Reforming the Rabbanut

For quite a few years, the Israeli rabbanut has declined to automatically affirm the Jewish status of, even Orthodox, converts from abroad. Last week, the New York Jewish Week reported that, in several instances, Jews from the United States, who were born Jewish and affiliated with Orthodox congregations in the United States, have had difficulty proving their Jewish status for purposes of registering for marriage in Israel under the auspices of the state rabbanut.

This week, Rabbi Avi Weiss, published a bold op-ed, advocating stripping the rabbanut of its monopoly over marriage, divorce, and conversion.  Rabbi Weiss moved beyond the narrow concern of diaspora rabbis being trusted to vouch on behalf of the Jewish status of individuals from their communities and called for full state recognition for Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox rabbis.

There are several questions that Rabbi Weiss’s op-ed raises: Was he only awakened to the disenfranchisement of Conservative and Reform Judaism when his own status as a rabbi was challenged by the rabbanut?  Does being “noge’a b’davar” – directly impacted by the body he is criticizing enhance or detract from his ability to evaluate the situation?  Finally, however bureaucratic the rabbanut can be, it is more democratically accountable to the citizens of Israel than, for example, the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis, or the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America.  According to Rabbi Weiss’ proposal, American rabbis, and presumably professional organizations that grant them accreditation, will render judgments about Jewish status that will determine the rights and responsibilities of Israeli citizens.  If the State of Israel will allocate rights and responsibilities to those who are Jewish, then it should be the state itself and a state body that will make the final determination of who is Jewish.

Rabbi Seth Farber, an American oleh, and, through his organization Itim, a hero to thousands of Israeli Jews he has helped to navigate the rabbanut and its bureaucracy, has also published an op-ed in response to this situation. Rabbi Farber’s focus is more limited – he only calls for the repeal of this narrow and recently adopted rabbanut policy – but he mentions (although does not advocate for)  a more extreme tactic; boycott. It isn’t entirely clear to me – it isn’t clear to me at all  – what leverage, if any, American Jews have to influence the rabbanut.

Most provocatively, Bernard Avishai, has reiterated his long-standing proposal to cut the Gordian knot of state and religion in Israel by completely disestablishing the rabbanut. But, that can only happen, Avishai argues, if the State of Israel transforms itself into the “Hebrew Speaking Republic” a full democracy where rights and responsibilities of citizenship are independent of religion or ethnicity.  As an American and a believer in democratic self-government, I find Avishai’s arguments  compelling. Indeed, almost everything I love about Israel (Jewish majority culture, Hebrew calendar connected to national life, flourishing of Jewish learning and Jewish civilization etc.) would not change if Israel were a fully democratic “Hebrew Republic.” But, a Hebrew Republic could have no law-of-return giving special privileges to Jews.  The law of return endures as a core element of Zionism. I cannot easily imagine Israel without it.

A more moderate proposal for reforming state and religion in Israel, to decentralize religious services while retaining state involvement and sponsorship of religion, has been proposed by the organization Ne’emanei Torah ve’Avodah. As far as I can tell, this proposal has had no traction within Israel and remains a utopian vision.

4 Responses to Reforming the Rabbanut

  1. In order to better discuss the matter some clarification is in order.
    Does Rabbi Wolkenfeld subscribe to Orthodox exceptionalism (ie. a Jew who keeps kosher is doing the right thing, a Jew who violates Shabbos is not, etc) or does he hold that Orthodoxy is just one “stream” among many in Judaism, each of them equally legitimate?
    Does Rabbi Wolkenfeld consider non-halachic (ie Reformative) conversions to be valid? Does he consider their gittin to be valid? Does he consider non-Jews who consider themselves Jewish by virtue of Reform’s patrilineal descent to be Jewish?

  2. Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

    I don’t see why my personal beliefs and halakhic practices are crucial to this discussion. But since you asked…

    I believe that Torah and mitzvot are obligatory and the sine qua nons of an authentic Jewish response to the berit made at Sinai. I do not confer Jewish status on converts to Judaism whose conversion was not halakhic etc.

    To paraphrase Avishai in the post I linked to, a modern nation-state is not a shul and is not a kehillah – a cabinet minister is not a rav or posek. I don’t have answers to the question of religion and state in modern Israel, I only shared some links to further the discussion and provide some context that I have found to be important.

    Best wishes,

  3. Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

    In this blog-post Rabbi Avraham Gordimer has profoundly misunderstood Rabbi Weiss’ position. Rabbi Weiss in no way “promotes the performance or potential acceptance” of non-halakhic life-cycle events. He called for an end to the State rabbinate’s monopoly over these religious services. Orthodoxy in America manages without this monopoly:

    At the same time, to make sharper what I wrote earlier, I don’t think Rabbi Weiss has a winning argument. There is no “liberal” argument for why the franchise to determine “who is a Jew” should be more open. Liberals think that states should not be in the business of deciding who is a Jew! But, doesn’t the Law of Return depend on some government body telling the state who is Jewish? I have been told that the Ethiopian aliyah, one of the proudest moments in Zionist history, would not have been possible without the endorsement of the Rabbinate (and HaRav Ovadiah Yosef z’tl in particular).

  4. You don’t see why your personal beliefs and halakhic practices are crucial? Isn’t this post your opinion on the subject? Does that make them relevant?
    If you really believe that Torah and mitzvos are obligatory how can you suggest giving legitimate religious legal power to “rabbis” who openly defy that? If you don’t consider non-Orthodox converts to be Jewish then why are you proposing giving these “rabbis” the power to falsely convert Israelis?
    Finally, if you don’t accept Reformative gittin as legitimate (I assume that’s covered under your “etc.”) then by advocating that Reformative “rabbis” have a right to issue them how are you not encouraging the potential spread of mamzerus in Israel?
    If we are discussing the separation of religion and state in Israel then you could suggest that any “rabbanut” that can fund itself can do what you want. However, in Israel at this time decision like “who is a Jew” have legal consequences.

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