For millennia, the Jewish people were dispersed across the face of the earth, no single place to call their home. There were always dreams, of course, where Jews could one day congregate, free from violence and intimidation based solely on their practices and beliefs. And ever since 1948, when Israel was founded, there has been a locus for Jewish life to reside, where innovative religious thinking can be fostered, and where values so long suffused in the Jewish psyche could be brought to the fore.
While religious life in modern Israel always existed, until recently it was more often than not cordoned off from the more negative dealings with the state. Separation between religious authorities and those in the government, while never disconnected, often had more narrow spheres of influence. This is no longer the case. And sadly, while it hurts to admit it, there has been a corrupting influence that has seeped into what should be the sacrosanct elements of our religious leaders: unchecked spiritual power.
I do not intend to suggest that the totality of the Chief Rabbinate is in some way malevolent or unable to handle their clerical duties. In fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Chief Rabbinate means to do well; to do well by the Jewish people is akin to doing all in service to the Heavenly realms we wish to serve. They wish to be the gatekeepers of a unified Jewish people, they wish for a strong identity for the state of Israel and for all of global Jewry to look at Israel as the paragon of a functioning contemporary Jewish state. In essence, they seek to preserve the purity of the nation. They feel terrified of the change occurring in society and wish to slow it down and control it. Despite what are obviously good intentions, the Rabbinate—rightly or wrongly— has caused (and continues to cause) irreparable harm to the Jewish people, causing thousands of vulnerable souls to become alienated from Israel, even more, they have alienated countless people from Judaism and living a Jewish life. This problem is not merely relegated to ideology or politics. This is an issue of middot, or more precisely, not deploying middot (virtues) in a conducive, productive manner. From a kabalistic perspective, we are seeing others fall into the trap of misapplied hitpashtut (self-expansion without limitations) and the inability to be metzamtzem (retract to make room for others).
When Judaism, indeed religion, explores its most negative proclivities, it abandons the Divine model of tzimtzum: creating space for others to lead and to choose, even to err. Today, it seems we are merely witnesses to a group that seems on the verge of conquering as much space and power as possible to make room for their singular view of moral purity. This is one of the great challenges that strikes at the heart of Jewish life in post-modernity. It is one of the challenges that is causing major rifts within the fabric of our culture. I fear it is one of the challenges that our children and grandchildren will still have to overcome.
We need not run from this challenge. Rav Yakov Yosef of Polonne, the 18th century disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, wrote:
Talmudic scholars and righteous people must not declare that they have no need for the masses just because they are the pillars of the Torah. Nor must the masses be arrogant, declaring that they have no need for the talmudic scholars because those scholars depend on the masses’ financial support. At the individual and social levels, both the material and the spiritual are needed in order to create a whole person, (Commentary on Exodus 30: 11-16).
Rather than abandon hope of an overbearing religious bureaucracy, we have been blessed by the ability to question everything. Why is this body acting without transparency and nuance? Why does the Rabbinate not feel that they are accountable to the people they are supposed to serve? Why are those fleeing Judaism being pushed away rather than being brought back in with hearts full of love? We have our obligations to vouchsafe the legacy of our ancestors, many of whom perished without reason or logic. Why now, when the Jewish people have more incentive than ever to love each other is there an official body that seeks to divide the souls of a great nation? It is here that we will struggle. It is here where we will seek justice. It is here that the children of Abraham will know that our voices will be heard. Rather than dwell on the challenges of religion and state in Israel, we can turn the question back to ourselves. Within our souls the answers lay, ready to be opened for our hearts to accept them.
By rejecting the Chief Rabbinate, as it operates, we are not rejecting the rabbinic establishment. Rather, we are in need of once again rebuilding trust and love between rabbinic establishments and the laity. To do so, each of us must check our own over-extended hitpashtut and ensure that we are not trying to control others or take up too much space in oppressive ways. Indeed, this is a spiritual journey each of must embark upon to build the future of our people.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder & President of Yatom, and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.