in Judaism. However, we do not hear the voice of the ‘official rabbinate' on any of these subjects.”
For many of us, the chief rabbinate is the modern version of the alienated and occasionally corrupt priesthood of the Second Temple period. For others, it is little more than a printing house to churn out kashrut certificates and a coerced debate on questions of marriage and divorce. As a believing Reform Jew, perhaps contrary to the prevalent view, I envision a unifying and sharing chief rabbinate, one that is able to reach out to millions of Jews, men and women, united throughout the world in different, not necessarily Orthodox frameworks. If the State of Israel wants a chief rabbinate, one that is a unifying, harmonizing Jewish institution, it must realize that the rabbinate and its heads must be attentive to all the different and multifold Jewish voices of our generation.
Up until the time of the Turks, who appointed the first chief rabbi, which they called the Hakham Bashi, there was no chief rabbinate or chief rabbi as we know them today. Over the generations, Jews understood the importance of a having a plurality of views, and although there were some that found it difficult to understand this, it is the very nature of Judaism, with its numerous approaches and worldviews, that in most cases prevented the establishment of a Jewish popery.
However, it is perhaps possible that there is room today for a single, unifying institution. But it must be one that can lend an ear to the voices of millions of secular and non-Orthodox religious Jews throughout the world. As it stands today, the chief rabbinate lacks any ability to genuinely communicate with the majority of the Jewish world. In Israel, all Jewish Israeli citizens are subject to the authority of the rabbinate by virtue of secular law; in the Diaspora, however, most Jews feel no affinity whatsoever for the Israeli rabbinical establishment. Clearly, I am not advocating that that an Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox rabbi subscribe to a secular, Reform or Conservative worldview. But if they want a system that all can share, they need to be open to the different voices of world Jewry. And as it says of the Lulav, “And God said: They shall be all tied together as one, and each shall atone for the other.” And there is also the well-known commentary by the sages on the prayer of Moses, who was looking for a leader with the right leadership qualities to succeed him after he was gone: “Master of the Universe, You know the views of each and everyone, and your children's views are different from one another… Please, let this leader be tolerant of each in accordance with his views…”
Especially now, when a sane and unifying rabbinical voice that can appeal to all levels of society is needed, few in Israeli society heed the spiritual and ethical voice as represented by the chief rabbinate. And why should they? The chief rabbinate has failed at the challenge of absorbing the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and of drawing them closer to Judaism; it humiliated the immigrants from Ethiopia regarding their Jewishness and has failed to cause secular Israelis to see Jewish spirituality in a favorable light. The rabbinical establishment does not propose any meaningful ideas where egalitarian (i.e. fair and healthy) relationships between men and women at this time are concerned, do not deal with the desire of homosexuals to identify themselves as such while still seeing themselves as an inseparable part of Judaism, and is generally irrelevant to the struggle over the moral character of the State of Israel.
And Rabbi Prof. Eliezer Berkowitz added in his article: “The late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook believed that in the Land of Israel, the old would be renewed and the new would become sanctified. To our chagrin, the old has become even older, and the Torah has never been more Diaspora-like than it is today in the State of Israel. We must make way for a new generation of rabbis, teachers, intellectuals, spiritual leaders. They will arise, with God's help, out of a spiritual-Torah struggle with the problems of our time. The old will yet be renewed, and the new will yet be sanctified. This is crucial to the Jewish people and its Torah and the Jewish future of the State of Israel.”
A legitimate Jewish voice
I would like to take this opportunity to turn to the Orthodox rabbis who understand what is happening in the world: Isn't it time we amended this situation? Hasn't the time come for a real dialogue between you and the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism?
It is now, at this time of such spiritual distress, with the rise of globalization and the difficulties it poses to us – in the face of the tremendous challenges posed to the Jewish community that has gathered in Zion, and in face of the challenges to Jewish life in the Diaspora in the modern age: intermarriage, assimilation and loss of identity – in the face of these challenges and difficulties, that you should be initiating a dialogue with the millions of your brothers and sisters. You, the Orthodox rabbis who are also familiar with those that lie outside the Orthodox camp, must send out a clear, loud message calling for a frank Jewish dialogue, one that understands the changes in the times and the challenges facing Judaism in the modern world.
I am not asking you to agree with the path of Progressive or Conservative Judaism, but you must make it clear that the voice of the non-Orthodox movements is a legitimate one in the State of Israel and the Diaspora today. It is interesting to note that a great outcry was heard from your camp when the chief rabbinate sabotaged the shmitta year and undermined and humiliated Rabbi Druckman on the matter of conversion. But you have been lending a hand for years to the ongoing boycott of the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism. If we want a Jewish establishment that is unifying and draws people closer to Judaism, we must hold a shared Jewish dialogue. It is absurd that the leaders of the chief rabbinate hold regular dialogues with Christians and Muslims, but none with the leaders of millions of Jews.
Yet another important voice that must be part of the search for a different rabbinate is that of women. In an age when women are enjoying increasing equality, and their voice is heard in all areas of life and activity, it is not heard at all in the corridors of the chief rabbinate. It is difficult to envision a chief rabbinate, with all its institutions and courts, that will be acceptable in the long term to Israeli society as a whole without representation of women on the judicial body. And in any case, what sense does it make to force secular, non-believing Jews to use the services of the chief rabbinate and its courts?
The moral failure and its price
We should bear in mind that the rabbinate started out as a challenge to the institution of the priesthood, which headed Jewish religious and spiritual leadership for hundreds of years. The priesthood was an aristocracy; in other words, all its members belonged to one of the branches of the family of Aaron, Moses' brother.
The moral failure of the priesthood led to the democratization of the world of Judaism. The rabbis, who succeeded the priests in leading the people in the late Second Temple period and during the period of the Mishna and Talmud, faced a central task: the education of the people and the establishment of a decision-making process based on knowledge and on the democratic process inside the study halls. The rabbinical establishment of those times was imbued with knowledge, values and leadership skills, and in the face of a corrupt priestly leadership established on inherited rights, the rabbinate succeeded in bringing about a major reform in the leadership of the Jewish community.
The encounter with the modern age posed new challenges for the rabbi. The rabbi, who was a teacher, spiritual leader, halachic authority, counselor, judge and preacher, was forced to deal with administrative matters and fundraising. He had to contend with the fact that professionals were starting to encroach on some of his traditional roles. Legal experts, community workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, politicians, teachers and members of the academia began to invade the rabbi's traditional territory. Moreover, the Jewish communities and rabbis failed to develop suitable professional training methods and professional and moral codes of ethics as required of a rabbi in the modern age.
Prof. Shaul Baron, one of the most prominent researchers of contemporary Judaism, once noted, “The rabbi is the central figure in the drama of Jewish survival. Do either Rabbi Metzger or Rabbi Amar fall into that category? The world of Judaism poses the rabbi with terrible dilemmas, except that during these times, he must face them without the proper tools to carry out his task. The rabbis of our generation must set new standards of training, standards more relevant to the current reality of life. They must learn to collaborate with other professionals and to make use of community workers, psychologists and legal experts in their work. Every rabbi should have another rabbi to mentor him, who will support him in his community and public activities, especially in the early years of his work. Rabbis must set norms that relate to the issue of receiving benefits from their jobs. Guidelines regarding the frequent meetings rabbis hold to help individuals and families in a state of crisis should be determined. The traditional Jewish sources are replete with rules that can help the rabbi in setting those standards, but rabbis must always be attentive to the spirit of the times, public sentiment and the professional standards expected today.