In 2013, Israel will hold an election which will wield dramatic and far-reaching consequences for the long-term identity of the Jewish State.
I refer not to the elections for the next Knesset to take place next week. That vote will certainly have an impact but will be re-evaluated in four years or less by the next round of balloting. Parliamentary checks and balances will ensure that the interests of the electorate are preserved throughout.
I refer rather to the election for the next Chief Rabbi of Israel. This decision will elect the candidate for at least ten years and set the direction for Israel’s character for many years thereafter. This choice will change not just the Jewish face of Israel but will directly alter how we relate to Jews all across the Diaspora.
Unlike other Jewish communities around the world, where the office of the Chief Rabbi is largely a ceremonial role, the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel holds regulatory and legal sway over nearly every aspect of Jewish religious practice in our country. Literally from birth to death, how we practice our Judaism is dictated by the policies enacted by this office. This is the reality and this will continue to be the case into the foreseeable future.
In practical terms, who we marry, how we get divorced and the way we are buried is legally regulated by the Chief Rabbis of Israel. Vital issues such as Jewish status and conversion also fall into this very same category. The effects of these policies have a direct impact on Jewish community all across the globe. The Chief Rabbinate, in this framework, has the ability to influence the very future of Israel’s Jewish identity.
For decades, under the influence of visionary Jewish leaders like Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook and Rav Bentzion Chai Uziel, Israel’s first Chief Rabbis, the Chief Rabbinate worked to be an inclusive body, responsive to the needs of the diverse Jewish community. Recognizing that modern Israel would never have a homogeneous Jewish identity, the Chief Rabbinate endeavored – and largely succeeded – to present a welcoming approach to all Jews within the State. Within the boundaries of halacha – Jewish law – the emphasis was on including rather than excluding and respecting the sensitivities and needs of the wider public.
Regrettably, in recent years this path has changed. Over the past 20 years, the ultra-Orthodox haredi political parties have attained considerable power by forming “a swing block” – without which it has been impossible to form a government.
They have utilized this power to disproportionately leverage their control over religious life in Israel. The religious establishment in Israel has become a tremendous source of jobs and power for a small group of haredi political activists. In practice, the Chief Rabbinate has largely been taken over by anti-Zionist political forces who attempt to dominate the entire Jewish society by radical standards that have very little to do with halacha, but much to do with politics.
The effect of this development has been catastrophic for the State of Israel and for the entire Jewish people.
Recent numbers from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics attest that, each year, more than 30 percent of Israeli couples opt out of a Jewish marriage ceremony and flee from the Israeli Rabbinate to Cyprus and Prague to be wed in civil procedures. This is largely due to the manner in which secular couples are mistreated when attempting to register for Jewish marriage in the rabbinate. Furthermore, many couples are hesitant to marry in Israel, due to the troubling reputation of the rabbinical courts in the event of a future divorce. In addition to the tragic abandonment of basic Jewish heritage, the future children born to these “Cyprus Couples” will find it virtually impossible to prove their own Jewish status later in life. The numbers speak for themselves and paint a very scary picture of the future of Jewish society in Israel. I am deeply fearful for the Jewish character of the State of Israel, which my children and grandchildren will call home.
Nonetheless, I know that this situation was created by people and can therefore still be corrected by people. I firmly believe that together with friends and supporters around the world, we can revolutionize the Rabbinate and restore its Zionist character of uniting and strengthening Jewish society, in an inclusive and welcoming attitude. This dream is attainable through a number of strategic steps that need to be implemented immediately.
Backed by several decades of experience working to overcome the social gaps that exist within Israel’s diverse Jewish communities, and by directly confronting many of today’s obstacles, I know that these challenges are not insurmountable. Eretz Yisrael is a land of enormous miracles where we have overcome so many difficulties that we should never believe that creating real Jewish unity is impossible. The next opportunity for change in the Chief Rabbinate is in 2023. The Jewish people cannot wait that long.