A recent detailed interview with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin appeared in the original Hebrew in Makor Rishon earlier this month, with select paragraphs translated into English below.
“If I could ask God one thing, I would ask: How is it possible that the Talmud is the most pluralistic piece of literature, but those who study it are the most narrow minded?” says Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. “It’s a shame, and it destroys and distorts the halakhah. Without adhering to halakhah [the Jewish people] cannot hold out, but in my opinion the greatest praise [due to] the Torah is that it is not singular. Our halakhah is pluralistic. The Chief Rabbis of the past understood this as well. Chief Rabbis Herzog and Goren did brave things when necessary. That’s how halakhah has always been, and that what we teach our students.”
“You’re opening a Pandora’s box,” says Rabbi Riskin when I ask him whether he believes that this chain of events proves that religion and the state must be separated. “I will say this in the clearest possible way: “When there is a Chief Rabbinate that is exclusivist, and it is not willing to accept rabbinical courts that rule such and such, within the framework of halachah, this is a problem. I certainly would not want to see conversions that are not halakhic. The aspiration is for every Jew in Israel to be able to marry any other Jew in the country, and for that purpose we must give [state recognized] power to conversion projects. We do not want a society in which there are Israelis who are ‘good Jews’ and Israelis who are not properly Jewish. Unfortunately this is what will happen if they [continue to] limit opportunities for conversion. And that would be a shame, a pity, a shame. So I think separation would be better. And I say this in tears.”
If the rabbinate recognizes Halakha in a singular, closed, or even [exclusively] ultra-Orthodox way, is it necessary to separate religion from state?
“I say it with tears, but yes.”
On the other hand, you can probably understand the concern regarding private courts for conversion. After all, there is no uniformity in case law, and there is no control over the entrance gate to the people of Israel.
“But there was never uniformity or control, and in the past they understood that there was a need for a House of Hillel and a House of Shammai, and ‘these and those are the words of the living God.’ If other Orthodox rabbis have halachic-based sources, how dare you say they are not Orthodox?”
In the Conservative movement, there are rabbis who call for recognizing Judaism as ‘passing’ from the father [to the child], and not only through the mother.
“I do not know about that. I respect the members of the Conservative movement, and I also think that the way the Chief Rabbinate expresses itself regarding them is very unfortunate. On the other hand, many of them do not see themselves as committed to the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. I also think it’s legitimate that the establishment Rabbinate here in Israel is Orthodox.”
“… In many matters I am more stringent than the ultra-Orthodox, but unlike them, I do not invalidate the conversions of others. If you are an Orthodox rabbi, your conversion should be acceptable. There should not be a blacklist…”
“The great miracle of the Land of Israel is that it belongs to all the people of Israel: to the collective. Anyone that is there. I have no problem that the establishment be Orthodox, but it should include those who are not Orthodox.”
“Rabbi Lau once said something like ‘Rabbis Riskin and Stav will convert anyone who wants to convert.’ I spoke to him and explained that I’ve never converted anyone without his/her acceptance of the Jewish religious commandments, and he apologized, but he does not understand the reality of American Jewry.”
Is there indeed a crisis with American Jewry surrounding the Western Wall and the new conversion law, or is it an exaggerated media spin?
“There is a very big crisis,” he replies without thinking twice. “I’m not sure it will be possible to resolve this.”
The solution that was reached in the first place regarding the Western Wall – the establishment of an egalitarian plaza in the southern part, near Robinson’s Arch, is “an excellent option.” Rabbi Riskin was even pleased by the Reform and Conservative demand that one entrance lead to three sections – for men, women, and a mixed one. “They wanted joint entry for all the people of Israel together, and that’s exactly what I want. Where is your ‘love of Israel’?”
To what extent is the left wing of Orthodoxy far from the right side of the Conservative movement? In Efrat there are synagogues that are very reminiscent of other streams, allowing women to read the haftara, for example.
“First of all, we in Efrat perform prayers with a divider between women and men, which is the greatest difference; and we observe the laws of prayer as written in the Shulchan Aruch. I oppose Conservative Judaism, and I do not accept what they call their ‘halachot’. But, Lord of the Universe, I must love them, respect them. I also call them my partners. We have a lot to do together, especially in the war against anti-Semitism. You have to understand that conservative Jews reach people that an Orthodox rabbi, even a Chabadnik, will never reach. They try to bring them closer in their own way. I also call Reform Jews my partners. I do not accept their synagogues, which use electrical appliances during Shababt, but even if we disagree – [our] task is the same.”
“I do not understand how the rabbinical establishment calls them ‘goyim’ or ‘apikorsim’. This is not okay. It cannot be a question of the face of halakhah, and I will not agree that this is my establishment. They are part of the Jewish people, and they, for example, do not declare that Orthodox Jews are ‘not religious’.”
The positive attitude towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, says Rabbi Riskin, can also benefit Orthodoxy. “Many graduates of their schools and camps eventually came to me. Before participating in those same Conservative activities, they were not ready to reach me. Minister Naftali Bennett visited a Conservative school in New York, one of the Chief Rabbis of Israel said that he should not have gone (Rabbi David Lau). Why not? I receive with open arms every invitation from a Conservative institution. I speak halacha and Torah to them. What could happen? Thank God, many times they started praying at my synagogue after such visits. There was also a well-known Reform rabbi who began visiting his mother, who prayed in my synagogue. He would come to us on every ‘Yom Tov Sheni’ holiday of the diaspora, and as a result he decided to become Orthodox.”
“The marriage covenant between Judaism and politics destroys religion and destroys politics. That’s the big problem. Religious MKs must have values that are above politics, above voting, but that is not what happens.”
On another issue, Rabbi Riskin found himself in the camp under attack. Criticisms were leveled against him and against the Rabbis of Tzohar, Beit Hillel, and the RCA (the umbrella organization of the Orthodox rabbis in North America) for supporting halakhic pre-nuptial agreements, which are supposed to prevent [women from becoming] agunot. “I think that what is happening in this regard is a scandal,” Rabbi Riskin explains the need for such agreements, “There is a serious problem regarding the refusal of divorce. It is written in the Torah, ‘And he wrote her a book of separation,’ and from this it follows that the husband gives [his wife] the gett [divorce document] in a unilateral manner. I believe with all my soul in Torah from heaven. Four thousand years ago, when God gave His Torah to Moses, there was no chance that a woman would want a divorce; She did not have social or economic status so the man would give the gett. But our wives are not captive to their husbands. We have to find a solution to this phenomenon of husbands who refuse to divorce their wives, and there are many solutions. I wrote an entire book about it. There is also disagreement in the Gemara as to whether this stems from the Torah or from rabbinic law. At the time of the Talmud, the solution was to ‘beat him until he says I want [to divorce her]’, but this is impossible to implement today.”
Would you support beating the husband if it was legal?
“If there was no other way – and the reality is that there is another way – I would advocate for it. What can we do? The rabbinical court may require a gett (divorce document), and if the husband refuses – he can be put in jail, and his license to practice his profession can be revoked, if he is a doctor, and so on. There is also the issue of a prenuptial contract, but the rabbis are not willing to use it for the most part. The prenuptial contract actually says that anyone who does not want to give or receive a gett must pay a high sum every month until (s)he cooperates. I wrote about this in the books of Yad L’Isha, which received the consent of Rabbi Yaakov Bezalel Zolty, who was the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. And now the rabbis say that this creates a “fake gett” (Which does not stem from the husband’s will, and is therefore not kosher) and should not be used. Maimonides himself, on the basis of the Gemara, used a mock gett when he ruled halachically: ‘Force him until he says, I want [to divorce her].’ The reason for this is that ‘our wives are not captives under their husbands’. Moreover, the Rambam writes about the verse, ‘good and righteous judgments,’ and explains that our halachah must be good and just, which, for Maimonides, is the essence of the Oral Torah.”
Rabbi Riskin notes another objection that he has from the Maharam: “Some [women rabbis] call themselves a rabbi or a rabba. This is not forbidden, but I do not think that a woman can be equal to a man like the ‘master’ of a synagogue. After all, the main function of the synagogue is to pray in public and to read from the Torah, and a woman cannot fulfill a man’s religious obligation because she herself is not obligated.”
Can she lead the ‘Kabbalat Shabbat’ service?
“I do not see this as a halakhic problem, since even a minor can conduct the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer, but from an educational point of view I would not recommend that a woman do it. If you begin with Kabbalat Shabbat, you may also get to the evening prayer service – and that’s problematic, because a woman cannot fulfill the religious duty of the community in matters of holy prayers.”
Recently, the issue of halakha’s attitude towards homosexuals has been raised again and again – both on the public level and within religious communities. What is your position on the subject?
“We can not allow what the Torah forbids. On the other hand, there is the principle of ‘God exempts in cases of coercion/force’.” [referring to the prevailing scientific view that homosexuality is an inherent orientation, not a choice]
“The Torah exempted the ‘forced one’ from the obligations stemming from what he did. I want to suggest something: In the verses that speak of homosexuality, the word ‘abomination’ is written, and in this context the Gemara defines it as ‘wrong with you.’ In the days of Socrates and Plato, many Greeks were bisexual, and the philosophers actually preached to be gay, because then there is no complexity of [having] children. They did not believe in childbirth at all. I think that’s what the Torah is talking about: Someone who could be heterosexual, and choses to be a homosexual, it is said ‘you are wronging God.’ The religious concept of ‘the forced one’ only relates to those who cannot be [sexually] satisfied any other way.”
“My approach is that every Jew should be loved, wherever he is. We must permit homosexuals to receive religious honors at the synagogue. I do not ask them what they do in their privacy; it’s not my business. Judgment is for God.”
Would you marry them?
“A wedding would not be correct [according to the Torah], but a contract of couplehood is possible. It is better in my eyes that they should live together than have to go around meeting in public places. That’s certainly not good.”
Rabbi Michael Chernick
In 1776 , in Germany, a young man named, Isaac, son of Eliezer Neiburg of Mannheim, was engaged to marry Leah, daughter of Jacob Guenzhausen of Bonn. In the week leading up to the wedding, Isaac seemed pre-occupied exhibiting some strange behavior. The wedding, however, took place in the groom’s home town with much celebration, on the 8th of Elul 5526, August 14, 1766, and all seemed to bode well.
A week later, on Saturday night, after they had spent several days in Bonn, Isaac Neiburg told the community rabbi, that his life was in danger and that he must leave Bonn immediately, but in order not to leave his young wife an agunah, he wished to give her a divorce. He did admit that he had not found the bride to his liking, but noted that he was not divorcing her for this reason, rather because of the mortal danger threatening him. Rabbi Copenhagen’s attempts to dissuade him were to no avail, and therefore it was agreed by both sides that Isaac Neiburg would divorce his wife. Financial matters were agreed to, including payment of expenses by the husband, and Isaac consented to everything. Since there was not a recognized rabbinical court in Bonn, it was decided to turn to the rabbinical court in Cleves, a city on the border between Germany and Holland.
The rabbi of Cleves, Rabbi Israel Lipschuetz, met with both parties, and sanctioned the divorce and also a written monetary agreement, determining that Isaac was firmly resolved to give his wife a divorce, and that if it were not done on the spot his wife might be left an agunah.
Several weeks later it became known to the father of the groom that his son had divorced his wife and left the country. The father was incensed both because in his opinion his son had been forced to give a get, despite, in his words, “his delicate emotional state, and because the financial arrangements were to his disadvantage.” He turned to Rabbi Tevele Hess, who then turned to the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, a large and highly esteemed community, headed by Rabbi Abraham Abusch of Lissau, both of whom ruled that the get was indeed invalid.
What ensued was a 2 year heated and acrimonious debate that put two rabbinical bodies at odds with one another, with both Leah and Isaac, caught in the middle. Leah’s status kept changing, depending on the rabbinic ruling, from “divorced” to “possibly married,” and later to “certainly married.” And Isaac, at times was determined to be “of sound mind and therefore able to grant the get, and at other times, emotionally disturbed, and unable to authorize the writ of divorce. The fierce controversy was accompanied by accusations, insults and name-calling.
The battle did not subside until over two years later, with the death of the head of the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, Rabbi Abraham Abusch.
Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of disheartening and unjust stories of aggunot, women who are chained to unwanted marriages, of open cases that have found no resolution.
The source, for the procedure of divorce is found in our parsha. The Torah: (Devarim 24:1) says:
א כִּי-יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה, וּבְעָלָהּ; וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא תִמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינָיו, כִּי-מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר–וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ, וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it comes to pass that she does not find favor in his eyes because he has found some unseemly thing, then he writes her a bill of divorce and gives it to her in her hands and sends her out of the house.”
The Torah places the power to decide to divorce solely on the husband. And in fact, during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud it was possible to divorce a woman against her will. Recognizing the inequity that a woman could be forcefully thrown out of her own home Rabbenu Gershom living in the 10th century enacted a takkana, a decree that prohibited divorcing a woman against her will. A woman must accept the get in her hand in order for the get to be valid. The takkana of Rabbenu Gershon sought to protect the rights of women, however, there was one major flaw. Although a man can initiate a divorce, there is no parallel right for her to do so.
Therefore, if a woman demands a divorce and her husband refuses, her only hope is for the beit din, a court to compel him to divorce her, as stated in the gemara, Tractate Yevamot (106b): “Pressure is put on him until he says he is willing [to divorce his wife].”
For me, here in lies one of the problems. Much like Leah and Isaac, we too must rely on the halakhic wisdom and compassion of a beit din, a court of judges to dissolve the marriage and force the husband to give a get. And therefore, the Get of Cleves, as it has become to be known by scholars, is indicative of a deep flaw of the rabbinic court system.
It is true, the laws surrounding the circumstances of giving a get are quite complex. In our case, the issue at hand was whether Isac was of “sound mind” at the time of the get. And since the Get of Cleves, and even before that, Rabbinic authorities, aggunah activists, and academics have sought to find solutions to solve the aggunah crisis. Many solutions have in fact been found and written about, and Rabbi Chernick outlines several possibilities. I will briefly lay out a few:
The most commonly accepted solution is the halakhic pre-nup, which stipulates that a husband must monetarily compensate the woman for each day that he refuses to give her a get. Today, most Modern Orthodox rabbis will not officiate at a wedding unless the couple agrees to sign a pre-nup.
Another solution is creating a kiddushin tanai, or conditional wedding ceremony, where the couple signs a document saying that if the couple should civilly divorce, and a get is given within 6 months, then the kiddushin, the marriage is valid. But, if the get is not granted within 6 months of the civil divorce, then the marriage is not considered valid, and a get becomes unnecessary.
Yet another solution is kiddushin ta’ut, a marriage entered into under mistaken assumptions, including lack of knowledge of a defect in the husband that pre-existed the marriage. A beit din may declare this marriage to have never been validly established, so the need for a get to end the marriage does not apply.
Another solution worth mentioning is Hafka’at Kiddsuhin, where the marriage is rendered invalid because of a technicality, such as witnesses who is not considered to be kosher. Here again, a get is rendered unnecessary.
With each of these solutions, there are challenges. What does it say about the sanctity of marriage, of kiddushin, if one is creating a condition for eventual divorce, or poking around for technical reasons to negate the marriage entirely. But, with healthy debate, I do believe that the solution exists.
So why then, are so many women still aggunot? Why can we not once and for all, solve the aggunah crises?
Much like the Case of the Get of Cleves, the many existing rabbinic batei din cannot agree on a universal solution, let alone publicly accept the solutions available to them. But what stands out about the Get of Cleves, is the seemingly arbitrary force and power with which the beit din forces its rulings.
The rabbinical court in Frankfurt, brought its full weight to bare in order to impose its position and invalidate the divorce, even though the event did not take place within its area of jurisdiction and the Cleves rabbinical court was not subordinate to it. In addition, contrary to accepted practice, the court was unwilling to publicize the any of the testimonies it had taken, or the halakhic arguments for invalidating the get.
The Cleves Get episode rocked the Jewish and rabbinic world of 18th-century Europe, having far reaching ramifications in the rabbinical court systems of Germany, England and Poland. Each court, each rabbi, digging in their heels, and refusing to collaborate to find a solution, and save a young couple from pain, hurt, and public humiliation.
Something has to change.
The founding of the International Beit Din (IBD) is helping. Made up of courageous Orthodox rabbis who bring to bare an expertise in the halakhic analysis as well as deep compassion for women, and men, who are struggling through a potentially acrimonious situation. It is a court that has deep integrity and sense of justice, devoid of corruption. And on a case by case basis, they work to apply one of the available solutions to not only free each and every aggunah, but to prevent women in the future from ever becoming chained to their unwanted husbands. That, is the first step.
An essential ingredient to sustaining such a beit din, is gaining community wide acceptance. Through advocacy work, we must commit to finding 100 community rabbis and scholars to support the decisions of IBD, to trust their public decisions of when to dissolve a marriage, and when to grant a get. We must support rabbis who will honor the gittin performed and agree to officiate at a women’s 2nd marriage. Who will accept the children into their schools and synagogues.
We have already come so far. The Torah’s principal of allowing a husband to willfully divorce his wife against her will was mitigated by the takkana of Rabbenu Gershom a millennium ago. It is now time to extend Rabbenu Gershom’s takkana one step further, by supporting the IBD and it’s decisions.
If the batei din of Frankfurt, Cleves, England and Germany in the 18th century had worked together towards accepting one another’s solutions, much heartache and distress would have been avoided. And then, the intention of Rabbenu Gershom’s takkana, of protecting the rights of women and families, will truly be upheld.
Let’s pray that the Leah’s of our world will once and for all be free from unwanted marriages.
Rabbi Michael Chernick
The ongoing existence of agunot in the aftermath of World War I and the inadequate responses of modern rabbinical authorities to the unjust and painful situation of these women were critical factors that impelled Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan to move beyond a halakhic system and begin to articulate a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism. In his 1936 essay “The Status of Woman in Jewish Law,” Kaplan analyzed ways that halakhah mandates women to second-class status, most especially around marriage (“it is in the marriage relationship chiefly, where the woman’s inferior status is fraught with tragic consequences to her”) and divorce (“the woman experiences the worst effects of her status when she can no longer continue to live with her husband”). After assessing contemporaneous efforts to resolve this problem as either regressive or ineffective, Kaplan concluded that halakhah was an insufficient medium of repair and declared: “[S]ocial justice, rather than immutable precedent, must govern the civic life of Jewry and underlie…juridical institutions…”
More than 80 years later, contemporary Reconstructionist practice builds on Kaplan’s original analysis and falls squarely within the feminist critique articulated by Rabbi Chernick, which points to why for most Reconstructionists his solution feels ultimately inadequate. In a post-halakhic approach, Jewish divorce becomes an opportunity to enact ritual in the service of the spiritual and emotional transition of the people involved. The focus becomes meaning seeking rather law observance.
The problem of agunot is eliminated by empowering women as actors within this ritual, preferably in an egalitarian procedure where both partners divorce each other rather than investing all power in one individual (historically and halakhically, the man in a heterosexual relationship). In the instance when a man refuses to give a woman a get, she is then empowered to initiate on her own (and vice versa—post-halakhic Judaism has also created the possibility of agunim and must accommodate same-sex Jewish marriages). Since single-initiated divorce can be disempowering to the person who does not agree, the Reconstructionist movement has also created a ritual of release from relationship to accompany civil divorce—not identical to a get, but clearly communicating that the ritual enacts the desires of only one member of the relationship.
Even before the establishment of the State of Israel, Reconstructionists have been concerned about the potential totalitarian implications of religious authority married to state power. The persistence of agunot in Israel despite the power of local authorities to resolve them highlights the problematic nature, rather than revealing redemptive possibilities. For these and other reasons, most Reconstructions insist on religious pluralism in Israel and prefer, as does Hiddush and RRFEI, separation of synagogue and state.
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.
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.
Rabbi Michael Chernick
This special series of RRFEI articles features an original work by Orthodox Rabbi Michael Chernick, Professor Emeritus of Rabbinic Literature at HUC-JIR, New York, with responses from Rabbis Mark Washofsky, Elliot Dorff and Daniel Siegel. Rabbi Washofsky’s affiliation is Reform; Rabbi Dorff’s is Conservative and Rabbi Siegel is with Jewish Renewal.
We hope you will respond and air your voice also on this essential issue of egalitarianism and halakhah. (I want to note that we invited two women scholars to respond, and neither had the time; but we hope for responses from our women colleagues and a robust discussion of these ideas.)
As we all know, being a “chained” woman (agunah) causes untold suffering, and justice demands we create a solution to this oppression. You will see in today’s article by Professor Michael Chernick an analysis of the problem, a review of the historical remedies and suggestions for moving forward.
In addition, we are bringing you responses from 3 current halakhic authorities:
Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Freehoff Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR Cincinnati; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards; and Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Founding Director, Integral Halachah Institute.
Shall we stay within the halakhic system to resolve the issues, or turn to civil courts? What is the appropriate role for civil courts in the Diaspora, and what is their role in the Jewish State? Some believe there should not be civil courts in Israel, that all law must be according to halakhah. Some would have that law change in structure, for example: that women be able to not only receive a get but give one as well, that both parties in a divorce should receive a divorce decree (get) from their spouse.
Clearly not only has the role of the streams of Judaism not been resolved in Israel, but the questions of which legal system to follow: civil or Jewish, who decides on halakhah, and how innovative can halakhah be in the modern context demand resolution.
RRFEI and Hiddush prefer a separation between religion and state, and in the case of marriage law, the possibility of civil marriage and divorce for those who choose. Clearly, as you will read in these articles, reasonable and reasoned rabbis may disagree, but all insist that injustice demands a workable solution. The Jewish people needs to hear your voice as well.
We hope you enjoy this special series; and even more important, we hope you will join the discussion.
Kol tuv, as we count our way to Sinai,
Rabbi Mark H. Levin
This week, new perspectives regarding Israelis’ views on marriage freedom and related issues were presented to the public.
After years of polling Jewish public opinion, Hiddush initiated a special study of both Israel’s Jewish sector and its Arab sector, and its findings were released on Valentine’s Day. On the same day, another study initiated by the Modern Orthodox NGO Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, which focused on the views of Israel’s Zionist Orthodox sector, was published. Since these issues are clearly high on the priority list of Israelis when it comes to matters of religion & state, and they directly impact world Jewry, we are making these reports available in the resource section of the RRFEI website. We’ll be glad to provide further insights and background to those who request more details.
Hiddush’s dual study offers an eye opening perspective as to the differences between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis on these issues. The findings can be better understood given the great disparity between the percentage of Israeli Jews who define themselves as secular (~50%) and the percentage of Israeli Arabs who identify as secular (12%).
Also, of great interest is the fact that whereas in the Jewish sector, the principled embrace of the right to “marriage freedom” is carried into support for enacting civil marriage and divorce, while in the Arab sector, 76% embrace the principle, but only 43% support instituting a civil option for marriage and divorce. This may be attributed to the far lower awareness among Arab Israelis of the inadequacy of religious control over marriage. It may also indicate that if they were made fully aware of the extent to which the right to marry in Israel is infringed upon, they would lend their support to the necessary remedy. It’s encouraging that among younger Arab Israelis, one finds a great level of support for a civil choice (60%), even though the majority of them would prefer religious marriage for themselves. Further, the high levels of opposition within the Jewish and Arab sectors to polygamy; and the high percentage of support for a bride’s right to choose her partner are of great interest.
On a related issue, public attention was drawn in the last few days to the shocking case of a battered wife who was not granted a divorce by an Israeli rabbinic court. It is of little surprise, therefore, to see that among Israeli Jews, 66% do not trust the Rabbinic Courts, as was found in the Hiddush study.
For RRFEI members, the study of the views of the Zionist Orthodox sector in Israel is of great interest. Hiddush placed special emphasis the views of this sector and its subgroups in the 2016 Israel Religion & State Index. The new study further validates the growing openness of Zionist Orthodox Israelis to moving away from the current Orthodox monopoly over marriage & divorce. It also confirms the existence of a liberal subgroup within this sector whose views on such matters are far closer to those of traditional and secular Israeli Jews.
At the same time, it should be pointed out that the methodology adopted by the pollsters of this Zionist Orthodox survey and the drafting of the questionnaire pose some challenges. Hiddush’s study points to a level of 23% support among the religious sector (excluding the ultra-Orthodox) for instituting civil marriage & divorce. However, the media headlines on the Zionist Orthodox sector study declared a cumulative level of 49% support for the various alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly that were presented to the respondents. This wide gap can be understood, given the following qualifications of the latter study:
All in all, these studies reaffirm what we have seen in previous ones: There is a growing openness among Israelis to changing the age old, restrictive marriage & divorce framework. A clear majority support the enactment of a civil alternative, and there is a widespread resentment on the part of the public towards the policies pursued by their respective political representatives.
Having been immersed for some decades now in Israel-Diaspora relations, I often reflect upon a short story that Martin Buber included in his iconic “Tales of the Chassidic Masters;” one Jew asks his friend, Yankel, do you love me? And Yankel responds, Moishe, how can you ask such a question? Of course I love you. Moishe replies: But Yankel, how can you say that you love me if you don’t know what pains me?
I thought of this brief, piercing exchange when we at Hiddush received the findings of our most recently commissioned poll (see below). Hiddush conducts many polls, but this one, in my view, has some of the most important implications for the Israel-Diaspora partnership in addressing Israel’s challenges of religious freedom and equality. We share it with you in this RRFEI bulletin so you may not only consider it and reference it in discussions, sermons and public statements about Israel, but also share with us (RRFEI) your thoughts on these findings in the context of our mutual desire to see Israel advancing the goals of religious freedom and equality. I encourage you to use our RRFEI Facebook group [link] (or offline exchange), as an intimate, discreet forum to discuss this very delicate and often explosive topic.
You don’t need to be a big maven to see that Israeli Jews prioritize Israel’s religion-state conflicts very differently than the Reform and Conservative Movements have in their now three year almost exclusive advocacy focus on egalitarian Services (and Women of the Wall) at the Kotel. How do you feel about this radical gap? How do you view the irony that it’s been mainstream Jewish organizations with strong Israel credentials such as the JFNA and AJC, which have acknowledged the strategic priority of personal status matters and the need to actively advocate for the advancement of freedom of choice in these areas, while the major religious streams have been mostly playing the role of back benchers, as they invested considerable time, energy and advocacy capital on the Wall?
The other questions covered in the poll are of clear corollary importance. We so often hear reservations from American colleagues and community leaders, who ask: what right do we, living in America, have to interfere with these internal Israeli issues? Do Israelis listen to us? Is this the right time to raise questions of religious freedom and equality? The nuanced, yet compelling survey data underscores the eagerness of the clear majority of Israeli Jews for American Jewry to enter the battlefield, and join Israeli groups and activists in the fight for marriage freedom. The level of support and its intensity differs between challenges of utmost importance and concern, such as the right to family on the one hand, and, on the other hand, issues of lesser importance or greater ambivalence on the part of Israelis. Our polling serves as resounding endorsement for those in the American Jewish community who have taken up the cause of marriage freedom in Israel, and should stimulate further reflection, as to the almost exclusive advocacy focus of recent years on the Kotel.
Let me make clear that I am not questioning the justice of the cause of freedom of worship at the Kotel for egalitarian groups and for WOW. I wholeheartedly support this. My question is that of individual and communal priorities in a reality in which nobody seems to be able to advocate effectively for multiple social causes (For obvious reasons I am not referring here to the controversies over security, settlements and the peace process). I am also concerned with the related question of the degree to which we should place great value on seeking a common front with Israelis who share our values of a democratic and religiously diversified Israeli society, as well as the degree to which identifying a cause, to which both our communities attach high levels of importance, should be a primary consideration in making our choices.
60% of the Jewish Israeli public supports the involvement of American Jewish organizations in advancing marriage freedom in Israel. There is no doubt that for Israelis – breaking the yoke of the fundamentalist Orthodox Rabbinate in marriage and divorce is a top priority among the religion/state battles. Israelis welcome American Jewish partnership in advancing this cause, both for the sake of Israel and for the sake of world Jewry!
The survey results demonstrate the support of Israelis for American Jewish involvement in the struggle for religious freedom in Israel in general and for marriage freedom in particular. It is critical as a counterbalance to the political extortion of the Haredi parties, which is antithetical to the clear will of the people and to the core principles of democracy and civil society. As long as the Orthodox Rabbinic establishment controls marriage of all Jews in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the right of marriage in Israel, and the majority of children growing up in today’s American Jewish community would be ineligible to get married in Israel, should they wish to make their home there.
Since last week’s RRFEI bulletin [link], the flames of religious detraction against the Kotel agreement have been rising. This has been covered widely in the Anglo Jewish and international media; below, RRFEI provides you with the original Hebrew pronouncements of: the Chief Rabbinate, the Ashkenazi Council of [Great] Torah Sages [link], the Sephardic Council of [Wise] Torah Sages [link], Rabbi Shlomo Amar [link] (current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem), Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach [link] (a leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian posek), and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron[link] (former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel).
There is no doubt that both Shas’ and UTJ’s key political leaders were involved in the Kotel agreement process and gave it their (quiet) nods, even as it was stipulated that they would vote against it (knowing that their nays would be in the minority). They did not anticipate the extent to which the ultra-Orthodox media would drum up resistance and anger, nor that some key rabbinic leaders (particularly those with an axe to grind against the ultra-Orthodox political powers that be) would be stoking these flames.
For instance, In the case of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, while the Council of [Wise] Torah Sages continues to back Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri, their anti-Reform rhetoric is quite vitriolic. In the case of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Auerbach has been consistently opposed to the leading forces of Ashkenazi Haredi Judaism on IDF draft issues. In both cases, discontented rabbinic elements are riding the issues of the Western Wall and the Supreme Court’s ruling on mikva’ot under the guise of religious purism.
As we read these sources, let’s note the following:
Before consenting to this agreement, Rabbi Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, sought guidance from leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky who instructed him to turn to Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal. Nebenzhal instructed Rabinovitch to support the agreement so that non-Orthodox and liberal Orthodox prayer practices would have no place at the traditional Kotel plaza. However, Nebenzhal [link] did not expect the extent of the backlash, and is now buckling under the pressure. Short of retracting his opinion, he is saving face and making a half-turn, saying that the agreement should be sabotaged by finding a “better way.”
Following this, a meeting was supposed to take place yesterday, on Sunday, between PM Netanyahu, the Chief Rabbis, Minister Deri, Minister Shaked and some additional Haredi leaders. The meeting was postponed [link] after the harsh pronouncements against the agreement were issued over the last several days, with the understanding that the Chief Rabbis would attempt to propose an alternative approach to the agreement.
Additionally, a number of elements including a rabbinic group associated with the Chief Rabbinate have hired a senior attorney[link] who has presented a legal challenge to the validity of the agreement to the Attorney General. His claim is that the law requires that the Chief Rabbinate be consulted before the Minister of Religious Services institutes such regulations, according to the Law of Preserving the Holy Places of Israel.
Beyond this, in yet another classic clash of religion and state in Israel, Shas’s Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay [link]has declared that he will not sign the regulations, indicating that he’s not answering to the majority Government decision, but rather to the rabbis who control him. Sadly the fragile set-up of Israel’s rule of law breaks when it comes to fundamentalist religious functionaries.
Everyone expected that the Ashkenazi political leadership would voice strong objections to the Kotel agreement, but not that they would seriously consider leaving the coalition over these issues. However, recent statements indicate that the ante has been raised, and they have come under greater pressure from their rabbinic masters. Therefore, they have explicitly threatened to leave the coalition if the Government does not take tangible measures that assert that non-Orthodox Judaism will not gain any traction and recognition in Israel.
All of this leaves Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place. He meant well, but he now realizes that these dynamics may cause a greater challenge to the well-bring of his coalition than he had considered. He is clearly still acting on the logic and strategic direction that led him to accommodate the non-Orthodox American movements in the first place, namely appeasing these key forces in the American Jewish community critical for Israel’s strategic interests, but the political pressure he now faces is only intensifying.
Two weeks ago, the RRFEI bulletin [link] included an analysis of the Supreme Court landmark ruling on access for non-Orthodox converts to public mikva’ot, demonstrating that there is a lot more to this than first met the media’s eyes. We reported on the immediate, horrific backlash from ultra-Orthodox circles. The three religious parties (namely the Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home and the two ultra-Orthodox parties) have joined forces in submitting a legislative proposal that would undo the Supreme Court ruling. This is their attempt to grant absolute control of the publicly funded mikva’ot to the Chief Rabbinate.
As Hiddush has noted [link], this is yet another case of Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde syndrome, exemplifying the Jewish Home party’s head & Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett’s split personality. He goes out of his way to appear inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic outside of Israel, to you, our friends and colleagues in North America; but he has no problem swerving 180 degrees when it comes to our non-Orthodox colleagues, converts and movements in Israel.
An important, further development occurred in the last few days, as the Chief Rabbinate publicly turned to Israel’s religious councils that operate the public mikva’ot [link in Hebrew], instructing them not to abide by the Supreme Court ruling. What was self-evident to the Supreme Court, as Hiddush indicated in its analysis [link], namely:“the rabbinate is not authorized to establish a discriminatory policy” is not only not self-evident to the Chief Rabbinate (a state organ established by civil law and subject to the rule of law!), but it openly and rebelliously flaunts this! We have repeatedly suggested that the battle over religious freedom and equality is not merely a battle over religious diversity, but is -at the core- a battle over the rule of law and democracy. The Chief Rabbinate’s gall is but another compelling demonstration of the serious problem we face.
We would like to share with you another dimension of that very challenge; it so happens that this week the Israeli public radio commissioned a poll, which included the question “In a situation when Jewish religious edicts were in conflict with civil court rulings, which would you follow?” Looking at these graphs (above), we get a quantitative perspective of the extent of the challenge. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews respect the law, the ultra-Orthodox and most of the Zionist Orthodox indicate clearly that they would view the civil court’s rulings as merely advisory, not to be adhered to, in the case of such a clash. Obviously there would be instances in which all of us would maintain such a position. For instance, if, under unimaginable circumstances, the court ordered the public to violate the Sabbath or eat treif… But these are NOT the questions that come before the judicial bench. The mikva’ot case (as an example) involves state funded public mikva’ot, and their use by non-Orthodox converts does not make them impure, regardless of whether the Rabbinate likes it.
Last week, more than 500 posters were put up in Israel in the neighborhood of Meah Shearim and other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that include the following quotes:
“We are shamed. Disgrace has covered our faces. Strangers have come into My Temple, Beit Adonai. The cry of the great rabbis of our time is that the Western Wall is to be desecrated and trampled upon.” – header of this pashkvil
“It is inconceivable to allow the etching of Reform synagogue names in iron pen and letters of lead for them to receive Shem Olam that can never be erased. We shall not honor them within the gates of our Temple.” – Yabia Omer, responsa by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013)
“We must unite as an un-breachable wall against our arch enemies that want to enter the Reforms into all areas of religion.” – Yabia Omer, responsa by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013)
“The holiness of the wall extends its whole length, from its most southern corner to its most northern corner. It is inconceivable to divide the Kotel or the area adjacent to it.” – letter to the Prime Minister, from the Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem
“The Reform shall shatter us to splinters and split us into factions. An abomination, unwanted by all, it shall be burnt in fire and consumed outside our camp and not enter the Holiness.” – Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006)
“We need salvation in spirituality, especially now that the supreme court has intervened to allow the Reform into our land, and their essence is to take Jews and make them Goyim.” – Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager (1916-2012)
“The Reform movement intends to sink its claws in the Wall of Jerusalem…We must hurry and fight the Lord’s battle against this hemlock and wormwood movement that has brought the fall of many and taken a huge, deathly toll.” – Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006) quoting former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1961)
“This monster is worse than all the secular people we know. In their actions they bring chaos into the world and increase the power of Satan, God forbid…” – Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006) quoting former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1961)