Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

It should not be surprising that a Conservative rabbi thinks that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate will become extinct.  And that is exactly what Rabbi David Golinkin predicted in a Times of Israel blog post.

First, there is the pluralism issue, which he he apparently dealt with in a previous article. If the Chief Rabbinate were to embrace pluralism it would mean legitimizing Conservative and even Reform conversions. Does even Rabbi Golinkin (let alone Rabbis Stav and Riskin – whom he uses as examples of Orthodox opposition to the Rabbinate) believe that patrilineal descent – the Reform re-definition of who is a Jew – is a legitimate one? I tend to doubt that, since even the Conservative movement rejects it. We therefore need to draw a line about which conversions we accept and which ones we don’t. Because if we don’t — it will be impossible to know who among us is actually Jewish according to Halacha. What a nightmare!

Leaving all that aside let me will focus on the argument he makes in his current article. That the vast majority of Israelis have lost faith in the Rabbinate. And that even Rabbis Stav and Riskin have called for abolishing it.

Why have they called for that? Because of their desire to allow leniencies in conversion of the 300,000 Russians of questionable Jewish status. A demographic time bomb growing to levels that they will threaten the very Jewishness of the state. Their status is questionable because many of them are products of intermarriages where their non Jewish mothers were never converted. Or in cases where there were conversions, they were not Halachic.

The dispute between the Rabbinate and Rabbis Stav and Riskin is over just how important the requirement of Halachic observance is to conversion in these cases. Without getting into details Rabbis Stav and Riskin want to apply leniencies in that requirement based on a minority rabbinic opinion that is not accepted in our day. Those leniencies will allow for virtually all of those immigrants to convert rather quickly.

But the Chief Rabbinate has taken the Charedi view that such conversions are not valid – demographics be damned. As Rabbi Golinkin says:

Rabbi David Stav himself pointed out during his campaign for the Chief Rabbinate in 2013, that 25% of young couples in Israel are now getting married abroad at civil ceremonies in Cyprus.

Rabbi Golinkin’s point is that the Rabbinate’s attitude is tantamount shoving religion down people’s throats. The result of which is driving them away. He then goes about making his case about the impropriety of that from the Gemara:

In rabbinic literature, there are two classic descriptions of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. The first, which is found in many places in rabbinic literature (Sifrei Deuteronomy, paragraph 343; Mekhilta Bahodesh, chapter 5; Avodah Zarah 2b), describes God offering the Torah to all of the nations before Israel. The children of Esau, Ammon and Moab, and Ishmael all turn down the Torah because they cannot accept one specific commandment. “After that, he came to [the people of] Israel. They said ‘na’aseh v’nishmah, We shall do and we shall listen’” (Exodus 24:7). In other words, the Jewish people accepted the Torah voluntarily and with complete autonomy.


The second passage is found in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a and Avodah Zarah 2b): “‘And they stood at the foot of [or: under] the mountain’ (Exodus 19:17) — said Rabbi Avdimei bar Hamma bar Hassa: This teaches us that God inverted [Mt. Sinai] over them like a huge basin and said to them: if you accept the Torah — good; and if not: here will be your grave.” In other words, God gave the Jewish people an ultimatum: accept the Torah or die. As Prof. Ephraim Urbach pointed out in his classic work (Hazal, Jerusalem, 1969, p. 289), Rabbi Avdimei’s opinion is a da’at yahid, a lone opinion, which contradicts Exodus 24:7 and all the other Sages who discussed this topic. In other words, in rabbinic literature, the majority opinion is that we should accept the Torah and observe the mitzvot voluntarily and not out of coercion.


There are of course other interpretations about this Talmudic contradiction. For example that the Israelites were willing to observe the biblical level commandments but needed to be forced to observe the rabbinic ones.

But even Rabbi Golinkin’s preferred interpretation is true, the issue here is not about coercion. It is about preserving the very Jewishness of the Jewish people. If they believe that those conversions are invalid, they have an obligation to see to it that their conversion rules are enforced, no matter what the consequences. And no matter what other – even Orthodox – rabbis think.

I happen to agree with the idea that observance in our day cannot be shoved down people’s throats. I am therefore opposed for example to closing Bar Ilan – a major artery in Jerusalem on Shabbos. Much as I would prefer that Shabbos be observed by everyone in all of Jerusalem – protesting it as many Charedim have a few years ago is counter-productive. If you want to eventually see no traffic on Bar Ilan the right way to do it is with honey. Not vinegar. Reach out to your fellow Jew and show them the beauty of Shabbos. Don’t throw rocks at them when they drive by.

I am also disturbed by the heavy handedness that seems to be so common in the Rabbinate. If the horror stories I have read about people describing their experiences with them are even half true, there ought to be major overhaul in how they do things. But that doesn’t mean they give up their ideals. Or worse, disband them.

Abolishing the Chief Rabbinate in Israel will only make things worse. Because conversions will no longer be standardized and it will be impossible to know which ones were good and which ones weren’t. Local rabbis in Israel will be able to do whatever they want. Corrupt courts will abound. Who will stop them?  For the right price a corrupt court will convert a hamster.

This is not an easy problem to resolve. I have no clue what the solution for the demographic time bomb those 300,000 immigrants of questionable Jewish status present – as they continue to increase via natural growth. What indeed will happen to the Jewish State?

But one thing I do know is that we can’t have two sets of Jews. One of which will have the Jewish status of every single person questioned. That is a bigger nightmare than the demographic one in my view. And to prevent that we need a Rabbinate that knows how to say, ‘No!’

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.