The Ongoing Failure Of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate

Some years ago, the immediate past Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorch, publicly called for the elimination of the office of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate in Israel. If memory serves me correctly, the New York Times called him on it, referring to his suggestion as rash and impolitic. At the time, I agreed.

But I have to admit, Rabbi Schorch's suggestion is looking better to me by the day.

Last week, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Shlomo Amar, issued a proclamation, on official stationery with the seal of the State of Israel at its top, calling for a mass rally to protest the recent decision of Israel's Attorney General allowing for limited government funding of non-Orthodox rabbis. Actually, that declarative sentence doesn't do Rabbi Amar's call justice. Brandishing the full measure of rabbinic oratorical flourish, he called for the expression of outrage against the "uprooters of Torah" who had "visited disaster upon the Diaspora," creating the problem of assimilation pretending to be teachers of Torah. Woe to this generation, he wrote, that it is now challenged by this group of corrupters of Torah ( actually, he used a word that might fairly be translated in modern Hebrew as "terrorists") who seek to establish themselves as a religious authority in the holy Land of Israel.

There are many reasons to be distressed by what Rabbi Amar did. His abject failure —and this is not his personal failure alone, but rather the failure of the entire religious establishment in Israel — to recognize the true nature of other understandings of Judaism and what they are based on is more than lamentable. It is inexcusable. The depth and breadth of his Torah knowledge is, to my mind, immeasurably diminished by the narrowness of its scope. It is one thing to hold to a traditional line on the fundamental issues of Sinai, revelation, and the divine nature of both Biblical and Rabbinic text. It is another issue entirely to fail categorically to grasp the import of a historical understanding of the development of Jewish law and life. On this count alone, Rabbi Amar is deserving of the opprobrium of those whose breadth of knowledge and enlightenment far exceeds his own.

But beyond portraying himself as narrow and medieval, Rabbi Amar is guilty of a far more grievous and unforgivable sin. He has failed to learn the lesson of one of Israel's most painful chapters—the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.

I am reminded of the medieval commentator Rashi's famous comment on why it is that the Biblical story of the twelve spies and their failed reconnaissance mission to Eretz Yisrael appears immediately on the heels of Miriam's bout with leprosy. Rashi famously attributed her illness to the sin of lashon harah… of malicious slander. Ha'anashim ha'eleh ra'u v'lo lakchu musar, said Rashi. The men (the spies) saw what happened to Miriam, and failed to learn the obvious lesson. In other words, they committed the same sin that she had committed. She spoke lashon harah about Moses; they spoke lashon harah about the land of Israel.

Did Rabbi Amar fail to learn anything from Yigal Amir's murder of Yitzchak Rabin? Does he not know that the repeated references in extremist religious circles in Israel to the law of rodef , essentially characterizing Rabin's willingness to sacrifice portions of the land of Israel as presenting an imminent danger to Israel's citizens, constituted in Amir's demented mind enough of a rationale to justify murdering him? To think that Amar was unaware of this is unimaginable. To contemplate that he was, indeed, aware of the inflammatory power of his words and chose to use them anyway is unforgivable.

When members of the ultra-Orthodox community set fire to Masorti synagogues, as they have in the past in Ramot, or spit on women, as they did only recently in Beit Shemesh, or harass women wearing a tallit at the Kotel, as they do so often…why are we surprised? If the inspiration for their utter contempt of Jews not like them comes from their leaders, why is their abominable behavior any kind of mystery? And to ask the most painful question of all… if one of them were to, God forbid, act out violently against a Masorti rabbi, or a Reform rabbi, who would have the right to act surprised? If those who seek to bring another version of Judaism to Israel's profoundly alienated secular Jews are to be equated with terrorists who blow up innocent civilians, really- what action might be considered inconceivable?

The sad truth in all this is that, ironically, the one thing that Diaspora Judaism does so much better than the State of Israel is Judaism itself. For all of our divisions here, and all of our much documented difficulties in communicating civilly that are nothing to be proud of, we still, because of the nature of American democracy, are able to offer Jews in this country a variety of ways to express themselves Jewishly. From where I sit, that is an unqualified good thing.

How very tragic it is that, from where Rabbi Amar sits, that is seen as a catastrophe. The biggest religious catastrophe of all is unfolding right in front of him, and he's a part of it. How pathetic that he can't even see that…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.