The Rabbinate, obsolete relic of the Ottoman Empire?

The Chief Rabbinate today attacked the “Orthodoxy” of one of America’s most visible and engaged Orthodox rabbis, Avi Weiss. At the forefront of Jewish conscience and consciousness, Rabbi Weiss was among the first to embrace Jonathan Pollard when most American Jews fled in embarrassment and galut fear, concerned he cast the charge of dual loyalty on Jews in our “exceptional” homeland. When the Polish Catholic Church and its prelate, Cardinal Glemp, trampled on Jewish sensitivities by occupying the building used to store Zyklon-B and converting it into a Carmelite convent; when an enormous crucifix appeared in its front yard it was Avi Weiss who led a group of Jews to the site and launched the campaign to protect the symbolic site of the Shoah, cemetery to more than a million Jews. And these are but two of many such less prominent issues of Jewish concern RAbbi Weiss took on on behalf of the Jewish people. 

Beyond the personal attack on America’s rabbi of conscience, anti-Zionist haredim, having somehow captured Israeli Orthodoxy and insinuated themselves into Israeli politics over the past decades, also attacked the umbrella organization of American Orthodoxy of which Rabbi Weiss is a member, the Rabbinic Council of America. According to the Rabbinate and its self-appointed guardians of their unique, narrow and self-serving interpretation of Halacha, the RCA does not meet their standards of “orthodoxy” (Chief Rabbinate says Orthodox rabbis abroad appointed ‘without any criteria’). In fact these self-appointed definers of Jewish identity also attack Israel’s modern orthodox and Religious Zionism, movement and party.

And then there was the 2008 assault by the Rabbinate on Israel’s Conversion Court as sufficiently “halachic” to officiate conversions effectively invalidating tens of thousands of conversions back to 1999. Overnight thousands of Jewish Israelis were no longer considered “Jewish” by the Rabbinate. Overnight thousands of Jews were declaried illegitimate, their lives and identities at risk. Still, Israel is a modern secular democracy and its Supreme Court (also a popular target by the Rabbinate) intervened on behalf of the converts. In attacking Israeli law and sovereignty the Rabbinate again described itself an obsolete artifact from the Ottoman Empire.

And now, over the past two months the Rabbinate has returned to the headlines. This time it is not “Who is a Jew” but “What is an Orthodox Jew.” Of course this is not the first time anti-Zionist haredim have demonstrated lack of respect or concern for the more than 90% of Jewish people who choose an approach to identity and religion different from their own. Indifferent to anything beyond their own selfish agenda, promoting neither the survival of our People or even “Judaism” as religion, apparently their only concern is assuring that they and their children do not pollute their bloodline by “accidentally” marry a less “pure” variant of their definition of Jew. Certainly in the free market atmosphere of Israeli politics any group may vie for influence and position. But an anti-Zionist fringe accepted as “legitimate” and “acceptable” by Israeli politicians and parties? Is the prize of ruling more important than protecting the very legitimacy of the Zionist state: defense of the Diaspora, of the Jewish People?

Ben-Gurion saw a place for the Rabbinate as identity-enhancing of the Jewish nature of the state. For this purpose he allowed the Ottoman office to survive. In light of the institution’s role in demonizing and deligitimizing precisely they for whom the state is obligated to reinforce and defend, the time has arrived to abolish or, if it makes sense to retain the office symbolically, then reduce the Rabbinate to the status of occupied by Israel’s presidency: a mostly powerless and ornamental “honorific” for worthy rabbis.

Whatever their denomination.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.
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