My most recent column in this forum, which was written in the wake of the Chief Rabbinate’s reported nullification of conversions by Rabbi Gedalya Dov Schwartz of the RCA, earned a considerable amount of feedback — both across social media and conveyed in person.
The most common response – or criticism — was where do we go from here? What exactly should be done? Several asked why I am not calling for the complete end of the Chief Rabbinate. Others went on to ask exactly what is the place of the American rabbinate in this effort?
I wanted to use this column to directly respond to those questions and outline my vision for how we should react in response to these types of events.
The Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, which I have been blessed to found and lead, is committed to strengthening Jewish identity amongst Israeli Jews, promoting an enhanced connection with tradition, and encouraging greater conversation about issues of Jewish pride within our population.
Our work takes place within an environment here in Israel where the “religious authorities”– the Chief Rabbinate — act in a manner that is often in direct opposition to those ideals. And where we are building bridges, they are causing alienation and controversy within our society. The issue surrounding the conversions performed by Rabbi Schwartz and Rabbi Lookstein are just two examples of that troubling phenomenon.
It is important to stress that Tzohar always operates within the confines of Israeli law and abides by all democratically achieved decisions of the Government. The Chief Rabbinate also is governed by the laws of the land. Some may appreciate those facts and others might resent them but those are the rules of the game.
For those reasons, we will not perform weddings that are not acceptable by the laws of the State of Israel nor will we accept rabbis who perform such weddings to serve as officiating rabbis at “Tzohar weddings.” I would add that these “illegal” weddings create a potentially dangerous situation where women who wish to get divorced from these marriages will have unnecessary difficulty in obtaining a get.
I do agree that it is important to create new avenues for kashrut supervision to ensure more people are introduced to kosher observance and it becomes easier to keep kosher. In addition, by introducing increased “competition” to the kosher supervision marketplace, it will serve to end the rampant corruption that exists there today.
But these developments cannot and must not be carried out outside the confines of the law. In regards to kashrut supervision, the matter is currently being put in front of Israel’s Supreme Court and only based on their decision we will decide how to proceed.
Conversion, on the other hand, is not a matter which falls under the legal authority of any particular government agency. We therefore have the right — if not the responsibility — to pursue avenues that will help converts in a manner in accordance with halacha and ethics. This is all the more the case when those rabbinical figures who should be performing conversions are being swayed by political forces and failing in their responsibilities to address the needs of converts.
The disgrace that is represented by the Rabbinate’s treatment of the RCA is made all the more abhorrent for those who are familiar with the world of halachic conversion. Because the truth is that the “worst” conversions that can be ascribed to the RCA are multifold more comprehensive and halachicly stringent than any that are performed by the Chief Rabbinate.
The fact that a random rabbinical clerk is able to nullify the conversions of God-fearing, halachicaly stringent RCA rabbis is nothing short of an abomination.
To the RCA leadership I would like to say with the greatest respect that you cannot and should not be in any swayed by these actions of the Rabbinate. Your policies and practices do not need to be changed. The ones driving these decisions are low-level rabbinical clerks and Rabbi Schwartz simply does not need the approval of rabbis far younger and certainly far-less schooled in halacha than he is. And the RCA certainly does not need the approval of the political forces who are pulling the strings behind the scenes.
To be perfectly clear to those who might be in doubt or skeptical of my motives or those of Tzohar. The fact that there are haredi political forces behind the actions of the Rabbinate will never sway us from taking action whenever and wherever it is necessary. In the words of Rabbi Kook “Our love for the Israeli Knesset will not deter us from exposing its failings.”
Allow me to be even clearer. Our actions are motivated by a belief in impacting change in Israeli society guided by a philosophy dictated by Torah values. It is NOT about achieving a specific position of political office or defending the interests of only one group of the society.
So if and when the Chief Rabbinate acts in a manner to which we oppose, we will speak up and we will oppose those actions. But that does not then mean that we wish to launch a coup and take them out of office. There are many moments where I have criticism for the police or the army. But never for a moment does that lead me to think that the entire organization should be replaced.
The Government of Israel and its agencies must be treated with respect and responsibility. I firmly believe that we must criticize when it is relevant, offer praise when it is deserving and work together to improve when it is for the greater good. And each one of those paths should be pursued based on what is responsible and is best for this country and the Jewish nation.
The RCA also has a role and a responsibility when it comes to Israel. Your work in communities across America is extremely important for strengthening our communities here and we see you as our partners.
Our joint prayer therefore must be that together we will achieve those goals and do so through a love of the Jewish people, a sincere desire to sanctify Hashem’s name and in that merit we should all be blessed with success.