Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel

Criticism of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is nothing new. It has often been voiced in the RRFEI newsletter and resources, as well as in Hiddush’s materials. It covers a myriad of issues, which in recent years include its delegitimization of Modern Orthodox attempts at addressing the Rabbinate’s failures in the areas of conversion and kashrut certification.

Developments in the last few days regarding the Kotel controversy bring me to focus again on the Chief Rabbinate, pointing to the fact that the institution itself stands in sheer conflict with the notions of democracy and the rule of law in Israel, as well as the realities and interests of the Jewish people worldwide. A lengthy document presented by the Chief Rabbinate this week manifests a real threat to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, which is frequently underestimated and misunderstood by both Israelis and Diaspora Jewish leadership.

For the benefit of RRFEI members, the original 13 page document submitted by Chief Rabbi Lau’s team, in Hebrew, can be download HERE. The document is intended for public consumption and was presented at a Knesset hearing. It is presents the Chief Rabbinate’s position on the pending Supreme Court case regarding the Kotel and the demand that the Rabbinate be allowed independent representation before the Supreme Court, rather than be represented by the Israeli AG who represents all agencies of the state.

In assessing the threat emanating from the Chief Rabbinate, beyond its attempt to dictate norms of worship for all Jews at national sites like the Kotel, one should only look at the Rabbinate’s recent initiative to establish a global ‘Jewish lineage’ database (already in motion, funded by the State of Israel) and Chief Rabbi Yosef’s public lashing out at Rabbi Dweck in London, who dared to present the complexity of Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality and the need for sensitivity and embracing of homosexuals. Chief Rabbi Yosef came out with a public pronouncement, declaring that he is “amazed and angry at the words of nonsense and heresy that were said about the foundations of our faith in our Torah.”

The selection of quotes below from the Rabbinate’s lengthy document will illustrate the wide chasm between its views and those associated with a democratic society. I dare say that no RRFEI members would tolerate the mindset and demands of the Rabbinate, if they were made in the USA or elsewhere. As you also know from Hiddush’s systematic public opinion polling, Israelis don’t endorse this outlook either; the lack of political backlash can only be explained by the cynicism and utilitarianism of Israel’s political infrastructure, as opposed to the public will.

Quotes

  1. “The Supreme Court does not have the authority to adjudicate the petitions regarding the Kotel… matters pertaining to prayer arrangements at the Kotel, the tradition, the halakhic rulings and that which they allow or forbid, are distinctly matters of halakha and religion, which the court does not have the capacity to decide on. The authoritative element for deciding halakhic matters, including for instance, the question of whether a particular act constitutes a desecration of a Jewish holy site (as is the matter at hand) is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Deciding these matters pending before the Court is not judicial at all, but rather halakhic and/or purely subjective – principled.”
  2. “Maintaining prayer and ceremonies in ways that are not compatible with the custom and the Jewish law as has been transmitted, along the Kotel (namely: including the Robinson’s Arch area – UR) constitutes a desecration of the most holy place for Jews… These are religious-halakhic controversies, which have no place in the Court.”
  3. “The position of the Rabbinate is that the Government resolution on the division of the Kotel, known as the “Kotel Compromise”, has no validity, stands in complete opposition to halakha, and constitutes a desecration of a holy place.”
  4. “The Chief Rabbinate is ‘the highest halakhic authority in the State’ (quoting from the Supreme Court ruling re: the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism 1982 petition regarding marriage), and ‘State religious authority of the whole Jewish population’ (quoting from the Supreme Court ruling in the 1989 petition of the Women of the Wall).”
  5. “Determinations by an authority, which is not the Chief Rabbinate, in any matter regarding the conduct of the holy places goes beyond its legal powers and constitutes a prohibited trespass into the areas of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.”
  6. “The core position of the Chief Rabbinic Council is against the groups that are called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ who have raised the flag of uprooting the Torah from its essence and uniqueness, and the results of their acts speak for themselves. Whoever monitors the assimilation prevalent among world Jews who are connected with these groups, as well as mixed marriages and uprooting of everything holy, will patently see that they have no connection to authentic Judaism…”
  7. “The Government decision (namely: the Kotel Compromise – UR) is void for a number of reasons. The decision, which allows for conducting prayers in the Southern part of the Kotel in a way that is contrary to halakha (for instance, holding mixed prayer services of men and women without a partition), constitutes a desecration of a holy place, and thereby violates the Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, and the Law Regarding the Protection of the Holy Places. So does the part of the resolution, which forfeits the administrative authorities granted to the Chief Rabbis with regard to a section of the Kotel area (the section of the Southern plaza) and transfers them to an authority that is not the recognized / authorized Israeli religious authority – constituting a desecration of the holy place. This forfeiture, in and of itself, is a desecration of a holy place in contradiction to the Basic Law: Jerusalem and the Law of the Holy Places.”

The above quotes are both a grievous misperception of the Chief Rabbinate’s authorities, reflecting a disregard for the law and the State authorities and perception of itself as standing above the law and the government. This document misrepresents past Supreme Court rulings, and forces Israel to move further and further (if the Chief Rabbinate’s position prevails) onto a collision course with world Jewry.

To begin with, the Chief Rabbinate has never had any authority over the Southern part of the Western Wall, beyond the Mughrabi Bridge known as the Robinson’s Arch area. It functioned as an archaeological garden under the antiquities authority, and was not used for regular worship until parts of it were designated for egalitarian worship and later recommended as a solution for the challenge posed by the Women of the Wall. The Chief Rabbinate never really claimed any authority or interest in this area, and its recent outburst has little to do with the sanctity of the Wall, but rather their desire to exclude both non-Orthodox and women’s minyanim. Therefore, the maps that define the boundaries of the Wall, attached to the official rules of conduct, only ever covered the traditional area known as the Wall.

As to the latter – if the Chief Rabbinate comes to be accepted as the highest religious authority for all Jews in Israel, and is guided by the view that ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ Jewish groups around the world are heretical, disconnected from Judaism, and their practices constitute desecration of holy places… then obviously, the result would be that the State of Israel will maintain that the overwhelming majority of world Jewry, which absent of religious coercion freely chooses to associate with non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams, are illegitimate, should be barred from Israel’s Jewish religious sites, and should be viewed with disdain and rejected. This conclusion, if the Rabbinate is not stopped, is an imminent threat to the future of Israel-Diaspora relations, in which the Kotel is merely a token reflection.

However, what should be emphasized by Diaspora Jewish leadership to Israel’s political leadership is that not only is the Rabbinate’s misrepresentation of world Jewry and contemporary Judaism offensive and anachronistic, but it is an expression of undue self-aggrandizement, which has no basis, even in Israeli law.

The Rabbinate’s quotes regarding its being the ‘highest halakhic authority in the State’ and ‘religious state authority of all Jews’ are taken out of context, representing only the view of a single (Orthodox) Justice on the panels that heard the cases, and are an ‘obiter dictum’. As a matter of fact, the law governing the operations of the Chief Rabbis and the Chief Rabbinical Council is very specific, and it does not crown any of them ‘the highest halakhic authority in the State’. Rather, in halakhic matters, the law describes their role as ‘providing responsa and opinions in halakhic matters for those who seek their advice.’

Similarly, their implied assault on the Supreme Court and the Government shows a misunderstanding of the Rabbinate’s true role and its relationship with the judicial, the executive, and the legislative branches of government. The Chief Rabbinate, as such, has no existence and no authority outside the scope of the law, which created the institution and defines its authorities. Clearly, in every other democracy, individual rabbis and rabbinic leaders gain trust and following by virtue of voluntary choice and association. That is how the role of the rabbi ought to be in a democratic society. The anomaly of an official state Rabbinate is not only a departure from Jewish tradition, but it is therefore confined and limited to the authorities and powers granted it by the state.

The laws cited by the Rabbinate regarding ‘desecration’ are actually intended to ensure access for all members of all religions to their sacred sites, as well as to ensure that they be respected. The pretentious view of the Rabbinate that they can define what constitutes ‘desecration of a holy place’ clashes with Israel’s own foundational promise of freedom of religion and conscience for all. Moreover, in the Supreme Court ruling on the 1989 petition regarding the Kotel, it was only the Orthodox Justice Elon who held that the ‘custom of the place’ should be interpreted as the manner of worship customary in Orthodox synagogues. The majority of Justices held that there is no necessity to interpret the ‘custom of the place’ according to Orthodox halakha.

The Rabbinate claims that no state authority has the right to regulate the administration of holy Jewish places, and that such a decision, whether made by the government or by the Minister of religious services, are outside their authority and constitute trespassing. The law they misquote and misinterpret regarding the protection of the holy places says in Article 4: “The Minister of Religious Services is in charge of the implementation of this law, and he MAY, after consulting representatives of the religions involved or according to their proposal, and with the consent of the Minister of Justice, establish regulations as to the execution of the law.” Thus, the authority is vested in the hands of the civil Minister of Religious Services and requires the consent of the Minister of Justice. The representatives of the different religions, including the Chief Rabbis, according to the law, should be consulted, but in no way is the Minister limited by them. That is the proper of authority in a normal state that upholds the rule of law, but as far as the Rabbinate is concerned, it is neither of significance, nor is it binding.

It was reported that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions – Rabbis Deri, Litzman and Gafni held a phone consultation with the Chief Rabbis of Israel who “instructed them that they may not agree to the compromise proposed by PM Netanyahu to suspend the implementation of the Kotel compromise, and that they must demand the revocation of the compromise in a formal governmental resolution.” Clearly, not only do the Chief Rabbis understand their limited authorities, but they feel that it is appropriate for them to instruct political functionaries on how to act. While Hiddush does not advocate the American model of separation of religion and state, clearly the Chief Rabbis giving instructions to Ministers and Knesset Members is an unacceptable blurring of the essential boundaries of politics and religion.

A lot more could be said, quoted, and analyzed, but even these limited snippets demonstrate that regardless of one’s view of what constitutes legitimate prayer worship for Jews, the growing demands and pressures of the Chief Rabbinate pose a real threat, which requires strong counter measures, both within and outside of Israel.

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