On October 23, Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, sent a letter to the Chief Rabbinate Council, the decision-making arm of the Chief Rabbinate, summarizing his five-year tenure as its head. In the letter, Rabbi Lau acknowledged that the state religious establishment is facing public pressure: “It is no secret that the standing of religion in the State of Israel in general, and that of the Rabbinate, specifically, is not at its height.”
But rather than take responsibility for the Rabbinate’s decline in the eyes of the public, Rabbi Lau attacked those working to improve the state’s regulation and administration of Jewish life, including me. He wrote: “They are seeking to weaken the Chief Rabbinate… [by operating] an independent conversion authority… and they arrogantly claim that they are the successors to the path of Rabbi Kook… [They] use any means and do not lack any financial resources to fight against and denigrate the Chief Rabbinate… and the Chief Rabbinate is forced to fight this trend.”
As founder and director of ITIM, an organization committed to building a more inclusive religious establishment, and of Giyur K’Halacha, Israel’s largest, non-governmental conversion court network, I take issue with Rabbi Lau’s comments. Neither ITIM nor Giyur K’Halacha seek to denigrate the Chief Rabbinate. Rather, these organizations exist to supplement and to offer an alternative to Israel’s religious establishment when it is disrespectful of and unresponsive to the diverse Jewish needs of the Jewish people. If the Chief Rabbinate fulfilled its mission by fully embracing the Jewish people and facilitating Jewish life in Israel, I would wholeheartedly support its endeavors, and would not feel the need to run organizations that provide supplementary religious services.
But the real issue here is not who is to blame; it’s what is to be done. If Rabbi Lau wants the Chief Rabbinate to hold a place of respect in Israeli society, I suggest the Chief Rabbinate not only sanctify the past, but recognize the present. I invite Rabbi Lau to reach out to critics like me, who understand current needs, and are working on the ground to make Jewish life more accessible and meaningful for the sake of the Jewish people and the future of Zionism.
Israel’s chief rabbis have a historic opportunity to revitalize Jewish religious life in Israel, and to connect Jews around the world with one another. But they will only be able to do so if they commit to working with others in the spirit of mutual respect, the highest expression of the living covenant with God. Laying blame will get us nowhere. It’s time to listen and to cooperate so we can build a shared future for our nation and our people.