If There Were One Thing You Could Change About The Israeli Rabbinate

November, 05 2015

A Moment Symposium by George E. Johnson

Interviews With  
Assaf Benmelech / Aaron Leibowitz / Rachel Levmore| Shlomo Riskin / Bambi Sheleg / David Stav / Adin Steinsaltz / Yedidia Stern / Diana Villa / Avi Weiss / Moshe Weiss / Dov Zakheim

A comment by Ashkenazi  Chief Rabbi David Lau

Rachel Levmore

I would divorce the rabbinate from politics, not necessarily from government. How do you go about doing that? You have to understand that “the rabbinate” is two (or two and a half) different governmental bodies. The first body is the Chief Rabbinate, which is responsible for religious services. There are two chief rabbis in Israel, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, who work from within the Chief Rabbinical Council, which is comprised of rabbis of cities. Each municipality, in turn, has a rabbinical council, which provides a marriage registrar and a rabbi to arrange the chuppah ceremony and is responsible for religious services in the municipality such as kashrut supervision, an eruv and mikvahs. This is separate from the second crucial body, the State Rabbinical Courts, which, by civil law, have been given sole civil jurisdiction to decide all matters of personal status: marriage, divorce and determination of who is a Jew.

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Then there are the State Conversion Courts, run out of the prime minister’s office. They are almost an independent court system. However, final halachic rules guiding conversion are made by the two chief rabbis. The two chief rabbis also sit as judges on the State Rabbinical High Court of Appeals dealing with personal status, marriage and divorce. So, the chief rabbis form a bridge among the three institutions—overseeing rabbinical services and acting as justices of the High Rabbinical Court of Appeals—even though neither of the present chief rabbis ever passed the licensing exam needed to become a Rabbinical Court judge.

To separate politics from all sections of the rabbinate, religious services should be totally separated from the adjudication of religious law in the Rabbinical Courts. The Chief Rabbinate should fall under the umbrella of the Ministry of Religious Services. The Rabbinic Courts should be under the Ministry of Justice. I would begin by disconnecting the Rabbinical Courts from the Chief Rabbinate. Their jobs are very different. We need full-time chief rabbis and we need full-time chief justices; the two of them should not be mixed.

Rachel Levmore is a member of the State of Israel Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges, a Rabbinical Court advocate and director of the Agunot and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency.

David Stav

The parties who elect the rabbinate do not represent Israeli society. In the general electorate, the haredi are 10 percent of the vote, but they have almost 60 percent of the vote in electing the rabbinate. Because of Israel’s political system, the prime minister, whether from the right or left, needs the haredi in his coalition. As a result, he has to give in to their demands. Politicians should not be involved in appointing rabbis. It should be the public. Just as people vote for a mayor, they should also vote for their rabbi. There’s no reason why a rabbi should be elected by politicians, because then they obviously owe their jobs to politicians and not to the public.

The rabbinate today employs thousands of workers involved in kosher supervision. The rabbinate should not be an employer. It should be a regulator. And there must also be a change in oversight of conversions. Authority over conversions should be given to all city rabbis. Additionally, each couple should have the option to choose, in a pre-nuptial agreement, which rabbinical court they will go to if, God forbid, they divorce. Right now the procedures of the rabbinical courts are very slanted against women. Yet couples must use these courts.

As long as the haredi are in the governing coalition and control issues of religion and state, there is not much that can be done. The image of the Chief Rabbinate could not be worse—that’s not the issue. The question is whether it is an issue that people are ready to do something about.

Rabbi David Stav is the founder and chairman of Tzohar, an Orthodox rabbinical association seeking to reform the Israeli rabbinate. He  was a candidate for chief rabbi in 2013.

Moshe Weiss

The Chief Rabbinate is indispensable in performing its historical role in Israel of preserving the unity and integrity of the Jewish people within halachic guidelines. As a supporter of the Chief Rabbinate, I would like to see the chief rabbis do more to promote at all levels of the organization an attitude of public service with a pleasant countenance and for the services they provide to be much more user-friendly.

When I was a senior adviser in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption in the late 1990s, I worked closely with Chief Rabbis Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron and Yisrael Meir Lau and many lower-level officials in the Chief Rabbinate to find solutions to the many thorny and contentious issues raised by the immigration of Russian-speaking olim, many of whom were not Jewish according to halacha. We set up an inter-ministerial board with the ministries of religion, foreign affairs, justice and interior. It took a few years, but we streamlined the process for determining the Jewish identity of those who were registering to get married. Instead of someone getting a runaround—being sent from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the Ministry of Interior—it’s now a one-stop shop. You open up a file, and the Chief Rabbinate coordinates it. The Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption also created a program for more than 2,000 women who were agunot and unable to remarry because of their lack of the get divorce document. The inter-ministerial board also set up conversion classes through which tens of thousands of Russians have joined the Jewish people. These conversions were in the middle between lenient and strict. Converts would accept the basic tenets of Torah, Jewish philosophy, Jewish beliefs. The Chief Rabbinate dealt with these issues in a very pragmatic, humane and sensitive way.

The Chief Rabbinate should install local rabbis who will be proactive in addressing the thirst of many Israelis who want a deeper connection to the values that Torah teaches but have a void in their knowledge of Judaism. Surveys show that the vast majority of the secular keep holidays, keep kosher to a great extent, fast on Yom Kippur, believe in God. They want to identify as Jews. This is a very big trend today here in Israel.

Moshe Weiss was a senior adviser to the Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption and is currently chairman of Netspark and Internet Rimon, a global “family-safe” Internet network.

Dov Zakheim

You need a Chief Rabbinate because Israel is a Jewish state. Eliminate the Chief Rabbinate and you’ve taken away a major element of the Jewishness of the Jewish state, and, since many of Israel’s enemies are prepared to tolerate Israel but not as a Jewish state, you’re playing right into their hands. But that does not mean the Chief Rabbinate has to determine marriages, divorces, burials and conversions. In fact, I believe the Israeli rabbinate must get out of personal status issues.

The rabbinate’s involvement in these issues is a national security threat to Israel. First, it is alienating many, many American Jews who have children and who themselves were converted, or whose spouses were converted, by non-Orthodox rabbis. When the children come to Israel, they’re basically told they’re not Jewish. In light of the major divisions among American Jews over the Iran agreement, it’s clear that support for Israel is no longer strong. The personal status debate is undermining that support even more.

Second, too many Israelis are getting married in Cyprus in order to avoid getting married through the rabbinate, and once that happens they lose their relationship with the religion. The Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox movements—apart from the fact that they themselves are becoming more and more traditional—create a sense of Judaism among their constituents, which is important for the sense of Jewish peoplehood around the world. Frankly, it’s also important for having a sense of brotherhood within Israel.

There is a third, internal, security argument. You have people fighting and dying for the State of Israel who then can’t be buried with the people they thought were their fellow Jews. If you start redefining who’s Jewish and who’s not, which is what the Chief Rabbinate has essentially done, what does that do for morale for Russian Jews who are still in the IDF? When morale is undermined, it doesn’t matter how good your weapons systems are.

Pressure has to be applied on the Israeli government because that’s the only way this is going to change. Israel wants the support of the American Jewish community, but it essentially tells 85 to 90 percent of that community that they’re second-class citizens. How long this can continue is an open question.

Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense, is chairman of the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, a coalition of American Jewish organizations focusing on religious freedom and rabbinate reform in Israel.

Aaron Leibowitz

The biggest issue is that the Chief Rabbinate is controlled by a non-Zionist rabbinic clergy who tend to make decisions based on sectarian equations. In the absence of a broad-minded, visionary leadership in the Chief Rabbinate, the next best thing is an open market for religious services. Grassroots initiatives can and should coalesce into a “shadow rabbinate” that supports a spectrum of different possibilities of services. A rabbi should have to present his credentials, build a reputation and interact with his public in a transparent way, so that the people can choose.

Let me give an example from Hashgachah Pratit, a private kosher supervision agency here in Israel that I founded as an alternative kashrut initiative. By law, the Chief Rabbinate has a monopoly on kosher supervision; they have no competition and there’s no requirement that they be transparent, which breeds corruption, causing the kashrut itself to be less reliable. Hashgachah Pratit is challenging the rabbinate on a grassroots level, providing transparency, high-level service and accountability. Break down the monopoly and the market will fix itself.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is the founder of Hashgachah Pratit, an alternative kashrut organization, and a member of the Jerusalem City Council from the Yerushalmim Party.

דוד_לאוA Question for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau

If there were one thing you would want to be remembered for at the end of your term as Chief Rabbi, what would it be?

That the Rabbinate is the Rabbinate of all Israel, not only the people of shuls, but of all the Jewish Nation.

Shlomo Riskin

One of the greatest problems facing Israeli society today is that of the conversion of citizens of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). There are now close to half a million fully integrated Israeli citizens—immigrants and their children who suffered persecution in the FSU and who are now serving (or about to serve) in the IDF—who are not allowed to marry Israeli Jews because they are not halachically Jewish, although they are Jewish according to Israel’s Law of Return.

A solution exists to this untenable situation. Within the spectrum of Orthodox Jewish law there is a category of zera yisrael, those of paternal descent, who—although they do require a formal conversion of circumcision and ritual immersion—are to be converted with a maximum of love and acceptance and a minimum of interrogation and cross-examination. To this end, a formidable number of prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbis (many of whom are city rabbis and qualified court judges) have opened private conversion courts to embrace these émigrés and welcome them lovingly to the peoplehood and religion of Israel. Unfortunately, the present chief rabbis do not recognize these courts or their conversions. However, since they do not depart from rulings that were given by former chief rabbis, I am hopeful that the present chief rabbis will widen their tent and accept these conversions.

Until a decade ago, and indeed throughout Jewish history, liberal and stringent halachic courts of conversion have existed side by side, in the spirit of pluralism within Orthodoxy, as expressed in the Talmudic saying, “These and those are the words of the living God.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions.

Diana Villa

The rabbinate’s unnecessary and absurd legal stringencies adversely affecting Jewish life in Israel must end, most importantly in the areas of conversion and divorce. For example, under Jewish law, to have a proper conversion, you need circumcision (for males), immersion and acceptance of the law. The law on circumcision and immersion is very clear. But what “accepting the law” means is subject to interpretation. In the Talmud and throughout the legal codes until at least the 16th century, it was very clear that you teach people some of the laws, some of the more lenient, or easier, ones and some of the more stringent, difficult ones. If a person accepts, is circumcised if male and immerses, that’s all that is necessary. However, the rabbinical courts today require a convert to accept every little detail of rabbinic law. Many of them don’t even recognize the validity of conversions by Orthodox Army rabbinic courts that convert soldiers while they are doing their military service. This makes it difficult for them to get married through the rabbinate.

To get different kinds of rabbinical court judges, you need to change how they are chosen. A few months ago, 22 new rabbinical court judges were elected: about a third ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, a third ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi, and a third national religious. Very often, those chosen are either related or connected to members of the committee that elected them. As a result, they are always looking over their shoulders, wondering, “What will somebody say if I am more lenient?” That’s one of the major problems. A committee that elects judges should be more balanced. It should look for the most qualified, the greatest scholars, ones who know how to apply the law. It’s better than it was because the previous government changed the law to include at least four women on the selection committee. But the ultra-Orthodox parties in the new coalition government are trying to neutralize this. This is not a religious problem; it’s a political problem.

Rabbi Diana Villa, born in Argentina, was ordained and is a lecturer at the Conservative Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, where she coordinates its Mishlei Program, which grants master’s degrees,  in Talmud and Jewish law.

Assaf Benmelech

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate is beyond repair. Unfortunately, there is no single action that can be taken to fix it except its abolition.The imposition of religious norms on the citizens of Israel through the Chief Rabbinate conflicts with the basic principles of freedom of religion and democracy. Since the establishment of Israel, such enforcement has been deemed essential to preserve the Jewish identity of the state. But the Chief Rabbinate has failed to understand its duty to minimize violation of the rights of secular and religious Jews who don’t share its ideology. The price for the existence of the Chief Rabbinate has become too high.

Three main areas in which the authority of the Chief Rabbinate should be nullified are marriage and divorce, conversion and kashrut. We need to give couples the choice whether they want to marry through the rabbinate or at least present alternatives for marriage to those who cannot be married according to Jewish law. You can call it marriage, civil marriage, or any other name, but it’s an elementary right and I cannot understand why this option has not been granted to anyone who needs it. The authority to recognize, accept and register someone as Jewish must be removed from the Chief Rabbinate and be granted to a civil governmental organization that would objectively determine whether a conversion is coming from an established, well-known and serious rabbi. Conversions should be carried out according to certain principles, but it is unacceptable for the Chief Rabbinate to tell the state what those principles should be. The Chief Rabbinate also should not have the sole authority to decide what is kosher and what is not kosher. Today, the Chief Rabbinate has the sole authority to declare that a restaurant or a factory is kosher.  This creates an enormous number of problems, including corruption.

There is a precedent for the nullification of these powers. The new government, in response to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox political parties, recently nullified important reforms regarding conversions made by the previous government. In the same vein, the next time there is a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox, past resolutions might not be respected, and the result might be the cancellation of a lot of the authorities of the Chief Rabbinate. And once these authorities are cancelled, it will be very difficult to bring them back.

Assaf Benmelech is an attorney specializing in religion and state issues in Israel, including democratizing the rabbinical court system.


Avi Weiss

I often joke that in my father and mother’s home, it was the Chief Rabbinate and God, in that order. They venerated the Chief Rabbinate. There have been individual chief rabbis who have been wonderful, wonderful people. But over the years, with the heaviest of hearts, I have come to believe that Israel should no longer have a Chief Rabbinate.

Built into the very office of the Chief Rabbinate is religious coercion. Religious coercion and spiritual striving are oxymorons. It just doesn’t work. And that’s why the Chief Rabbinate does not have the support of the vast majority of Jews living in Israel. So while I think that Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the present chief rabbis, should serve their own communities, I do not believe they should be the rabbis of all communities.

Centralization of rabbinic power is corrosive and puts too much power into the hands of too few people. The centralization of rabbinic power in Israel is also finding its way into the American Orthodox world. This, I think, is a terrible mistake. I am a strong supporter of a group in Israel called Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, which believes that each community should decide who their rabbi should be. This would be best for all streams of Judaism, including Orthodoxy. People will be more attracted to Orthodoxy if it’s presented in a way that is loving, in a way that is persuasive and not coercive, and in a way that exposes people to the beauty of what Orthodoxy has to offer.

Changes within the Chief Rabbinate can only come about legislatively. This is very difficult to accomplish, as the Knesset is a parliamentary system where the few can have absolute control over what occurs in the country. In the prior Knesset, Israel took tremendous strides forward by deciding that conversions could be done by local community rabbis. This new Knesset has moved backward and undone this very important step. But there is pushback. Some of the most prominent rabbis in Israel are reported to be doing conversions on their own.

Avi Weiss is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a Modern and Open Orthodox rabbinic organization.

Yedidia Stern

When I met with the previous chief rabbi he asked me, “Tell me, Yedidia, how come people do not like us? We try so hard. Why is the image of the Chief Rabbinate at such a low level in Israel?” I asked him: “Tell me, Rabbi, what is your opinion about the people who come from Eritrea and Sudan to Israel?” At the time, many such refugees were crossing Israel’s borders. “What is your opinion as a chief rabbi of the State of Israel on how we should relate to the refugees?” Well, you never saw somebody so astonished. “How is this related to my job? Why do I have to look into this issue? It’s not a halachic issue.”

  For many Jews in America, Judaism implies commitment to human rights. In Israel, unfortunately, for too many traditional Jews, the discourse about human rights is a threat. It’s seen as a Western value, and not ours. But what can be more wrong than this notion? Human rights are part of Jewish tradition. The international declaration of human rights was created by a Jewish scholar, René Cassin. He maintained that his inspiration came from the Jewish tradition. Israel must continue this tradition as the keeper of human rights. The Chief Rabbinate, which is an organ of the state of Israel, should be at the forefront of this effort. Tikkun olam is needed more today than ever before.

Imagine for a second that the Chief Rabbinate would offer inspirational ideas about how to deal with the current immigration crisis in Europe. Given the state of the current Chief Rabbinate this is an unlikely, even ridiculous, idea. However, this is exactly what Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, envisioned as the function of this institution.

What can be done? Democratization of the rabbinate is the first step. Today, the Rabbinate is elected by a body of some 150 people. Many of them are Orthodox rabbis, and the rest are local and national political figures. In reality, the chief rabbis are elected through an ugly political deal: the secular politicians support the ultra-Orthodox candidate for the Rabbinate and in return, the ultra-Orthodox promise “payback” through political support in the Knesset.  It is basically a barter system. We need a new law that will establish a more democratic way of electing rabbis in Israel. Just as the masses elect political leaders for the Knesset, so should they elect their spiritual leaders for the Chief Rabbinate.

The vast majority in Israel resent the Chief Rabbinate, but nothing can change because of the political system. Each of the two major parties knows that down the road they may need the ultra-Orthodox vote in order to establish a coalition. As a result, they are willing to give up on religion and state issues. What we need is for the two major parties to join forces and endorse a Chief Rabbinate which will echo Jewish humanistic values.

Yedidia Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a former Dean of the Law Faculty at Bar-Ilan University.

Adin Steinsaltz

I would find rabbis of a much higher quality. The questions that face the rabbinate are often important questions. You need first-rate people who can tackle these difficult queries. A rabbi cannot be just a functionary, a fellow working for a political or religious system. This is not a job. It’s a vocation. We want the best and the brightest in every slot, no matter how critical the position.

I expect rabbis to be knowledgeable about the subjects they are speaking out about and about the things that they are quoting. They also have to know when to keep quiet. I expect them to be sensitive. A rabbi often has to say no, but he has to know that sometimes he is causing suffering.

I can tell you what a rabbi should be.  First of all, it is very good if the rabbi has a Ph.D. Second, it would be desirable if he is at least an ex-colonel in the army. Third, he should be good-looking. Fourth point, he should be a talented speaker. Fifth, he should be a likeable person. Another basic quality: A rabbi should care for his people. In a certain way, the rabbi is not a representative of God to the people, but rather a matchmaker. We speak about God and the Jewish people as kind of a couple, a couple in love or a couple fighting or a couple that doesn’t speak to each other. So we need somebody to do the matchmaking.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, winner of the Israel Prize, completed his 45-volume translation of the Talmud with commentary from Aramaic into Hebrew in 2010.

Bambi Sheleg

I’m not sure that the Chief Rabbinate will last. But if it does, it will only be because people are more committed to the future of the Jewish people than to the text of the Torah. One of the most important tasks of rabbinic leaders is to take responsibility for the Jews who are living today. But they are not doing it. Instead, they are responsible for a deep split within the Jewish people. Although Orthodoxy has been very vital in the past few decades, it alone cannot revive the Jewish people. We cannot just consider people who think the way we think.

To be a Jew 100 years ago was not the same thing as to be a Jew today, but we have not fully articulated what it means in this era. We need a totally different kind of rabbi: rabbis who are really servants, who look toward the future of all of us together. They have to be from all kinds of sectors. We really need a process of renaissance, which starts with a new way of thinking about ourselves. Not being committed to the future of the Jewish people is weakening all the ideas of the Torah. There is no Torah without the Jewish people.

Bambi Sheleg is an Israeli journalist and founder of Eretz Acheret (A Different Israel), a journal probing Israel’s cultural diversity and promoting understanding between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Israelis.

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2 thoughts on “If There Were One Thing You Could Change About The Israeli Rabbinate

  1. h gottlieb says:

    But if you divorce these rabbis from government, they will be out of work …. unemployed and they might have to go to work…. washing dishes, kosher of course

  2. Tim says:

    Isn’t the real problem the fact that God has abandoned “His” people for the past 2000 years? Martin Luther can help. Lutherforthejewishnation.com

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