Is Israel’s Chief Rabbinate Following the Path of Korach?
Once again, Israel’s rabbinic court system is in the news — and once again it is for taking a stance that seems unnecessarily harsh.
An American woman who converted to Judaism under the supervision of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, one of New York’s most venerated orthodox rabbinic leaders, was told by the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court last week that her conversion was not acceptable.
Rabbi Lookstein, who recently received an honorary degree from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in recognition of “the influential role he has played in deepening Jewish values and heritage among American Jewry,” told the New York Times that the woman “is very meticulous about her religious observance [and] is as Jewish as I am, and as Jewish as the rabbis signed on the [conversion] certificate – except in the eyes of the Petah Tikva rabbinate.”
On Wednesday, as the Supreme Rabbinic Court considered the woman’s appeal, a demonstration took place outside the court building, attended and addressed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, who recently had his own tangle with Israel’s rabbinic establishment. Also in attendance was Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, the usually phlegmatic former ‘prisoner of conscience’ who has rarely if ever supports any kind of anti-establishment dispute involving Israel’s official bodies.
In this case, however, he was utterly unequivocal: “I came here as the head of the Jewish Agency . . . to fight for the strengthened connection between world Jewry and Israel,” he said, adding that the State of Israel must do everything to ensure that Diaspora Jewry feels connected to Israel, and casting aspersions on people like Rabbi Lookstein would certainly drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora.
Part of the reason this episode made international headlines is because in 2009, Rabbi Lookstein was the rabbi who supervised the conversion of Ivanka Trump before her marriage to Jared Kushner. That conversion certainly raised eyebrows, and notwithstanding Rabbi Lookstein’s overall unblemished reputation, it could be argued that the Petah Tikva rabbinate has every right to insist on standards that are stricter than those used in conversions overseen by Rabbi Lookstein and his New York colleagues. After all, as guardians of the faith in the largest and most vibrant center of Jewish life since Temple times, the Israeli rabbinate should surely not shy away from taking an unpopular stance if it believes that flexibility on its part could damage the long term survival of halachic Judaism.
Rabbinic Judaism, today referred to as Orthodox Judaism, developed out of the Pharisee sect that was one of the two dominant factions vying for supremacy during the late second Temple period. Josephus Flavius, a Pharisee who recorded Jewish history during the period before and after the Temple’s destruction, described the Pharisees as having had the full support of the ordinary folk. The opposing Sadducee sect was widely despised for insisting that Judaism was based on an ossified legal framework that clung to the literal word of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Although the Pharisees also insisted that their interpretation of Jewish Law was Mosaic in origin, through the use of a complex system of interpretative methodology along with carefully calibrated logical rules that ensured a deep commitment to tradition but which also took into account evolving circumstances, the Torah became the dynamic source for a religious system that embraced contemporary reality — remaining both relevant and enduring. It was this fusion of strict adherence to Jewish law and innovative flexibility that has allowed Orthodox Judaism to survive and thrive, and to remain the dynamic beating heart of Jewish life for the two thousand years since the Temple was destroyed, while the Sadducees completely disappeared together with their rigid system, confined to a late Second Temple time warp.
This week’s Torah portion records the story of Korach’s rebellion against his cousin Moshe. Assisted by a group of 250 malcontents, the story ends with his and their demise at the hand of God. The entire episode is widely interpreted as the first ever recorded popular revolution against a top-down leadership. The first impression of the opening verses seems to support this thesis; Korach was protesting against Moshe and his brother Ahron for dominating the leadership positions to the exclusion of everyone else: “for surely the entire congregation is holy – so why do you lord it over the congregation of God?” But this reading is utterly misleading, and in fact Korach’s motivations were neither equality, nor democracy.
Korach, like so many popular revolutionaries who followed him, used lofty ideals to mask his real motivation, which was to take control of the Jewish nation together with his band of handpicked “distinguished individuals” — as they are referred to in the text, so that together they could enforce a rule of law where everyone would be forced to match up to the highest standards. After all, they were all “kedoshim,” or would certainly have to be if they wanted to survive under his regime.
Korach was the ultimate fanatic, but his style of leadership was not the one desired by God, as was clearly demonstrated by His choice of Moshe and Ahron, who embodied tolerance and compassion, forbearance and consideration. Moshe and Ahron are the definitive leadership role models, as they understood that demanding perfection is an unworkable model. Time after time they prayed to God on behalf of the Jews when they erred, and always gave them the leeway that would allow them to survive into the next generation, and well beyond.
The insistence by the Israeli rabbinate that American rabbis such as Rabbi Lookstein, who embodies sincere orthodoxy while being as inclusive as possible, adhere to impossibly high standards means that they have moved away from the pharisaic model of our forebears, and from the example set by Moshe, and have instead drifted into Korach territory. And we know how that story ended.