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I believe in Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Here’s how we can ensure its legitimacy.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, July 10, 2024

The only time that Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik visited Israel was in 1935, on a trip to seek out the position of Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi. His candidacy was ultimately unsuccessful, and he returned to the United States and went on to lead the growth and development of Modern Orthodoxy.

When, as a curious student at Yeshiva University in the 1980s, I asked the Rav why he thought he lost that election all those years ago, he told me it was because of a drasha (sermon) he gave during his visit to Israel. Speaking on Shabbat in one of the preeminent synagogues in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Soloveitchik discussed how the Biblical verse “How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel” (Numbers 24:5) could be understood as an aspiration for Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular, to live together in the growing Jewish communities of the modern Land of Israel, soon to become a state.

“They didn’t like my vision of inclusion,” the Rav told me.

Whether or not his loss was because of this — or because the Rav, then a member of Agudath Israel of America, was not seen as sufficiently Zionist — his answer is haunting in its sustained truth: Today’s state rabbinate is the opposite of any vision of unity. That is why the institution is increasingly unable to serve the public.

The issue is especially relevant now, as it’s election season again for Israel’s chief rabbis. It is still not even clear when the elections, required by law to happen by July 1, will take place. Various politicians, government ministries and rabbinate officials are only taking steps to further delay the elections in hopes of rigging the system to meet their narrow interests. Not only is this an embarrassment, but it also shows how urgent it is to make changes that restore trust in the rabbinate.

It should be taken seriously that 72% of Israelis think that Israel should not have a state rabbinate at all or it should have one in a different form, according to a recent survey from the Israel Democracy Institute. More than half of Israelis surveyed by IDI said the rabbinate should be less conservative, a view held by more than 76% of secular Israelis as well as a third of those who identify as religious.

Israel needs a rabbinate that uses halacha to serve the wide spectrum of the state’s Jewish public while also playing a leadership role in the changing needs of the Diaspora. The status quo will only continue to fuel public cynicism about religion, promote divisions in society and put the state’s role in the Jewish world at risk.

Above all, a functioning rabbinate would serve the diverse Israeli public, especially on the matters over which it has legal mandate: marriage, divorce and kashrut. This is not the case today: The number of people getting married through the rabbinate or its partner organizations like Tzohar, which must follow rabbinate standards for weddings, is rapidly dropping. There are, horrifyingly, hundreds of agunot — women seeking divorce from husbands who are refusing to grant them a get, a requirement for legal divorce in Israel — and the rabbinate is not taking enough steps to help them.

Ironically, much of the Haredi population, whose political interests are served by the state rabbinate, do not even rely on them for practical matters in their own daily lives, instead operating their own religious courts and kashrut-certifying organizations. If the rabbinate continues catering only to the political interests of the Haredi and a small slice of the most conservative wing of the national religious population, it will continue to lose legitimacy not only at home but also in the Diaspora, alienating more Jews from Israel. It goes without saying that this is already the case with many secular Diaspora Jews, but it is increasingly becoming the case for Orthodox Jews — and their community leaders — as well.

There are ways within the bounds of halacha to allow Israel’s state rabbinate to better serve the public. When it comes to weddings, for instance, simply being more friendly to couples, including those who do not identify as religious, would go a long way to make sure they get married under a halachic chupah. The agunah issue can also be greatly alleviated if the rabbinate would only gather the courage to use existing instruments like the heskem l’kavod hadadi, halachic prenuptial agreements, which have been endorsed by major rabbinic leaders including Rav Ovadya Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechamya Goldberg, Rabbi Asher Weiss and 21 roshei yeshiva from Yeshiva University. During the Yom Kippur War, Rav Ovadya Yosef spent long hours and sleepless nights working on halachic solutions for difficult agunot situations, including those women whose husbands were missing in the war, which ultimately led to him releasing nearly 1,000 women from their agunah status — showing that solutions to this challenge do indeed exist.

An effective rabbinate would also acknowledge the real spiritual needs of the population and cater to those according to Jewish law. This includes recognizing the needs and potential of women to participate in Jewish community life and leadership. At present, the rabbinate does the opposite: For example, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitchak Yosef has accused women who seek accreditation for their Torah knowledge of imitating Reform Jews. Why not acknowledge and support this development and use it to support a broader engagement in Torah by a larger population?

Along similar lines, the rabbinate also made a costly mistake, losing yet more public credibility, when it blocked the creation of an egalitarian prayer space with a separate entrance away from the current Western Wall plaza — a project that the rabbi of the Kotel himself had even approved. Our sages tell us that Jerusalem was never divided into tribes like the rest of the Land of Israel because it needs to be a place that is a common area and creates peace, not division. It is time for the state rabbinate to reflect this founding Torah value and find ways, without compromising halacha, to enable a spiritual space for all Jews.

The state rabbinate also needs to respect the state and democracy. The fact that Rabbi Yosef encouraged our Haredi brothers to leave Israel rather than serve in the IDF, instead of exploring a manner in which it would be comfortable for them to serve as the recent Supreme Court ruling demands, showed that the rabbinate lacks respect for the state even as other Jewish soldiers are dying for its continued security and existence. Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Moshe Amar refusing to shake hands with Knesset speaker Amir Ohana at the funeral of IDF Captain Yisrael Yudkin at Har Herzl and leaving the funeral when Ohana was about to eulogize Yudkin, all because Ohana is openly gay, showed a disrespect for the fallen officer and for the personal freedom that is necessary for democracy. Rather than embracing people according to the principle of darchei noam — making sure the Torah is taught and lived with pleasantness — this type of behavior serves to further push people away from religion.

The Rav’s story with the Israeli rabbinate extended beyond his unsuccessful bid for the office of rabbi of Tel Aviv. He ultimately rejected an opportunity three decades later, in the early 1960s, to run for chief rabbi of Israel, saying that the office was too administrative, ceremonial and political — another statement that still rings true today.

The Rav also underwent a transformation in the decade following his visit to Israel. He left the Agudath Israel movement, aligning himself spiritually with religious Zionism and becoming the chairman of the Central Committee of the Religious Zionists of America. He openly recognized the contributions of and importance of including non-religious Jews in the state, and he described sleepless nights and losing friendships and family relationships due to this decision.

Rabbi Soloveitchik recognized that with the establishment of the State of Israel, the needs of the Jewish people had changed — and if he wanted to continue to lead, he needed to change too.

The same is true today for the state rabbinate, which I desperately want to work. It needs to change before it is too late.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

Read this article on the eJP website 

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