Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate has been responsible for setting the standards of Jewish marriage, divorce, and conversion within the State. This has often led to resentment by non-Orthodox clergy and laity.
Lately, discord has found its way into Orthodox circles as well. Recently the Chief Rabbinate has been rejecting letters of Jewish status endorsement from certain Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Avi Weiss. As a result, the proposal has been raised by Rabbi Weiss and others, that the time has come for the State of Israel to either abolish the Chief Rabbinate, or to at least strip the Rabbinate of its monopoly. After all, they reason, the non-Orthodox still make up the majority of Jews in Israel. Why should the Orthodox Rabbinate be permitted to compel non-Orthodox Jews to adhere to Orthodox standards?
Full disclosure – I am an Orthodox rabbi; a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. (But I do not speak for the RCA.) As such, I would only accept Orthodox standards of personal status. I also have great respect and admiration for Rabbi Weiss, who has been a close friend and mentor to various members of my family for over 40 years. While he and I disagree on a number of Halachic issues, I recognize and appreciate that he has brought countless Jews to a life of affiliation to Torah.
I pray that the impasse with the Chief Rabbinate will soon be resolved. However, I must respectfully take issue with my dear friend Rabbi Weiss in his call for ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over conversion, marriage, and divorce.
I am not writing to argue the Orthodox point of view. I don’t expect to change anyone’s closely held religious beliefs in an op-ed. Rather, I would like to demonstrate to you why it is in everyone’s best interests – regardless of our personal beliefs and affiliations – for there to be a common denominator, and why we should all agree that it is most logical for that denominator to be an Orthodox one.
It is common practice that when Jews of diverse backgrounds get together to eat, the food is Kosher according to Orthodox standards. That works for everybody.
Conversion, of course, is much more complicated. While it is true that non-Orthodox Jews don’t want to bound by Orthodox rules, it is important to remember that when someone chooses to have a conversion that doesn’t meet universal standards, they are placing their children or grandchildren at risk of not being accepted to marry as they choose.
How many times does it happen that a young man, not particularly religious, who happens to be close with an Orthodox rabbi, meets and falls in love with a young lady who identifies as Jewish, only to find out that her mother had a Reform conversion? Now, if you aren’t Orthodox, perhaps you wouldn’t be put off by the idea of marrying someone who is Jewish only according to Reform standards. But what if the young man is?
Now let’s take this scenario and multiply it ten-thousand fold. New immigrants are constantly coming to Israel, serving in the army, and becoming part of Israeli society. Can you see what a complicated situation it is? If every new immigrant can identify himself or herself as Jewish, regardless of the standards that support that claim, what is going to happen when young people meet and want to get married?
(By the way, this is not just an Orthodox/non-Orthodox issue. There is a common misconception that the Rabbinical Council of America endorsed the conversions of all Orthodox rabbis until relatively recently, due to pressure from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. That is not true. The RCA had standards of what it accepted long before the Israeli Rabbinate began taking more of a public stand in reference to conversions. If an Orthodox rabbi performs conversions that do not meet generally accepted standards, the same problem exists.)
Things are confusing enough in the U.S. If Israel is to remain a single, united nation, it is essential that conversions be standardized according to the highest common denominator.
Theoretically, a less-than-universal conversion can be “fixed” with an “upgrade” to an Orthodox one. Divorce, however, is even more complicated.
The Torah says that a child who is the product of an adulterous union is illegitimate, and may not marry into the Jewish nation. (Some people feel that this is antiquated and unfair. I could launch into a discussion on the logical reasons for this Commandment, but that is not the purpose of this article. Suffice it to say that this is a belief that is embraced by a large segment of the Jewish population, and like it or not, this belief isn’t going away.)
Consider once again the scenario of young couple meeting and falling in love. This time, the young man is the child of his mother’s second marriage. Neither she nor her first husband were Orthodox, and the thought never even crossed their minds to have a Gett, a religious divorce. Her second marriage took place while she was still technically married to her first husband according to Jewish law. Consequently, that remarriage, in the eyes of the Torah, is an act of adultery. Any children born as a result of that adultery will have severe limitations as to whom they are permitted to marry. And whether or not there is a Chief Rabbinate to enforce those limitations, Orthodox rabbis (and many Conservative ones) won’t allow that child to marry. Because of situations such as this, many non-Orthodox rabbis advise their divorcing congregants to be sure to have an Orthodox Gett.
Several years ago the Orthodox rabbinical council of a major U.S. city was inundated with calls on the day after Yom Kippur. It seems that the rabbi of a large Reform congregation gave a Kol Nidrei sermon blasting Orthodox Jews for insisting on dissolving marriages with an Orthodox Gett, and not accepting the offspring of remarriages based on non-Orthodox divorces. His plan backfired. An unintended consequence of the Reform rabbi’s attack was that several members of his congregation made the necessary arrangements to have a universally accepted Gett. (If you find yourself in that situation, you would be well-advised to contact the Beth Din of America in New York. They will be happy to give you guidance and a local referral.)
Some have argued that due to the tragic plight of Agunot (and yes! Agunim!), women and men who are stuck in a marriage due to the other parties’ unwillingness to participate in a Gett, that some way should be found to sever the marriage through alternative methods. Again the call goes out to utilize a less-than-Orthodox means of ending the marriage. It may make the “freed’ parties happy for the short term, but the ramifications for future generations could be devastating.
Recently, Open Orthodox scholar Rabbi Zev Farber of the International Rabbinic Fellowship called for a solution to the Agunah problem by invalidating or retroactively annulling marriages. While it is admirable that he seeks to find creative ways to put an end to this terrible situation, I think he is making a very big mistake. The overwhelming majority of orthodox experts (including the Chief Rabbinate) follow the rulings of Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik and others who reject this approach. The end result could be that Open Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews will accept this suggestion, and Modern Orthodox and Chareidi Jews will refuse to marry the children of women who remarry after receiving this annulment. This will, in effect, create two Nations of Israel. (Now that a new Beit Din has been established to tackle the Agunah problem, I hope they won’t make the mistake of following rulings that have been discredited by the Orthodox Rabbinical community.)
Do we really want a situation in the State of Israel where clergy of every stripe can apply standards of every stripe? Do we really want a situation where two Israeli college students meet, or two Israeli soldiers meet, and they are afraid to get to know each other better because they don’t know if the two of them will be able to marry according to all standards of Jewish Law?
The Chief Rabbinate paradigm is not perfect. There are flaws in every system. God is perfect and His Torah is perfect, but the rest of us have to work on it.
But opening up conversions, marriage, and divorce to all clergy would run the risk of literally throwing out the baby with the bath water.