In 1835, French thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of his monumental Democracy in America. It was based on what he learned during an extended personal tour of the nearly sixty-year-old American republic. Among his more insightful observations was that in his native France, most churches, which were state-supported, had become empty shells. In America, by contrast, where there was a constitutionally enforced division between the State and organized religion, he visited many prayer houses that were bursting at their seams with exuberant parishioners.

The upshot of this paradox was that while religions may gain political power through association with the State, in the process they turn into detached centralized bureaucracies that lose touch with their constituencies and tend to alienate people. Religious dedication is nurtured, rather, through personal encounter with compelling values and ideals, especially when communicated by those special individuals who exemplify the Divine spirit in their conduct and teachings.

Sitting thousands of miles from my home in Israel, I was reminded of this paradox when I learned that a rabbinic court located in a town that is practically adjacent to mine had disqualified a conversion performed by the principal of my high school and one of the most accomplished Orthodox rabbis in the past half century, Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein. Hopefully the Supreme Rabbinic Court of Appeals in Jerusalem will overturn this ruling. But regardless of the court’s decision, this unfortunate episode is bringing to a head a problem that has been festering especially since 1948: all too often State-sponsored rabbinic functionaries – even those like religious court judges charged with the most sensitive tasks – operate as impersonal clerks that are incapable of accounting for the human element in religious life. The result is a “Bureaucratic Judaism” that is constantly seeking to solidify its control over the lives of Jews, and in the process is increasingly alienating even those who were once its biggest supporters.

Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi’s rabbi

No other Orthodox rabbi manifests more clearly a personal model of Orthodox leadership that stands in contrast to “Bureaucratic Judaism” than Rabbi Lookstein. In a career that has spanned nearly six decades, he has demonstrated time and again that commitment to Orthodox theological principles and standards of Jewish law can go hand in hand with deep concern for people. He has done so not by disregarding or amending the traditions, but by presenting them in a manner that celebrated their beauty instead of imposing harsh interpretations, and by always looking at the big picture of an individual’s background and circumstances.

Exemplifying the “rabbi’s rabbi,” he attended the special occasions of every synagogue family and took an interest in the lives of all of his congregants, both in happiness and in sorrow. This connection resulted in support for him by his community when he went “outside the shul” and became deeply involved with Soviet Jewry, Jewish education, support for the State of Israel, and service to the rabbinate. No doubt, he has taken controversial positions that others rejected, but he has shown consistently that his behavior only enhanced Judaism in the broader sphere and facilitated more Jewish people seeking out their religious heritage.

I will never forget his explanation to us students of the “structure” of the Code of Jewish Law, which he wanted us to cherish and abide. Most people, he noted, think there are four sections to the Shulhan Arukh. Unfortunately, they forget that there is a fifth one which must be at the foundation of the other four, its topic is Menschlichkeit (loosely “human decency”).

The bureaucratization of American Orthodoxy

Yet in seeking to understand the scenario that has led an Israeli rabbinical court to declare Rabbi Lookstein disqualified to supervise a conversion because he does not appear on an official list of approved rabbis, it is important to recognize that “Bureaucratic Judaism” is not an exclusively Israeli phenomenon. Historically, government intervention in the details of Jewish life came hand in hand with the organization of European nation-states as well as the modern Ottoman Empire. One of the main vehicles for control was the appointment of state-sponsored “chief rabbis” who were to represent the entire Jewish population of their country and impose more standardized religious regulations on their constituencies.

Due to the division between church and State, such frameworks could not be established in the United States. Nonetheless, especially in the past two decades, central figures in American Orthodoxy have promoted policies that move it closer to “Bureaucratic Judaism.” Whereas the credentials and halakhic decisions of local rabbis trained in recognized yeshivas and seminaries were generally accepted by their colleagues, more recently there have been strong efforts to standardize procedures and create mechanisms and official committees that will oversee the activities and rulings of local rabbis. No doubt, this is in part a reaction to a number of sexual scandals involving prominent rabbis, and the true need to create tools for ensuring the safety of students and congregants – especially minors. When it comes to reviewing the religious rulings of proven and ethically exemplary figures, however, there is more to the story.

While American Orthodoxy is a voluntary religious movement, it too has large organizations and institutions that are increasingly intent on dictating the rules of religious life within local communities. More often than not, the main sources of power and the most revered rabbinical authorities are roshei yeshiva (yeshiva heads or lecturers) who present the highest level Talmudic discourses in their institutions and are considered most knowledgeable about the intricacies of Jewish law. To be sure, these are qualified and capable individuals, but sitting in the “ivory tower” of the yeshiva, they, like their Israeli colleagues employed by the chief rabbinate, are often detached from the pulse of congregational life. There have always been poskim (religious adjudicators) whose reputation led other rabbis to consult with them on complex legal matters. Yet the responsa that they issued were specific to the details presented by the local rabbi, and were not articulated as broader policy. On the contrary, the greatness of a posek was reflected in his ability to address the particular difficulties of each unique case with wisdom and discernment.

Beyond structural changes that raise parallels to the much more formalized Israeli religious environment, “Bureaucratic Judaism” has gained traction in the United States due to the efforts of the Israeli rabbinate itself to centralize its control over religious standards in communities abroad, including the United States, and especially regarding conversion. Indeed, agreements were made with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that led to the appointment of well-known roshei yeshiva as the sole arbiters of which American Orthodox rabbis would be recognized by the Israeli rabbinate as reliable in regard to conversion. Although I am not privy to the details of the specific case, it is likely that the fact that Rabbi Lookstein was not on the list referred to by the Israeli religious court judge, was because the American rabbis who work with the Israeli religious courts chose to leave him off.

Whether or not American colleagues played a direct role, it is clear that the disqualification of Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion by an Israeli religious court judge, and the “Bureaucratic Judaism” that it manifests, reflects the epitome of the dystopian elements that have arisen in parallel with the many blessings that the “ingathering of the exiles” has brought. Hopefully Rabbi Lookstein will now see this unfortunate chapter as a vehicle to help in the process of righting the course of religious life in the State of Israel that he so loves, such that synagogues – especially in areas with mixed religious and secular populations – will not meet the fate of de Tocqueville’s eighteenth century France.

Professor Adam Ferziger teaches in the The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University. He has lectured and published extensively on Jewish religious denominations and their ideologies, modern Jewish identity formation, the history of the modern rabbinate, American Orthodoxy, and the encounter between halakhah and contemporary social realities. His books include, Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), Orthodox Judaism – New Perspectives (Magnes Press, 2006), edited with Yoseph Salmon and Aviezer Ravitzky, and Jewish Denominations: Addressing the Challenges of Modernity (The Hebrew University – Melton Center, 2012).