Recently, the American Jewish world has been in an uproar over the Israeli Rabbinate’s reticence to recognize the conversion of a Jew who underwent the conversion process under the guidance of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. This outrage is completely justified: Not only is the rabbinate violating the Biblical prohibition against mistreating converts, but they are also demonstrating either their complete ignorance of the American Orthodox world – raising questions about the validity of their power to make decisions regarding American Jews who move to Israel – or their complete and public humiliation of a man who dedicates his life to Torah and the Jewish community.
For the sake of full disclosure: I went to Ramaz. Yes, I am biased. But I am biased because being at Ramaz gave me a first-hand look at the true menshlechkeit, the true dedication to Torah and derech eretz, that is exemplified by Rabbi Lookstein and that is a hallmark of the Ramaz community because of his dedication to those values.
But I also think that a lot of the criticism of the Israeli Rabbinate misses the point. It talks about reform, when instead, it should be talking about getting rid of the rabbinate altogether. There are many countries – notably the US (Please forgive me for being a little American-centric – it is after all, only a few days after the 4th of July.) where Orthodox Judaism is thriving despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of an official governmental Orthodox establishment. And Israel’s Jewish nature stems in a large part from the adoption of Jewish holidays as public holidays, the teaching of Jewish culture and heritage in public schools alongside Western culture and heritage, the speaking of Hebrew – in other words, things that are completely independent from the Rabbinate.
The Israeli Rabbinate is marked by constant corruption scandals and abuses of power. This is not surprising since, as the adage goes “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Religious control and political control are two different types of power. When both of these powers are combined in one body, the result is catastrophic.Traditionally, the kings and the priests came from different tribes, in order to separate between the political and the religious spheres. The Hasmoneans claimed both the kingship and the priesthood, and the result was both a corrupt political regime and a corrupt religious regime.
Furthermore, being part of the government diminishes the rabbinate’s freedom. It is dependent on the government pay its salaries. This means that, almost by necessity, the rabbinate must take politics into account. Being part of the state establishment shapes the rabbinate as an institution, impacting the rules and ways by which it is run and by which decisions are carried out. It also hampers the rabbinate’s ability to be critical of government policy – one of the traditional roles played by Jewish religious leaders dating back to the time of Isaiah.
Last, but not least, knowing that the government pay check will keep on coming, regardless of how many Israeli Jews respect the rabbinate or identify as Orthodox, means that the Israeli Rabbinate does not have to be responsive to the needs of the Israeli public. Part of the reason Judaism has survived for 2,000 years is that rabbis have been responsive to communal needs- whether it’s Tosfot looking at the Talmud with an eye towards validating their community’s customs, or the Choftez Chaim recognizing the need for women in Poland to receive a Jewish education. The concepts of “a communal burden”, and “communal dignity” are only two examples of Jewish legal mechanisms in place to empower the religious establishment to legislate in tandem with, and not in opposition to, its community.
Of course, there are limits to how flexible the law can be: Just because it’s fun to go to the movies, doesn’t mean that the Orthodox Jewish establishment can – or should – issue a ruling that it’s ok to go to the movies on Shabbat. There is a difference between being responsive to a community’s needs, and between making the law a servant of its desires. But when your power and your paycheck stem from your community, you must act as a leader worthy of your community in order to maintain your position and your salary.
No wonder then, that the Israeli Rabbinate has such a hard time understanding Rabbi Lookstein, who exemplifies the best of what Diaspora Judaism has to offer: Not the fiddler on the roof, but the acrobat walking the tight rope between tradition and modernity, between fealty to an unbending text,loyalty to your community, and respect for humanity. This balancing act is necessary when Orthodox Judaism competes in the free market of ideas – a situation that is not currently the case in Israel, where the Israeli Rabbinate is part of a system in which other ideologies are denied funding and political legitimacy, and in which even if not a single Jew were Orthodox, the Rabbinate would still continue its peaceful existence.
That’s just as well, because between its constant corruption scandals (including cases of people being asked to give money for conversions), its obsession with maintaining its power (including an attempt to essentially trademark the term “kosher”) and its commitment to viewing modern values – the values espoused by a large number of Israelis and Jews all over the world – as antithetical to Judaism, the Rabbinate is doing a pretty good job of making Orthodox Judaism extremely unappealing to the Israeli public.
As an Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel, I am tired of constantly having to explain that my Orthodox Judaism is completely different from that espoused by the Israeli Rabbinate. I am tired of explaining that my Orthodox Judaism is based on the adage that “Respect is a prerequisite for Torah” – a sign that hung in the Ramaz hallways, and one that perhaps the Israeli Rabbinate would do well to adhere to. And I guess sometimes, I miss being in America, where there are leaders like Rabbi Lookstein who espouse a public vision of Orthodoxy that I can be proud of.