Reforming the rabbinate
July 5, 2012
“We have no partner for peace” is a frequent refrain among Israelis and Palestinians alike. It might well apply in the realm of world Jewry, where the gap between Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate and the non-Orthodox streams has rarely appeared wider.
In recent months the Chief Rabbinate has taken a number of actions that have struck at the heart of Jewish unity, including nullifying conversions performed in the United States (sometimes by Orthodox rabbis); barring civil marriages in Israel; and condoning a wave of coercive public behaviors by the fervently Orthodox. Last month the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, vowed to overturn the attorney general’s decision requiring the state to pay the salaries of Reform and Conservative rabbis, as they do Orthodox clergy. At a rabbis’ conference, he invited followers to pray for the reversal of the attorney general’s decision and, according to an eyewitness account, “‘to wage war’ against those whose sole intention is to have the people drink ‘polluted waters.’”
Those waters, mind you, are partaken by the vast majority of engaged, pro-Israel Jews in the Diaspora. It is painful for those who love Israel and support her in word, deed, and spirit to hear a religious leader — on a government payroll yet — dismiss their very Jewish identities.
The American Jewish Committee went so far as to call for an overhaul of the Chief Rabbinate, stripping the rabbis’ authority over issues of personal status — including marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion — and extending them only ceremonial roles, as Great Britain does with its Archbishop of Canterbury.
Groups like AJC and the non-Orthodox streams are neither radical nor anti-Orthodox. All they would like to see is an Israel that reflects the full range of religious diversity and creativity, and that respects the various paths individuals take to fulfilling their Jewish destinies.
Diaspora Jews are limited in what they can do to bring about political change along the lines of AJC’s proposal. They are, however, able to support the movements in Israel that are trying to effect change from within. Pluralism depends on individuals and communities that model it, and that provide an viable alternative to an obdurate bureaucracy.