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October 25, 2013 4:59 pm

Put an End to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s Monopoly

avatar by Avi Weiss

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Chief Rabbi, David Lau. Photo: Wikipedia.

It’s painful to have one’s rabbinic credentials challenged by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. But that’s exactly what’s happened to me.

In truth, it’s much more hurtful to the many people I’ve been honored to serve over the years. In recent days, I have been informed that letters I’ve written attesting to the Jewishness and personal status of congregants have been rejected by the office of the Chief Rabbinate. I’m not the only Orthodox rabbi to have his letters rejected – there are others.

I have chosen to go public because the issue is not about me, it’s about a Chief Rabbinate whose power has gone to its head. As Israel’s appointed rabbinate, it is accountable to no one but itself. Nor could the Chief Rabbinate have denied letters from me or other rabbis without input from select rabbis here in America who, I believe, are whispering into the Chief Rabbinate’s ears. For me, they’ll whisper one thing, for another they will find some other reason to cast aspersions.

This is an intolerable situation. It not only undercuts the authority of local rabbis who are in the best position to attest to the religious identity of those living in their community, but wreaks havoc for constituents whom these rabbis serve.

Penning these harsh words about Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is not easy for me. I grew up in a home that venerated the Chief Rabbinate. After my parents made aliya, my father served as rabbi of Shikun Vatikin in the outskirts of Natanya, Israel. There he worked with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, then Chief Rabbi of Natanya who went on to become Israeli’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi. Over the years I’ve met with many chief rabbis. I found them individually to be not only learned, but caring.

But for some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Chief Rabbinate as an institution just doesn’t work. Built into the very fabric of the institution is the principle of kefiyah, rabbis overlording the citizenry, forcing their religious dictates down their throats.

Indeed, the Chief Rabbinate has become a subject of scorn amongst the grassroots public in Israel.

Spiritual striving and religious growth can only be nourished in a spirit of openness. For this reason, Israel as a State should give equal opportunities to the Conservative and Reform movements. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions. For that matter, civil weddings should also be recognized by the State. As in America, it should be left to the general public – if they wish, in consultation with their local rabbis – to decide whether to accept or reject these conversions and wedding ceremonies.

Such an open attitude is not only important for non-Orthodox Jewry, but for Orthodoxy as well. When Orthodoxy is presented as the only option, when it’s forced upon people, it turns people off. A spirit of openness will make Orthodoxy more attractive.

A related reason that the Chief Rabbinate does not work is that it involves centralization of rabbinic power, that is, rabbinic power left in the hands of a select few who dictate religious policy throughout the country.

When the Chief Rabbinate years back questioned American Orthodox conversions, an Orthodox rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) capitulated to the Chief Rabbinate, rather than challenge the Chief Rabbinate and say clearly that it had faith and trust in our rabbis. This imported Israel’s failed rabbinic centralized format to the U.S.

And so the RCA established a system where only a select, relatively few rabbis are permitted to sit on conversion courts, undermining the authority of local community rabbis and placing unnecessary stumbling blocks before serious potential converts. In a piece I co-authored five years ago, I strongly criticized this policy.  (“RCA deal hurts rabbis, converts,” JTA, March 10, 2008)

I predicted then that this would be but the first step towards further centralization. That it would not be long before a centralized rabbinic body fully usurped the authority of local rabbis, deciding which select few could marriages.

And soon only this body will be able to sign off on letters attesting to the Jewishness or the personal status of individuals from across the country. Is this the type of religious authority we want here in America?

The time has come for the government of Israel – its Prime Minister and Knesset – to pronounce in clear terms that the Chief Rabbinate will no longer have a monopoly on religious dictates of the State. This will present challenges. But these challenges pale in comparison to a coercive and centralized system that is vulnerable to abuse. As the motto goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It’s only in the spirit of openness that Israel as a Jewish democracy will thrive. It’s in that framework that Israel’s citizenry will be able to reach higher heights – spiritually and religiously.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. He is also a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. The opinions presented here are his alone.

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  • HaDaR


  • Brian R

    How can Rabbi Weiss be trusted to validate the legal status of a person, based on orthodox standards, when he is calling on Israel to end the orthodox monopoly on marriage and conversion?

  • Benjamin

    Rabbi Avi Weiss should be declared as the Chief International Rabbi to supercede those characters in Israel and small, narrow brains in America!!

  • Judaism believe end up in time as a scientists thought which conflict do exist calling it a flam – a flam must be accepted as state of matter. Therefore it will be always a conflict as example been slave of matter addicted to lust for power which is the power for pushing mans mind to the “Universal mind which has no form”. A good problem。 Mazal Tov.

  • A true rabbi does not show his picture in media, as time went and science wines, rabbis has difficulties to be rabbis, it becomes a business. By the way, four thousand years ago they were no Ashkenazi rabbis or Jews. We are all Sephardic Jews of roots. Do not forget it! Which are near by the sun road of Israel.

  • Sam Abady

    Jews did not create the Chief Rabbinate, the British did. The Mandate High Commissioner established the Orthodox Rabbinate comprised of the Rishon LeZion and later, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi.

    At the time, British masters regarded Jews like Indians and decided they needed chiefs.

    Avi Weiss is right. Israel is the Jewish state, not the Orthodox Jewish state, and its institutions must accommodate all Jews. It is time we shed the British definition of our community and expand the official rabbinate to reflect the diversity of the Jewish community.

    Otherwise, we continue the absurd status quo which drives nearly 20% of Israelis overseas to get married because “official” Judaism rejects them.

    • Efram Paul

      Thank you for that information. I did not know that.

  • Serge Roizman

    The solution is follow the lessons of the History of Judaism….


  • Wellwisher

    Mr. Weiss has been on a long journey to undermine Orthodox Judaism from within under the guise of “pluralism”, “social justice”, “gender equality” and other tricks from the standard liberal toolbox. This time his target is Chief Rabbinate because they don’t approve of his innovations. He’s got so much chutzpah it’s mind-boggling.

  • Dan

    I used to like Rabbi Weiss until he surfaced as the Reform mole in the Orthodox camp.

    • Shmuel

      Perhaps Rabbi Weiss has a superior understanding of ahavat yisrael, a Torah value honored only in the breach by haredim who regard non-haredi Jews as equivalent to gentiles, i.e., not part of the Jewish People.

      The metaphor you employ — a “mole” — reveals your disgraceful attitude towards fellow Jews. You imply they are the enemy seeking to undermine your camp.

  • Efram Paul

    I think this should be settled by a convention of orthodox Jewish scholars from around the world. There should be a pool of rabbis, orthodox only, who reorganize the chief rabbinate. Ultimately, the size of the body should be increased, and a term for the leaders prescribed. Voting, by competent orthodox Jews should decide the leadership. In keeping leadership fluid, and inclusive of all orthodox Jews, the concentration of power will be diluted.

    I think all Jews need to be recognized, and inclusiveness is the ultimate answer to keeping Judaism vibrant and, hopefully, bring Moshiach as soon as possible. Every Jew is important and valuable to Judaism. But the orthodox, both Sephardi and Ashkenazim, have been keepers of the flame of Judaism for four thousand years. In terms of all matters religious, the orthodox must be the arbiters. But that means ALL orthodox, not just a few self-perpetuating powerful rabbis. Absolute power does corrupt absolutely. I think history has proven this without exception. Even in Jewish history, where Kohan Gadolim were often more concerned with appeasing Rome than being holy men, it is demonstrable that a handful of powerful religious figures can lose sight of Judaism and become enamored of total authority.

    So, in my humble opinion, the chief rabbinate needs to be reformed, by competent orthodox Jews.

  • Fred

    Institutions that do not have to account are corrupt by definition. You are prey to their capriciousness. It is time to stop this otherwise it ends up a vicious structure that has no God but untrammelled, uncontrolled power. You have to view other religious structure that take advantage of the same situation, dictatorial & vicious. To many tears have been shed because of the Godless institution. Government must act.

  • Gerald Blume

    Dear rabbi Weiss.I’ve come to the conclusion that sadly you are no different than a secular Jew who plays guitars and sings Kumbaya Erev Shabbos..I agree the Rabbinate leaves much to be desired but what you have in common with the left is….they, the Rabbinate with Halacha , prevent you from doing what you want..ordaining woman Is something Halacha has a problem with..Sorry you can’t make your own rules..

  • Claude Idel

    The Chief Rabbinate is as jewish as the papacy.

    • pinchas baram

      I understand Rabbi Weiss’s grievance which led him to go public. If his statement, as an Orthodox rabbi with obvious credentials–that so and so is Jewish– is overruled and disregarded by the Chief Rabbinate, his chagrin is perfectly understandable. From first-hand experience I know that statements from Chabad rabbis and other Orthodox congregational rabbis have also been rejected. Similarly, we all know how painfully difficult the charedi rabbinical establishment in Israel behaves with respect to Israelis wishing to marry or Russians and Ethiopians who wish to convert. Yes, friends, power corrupts, and the state-employed rabbinical bureaucrats in Israel has proven to be not only corrupt but also self-righteous, rigid and bigoted. Of course they are in denial and see themselves as preserving the faith lest it be contaminated…

  • Scott Albers

    I see the complaints raised here as the rabbinical equivalent of the apartheid the Palestinians complain about. In effect your right to exist depends upon an appropriate level of “Jewishness” and over this you have no personal control. Welcome to the world you created.

  • Jamie Cohen

    I don’t see a problem with an ultimate rabbinical authority deciding on matters of conversion. Some people want to make it easy to convert, well.. It’s not supposed to be, and it wasn’t meant to be easy

    • Judy Darsky

      Read Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book on the great sage Hillel. Hillel, in fact, recommended making conversion to Judaism easier, not harder.

      • Lev

        Thank you!

  • If the government of Israel acts as your editorial suggested, and Israel achieves a true democracy, it will
    thrive not only in religious terms, but it will achieve
    greater respect throughout the free world.

    • Elliot J. Stamler

      My obligation as a Zionist is to support Israel as the Jewish State; it is NOT to support Israel as the orthodox Jewish state.

      • EG

        I like your take on it.

    • Gerald Blume

      When you stop any worrying what the “nations” think you will have arrived..Who cares what they think …they haven’t changed what they think I in two thousand years..and they never will.