Reform, Restore, or Rescind: What to do with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

As an American, I take separation of church and state as a given. The United States has no official church, no state-supported religious institutions, and certainly no chief rabbi. In contrast, Israel, as a Jewish state, supports Judaism and its institutions as part of its mandate. There are entire government bodies dedicated to the maintenance of Jewish Law and practice, and a hefty amount of Israeli tax dollars support their endeavors.

The fact of religious government agencies and officials controlling religious institutions across the country has become a serious point of contention. In America, there is no monopoly on Judaism in the hands of any group, and no government money or power is invested in any religious group or its institutions; thus power is diffuse. Each group raises its own money and spends it as the membership and leadership of that group see fit. In Israel this is simply not the case.

Rabbi Seth Farber (no relation) highlighted this issue in his recent article on the conflicts surrounding single women who wish to use the mikvah. The Orthodox rabbis who control the mikvah believe that allowing single women to use it would encourage promiscuity, as the mikvah is generally used by married women post-menstruation as preparation for resuming physical intimacy. The single women who wish to use it believe that it is none of the rabbis’ business why they want to use the mikvah. The rabbis are government stewards of public property; their job is to make sure the mikvah is kosher and available for use, not to leverage their caretaker positions into becoming the guardians of single-women’s virtue.

Seth Farber’s controversial position on this matter highlights a major fault-line at the heart of the current debates about the role of the chief rabbinate of Israel. Clearly, Israel would like to offer its Jewish citizens (and its citizens that would like to be Jewish) Jewish services. This includes common ritual needs like synagogues, mikvahs and kashrut supervision, but also lifecycle needs like marriages, divorces and even conversions. Additionally, the government funds a number of religious institutions that function as alternatives to its own state institutions. There are religious batei din as alternatives to Israeli secular courts, and there are religious day schools as alternatives to public schools.

However, the chief rabbinate does more than just facilitate people’s needs and preferences, it is also the arbiter of which alternatives are legitimate and which are not. In the case of marriage, for example, Orthodox style halakhic marriage is the only way for Jewish couples to get married in Israel. (If one partner is Jewish and one not, there is no way to get married in Israel.) If a Jewish couple were to have a non-Orthodox ceremony, the marriage would not be recognized. (The issue of the status of non-Orthodox movements in Israel is a big problem, which I will have to save for a different venue.) For Jewish couples who do not want a religious ceremony at all, there is no civil marriage option unless they get married outside of Israel, hence the immense popularity of Cyprus as a place for Israelis to get married.

This flip-side of the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, the side which gives it real power over people’s lives, has come under heavy fire of late, and for good reason. There is a pervasive feeling that the Chief Rabbinate has failed in its duties and has now become more of a hindrance to the average citizen’s relationship to Judaism than as a facilitator of Israeli Jewish life. For example, even some couples who want traditional wedding ceremonies do this specifically without the involvement of the Chief Rabbinate. This trend demonstrates that the Chief Rabbinate is, in fact, accomplishing the opposite of what it set out to do – turning Israeli’s against religion instead of facilitating their observance of it. What can be done?

R. Seth Farber and his important foundation, ITIM, has been working tirelessly on two fronts. A large part of his work has been humanitarian in purpose, trying to help people stuck in the system successfully navigate the complexities of the rabbinate. For people who cannot get married, or cannot prove they are Jewish, or are confused about how to perform Jewish rituals and lifecycle events, ITIM offers pamphlets, direction, and other forms of support. However, Rabbi Seth Farber’s work (I use his first name to avoid the impression that I am talking about myself) goes further than this.

In a number of cases, R. Seth Farber has courageously taken on the rabbinic establishment. The clashes have generally focused on the issue of conversion. For example, when a number of converts were being blocked from registering for marriage, R. Seth filed a complaint against the rabbinate and literally took them to court. In another case, when the Interior Ministry began to allow the Chief Rabbinate to take charge of which Orthodox converts outside of Israel would be granted the right of return (the answer is supposed to be all of them, as it is for Conservative and Reform converts), R. Seth Farber asked an American colleague (me) to put together a petition and get it signed by 100 diaspora Orthodox rabbis protesting this decision. With this petition in hand, R. Seth succeeded in getting the Interior Ministry to back down from its stance and allow the Jewish Agency to take charge of the process. Through activism,  including lawsuits, negotiations, petitions, and his most recent call to the Jewish people of Israel to make their voices heard and demand better treatment, a process he called saying “I don’t” to the rabbinate, R. Seth Farber is trying to reform the rabbinate by pressuring them from the outside.

Tzohar, an organization of moderate Orthodox rabbis in Israel, and its chairman and co-founder, R. David Stav, have undertaken a complementary but distinct approach to the problem. Tzohar works from the inside and is committed to forming a user-friendly rabbinate. The group began with a number of Orthodox rabbis in Israel joining forces and agreeing to perform free, user-friendly weddings for any Jewish couple in Israel who wanted one. The hope was/is that when performed in this manner, a traditional Jewish wedding would be attractive to a great number of Israelis, not just religious Israelis, and it could help stem the tide of couples choosing civil ceremonies in Cyprus.

From there, the vision of Tzohar has grown broader. In 2007, the Chief Rabbinate toyed with the idea of allowing individual kashrut supervisors to decide whether they would accept heter mechira – the religious basis for Israeli farms to continue to plant and harvest during the Sabbatical year. This decision could potentially have crippled the Israeli agricultural economy and made the price of kosher food sky-rocket. Tzohar stepped into this fray when the organization announced that if the rabbinate goes this route, Tzohar will enter the kashrut business and give certification to heter mekhira products. Although the problem was resolved without Tzohar having to do kashrut supervision, this was a pivotal moment for the organization.

Like R. Seth Farber, R. Stav perceives the key problem to be the bureaucratic nature of the rabbinate. At a conference two summers ago, R. Stav told an audience of rabbis that among his most fervent wishes is that Israeli rabbis would learn from diaspora rabbis that they need to smile at their constituents. But this is the point: In America, the congregants are the constituents and if they are not kept happy the rabbi will be out of a job. In Israel, many of the rabbis are paid by the government and sit behind a desk, making them more like DMV clerks than pastors.

For R. Stav, like R. Seth Farber, the battleground will be conversion. In a conversation I had with R. Stav in 2007 (he was visiting Atlanta and I took him shirt shopping), he observed to me that the Russian aliyah was a complete game-changer. There are so many Russians who are not halakhically Jewish but identify themselves as Jewish and live exactly like secular Israeli Jews, that they are, in fact, indistinguishable from them. It will be absolutely impossible for secular Jews to accept what would appear like an ad hoc rabbinic decision to claim that some Israelis are Jews and some are not, when there is nothing other than halakhic minutia to distinguish one from the other. For this reason, R. Stav believes, it is the job of the rabbinate to find a creative solution to the problem, and make conversion easier and more accessible for this group.

But how can the Chief Rabbis be convinced of this? They cannot, at least not the current ones. For this reason Tzohar’s preferred solution is a massive campaign to have R. David Stav chosen as the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. Stav’s goal would be to restore the Chief Rabbinate to what he believes it once was under leaders such as R. Kook: an institution that sees itself as the facilitator of Judaism for all Jews, and one that is beholden to all Israeli citizens.

There is a third group, however. There are those who believe that the Chief Rabbinate is an institution that has outlived its usefulness or was never of great use to begin with. Whether because power corrupts, because bureaucracy breeds contempt, or because American-style separation of church and state is such a successful model, many believe that the best course would be to rescind the charter of the chief rabbinate and dissolve the organization altogether. In other words, this group believes in privatizing religion, or at least finding a way for Judaism to thrive in Israel without the bureaucratic power structure that the rabbinate inevitably creates.

Personally, I do not know which of these three approaches is optimal. Although part of me has strong sympathies with the idea of dissolving the Chief Rabbinate altogether, I understand the concern for maintaining the Jewish character of the country that supporters of the rabbinate express. For now, I find myself strongly sympathetic to the work of R. Seth Farber and ITIM, as well as Tzohar. Beit Hillel, an organization founded by R. Ronen Neuwirth, which hopes to recapture the flavor of open-minded and user-friendly Orthodoxy, holds much promise as well. Finally, if there is a going to be chief rabbi, my vote (if I had one) would certainly be cast for R. David Stav.

Zev Farber

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.