Since Israel’s founding, the Orthodox movement has had a monopoly on the official practice of Judaism in the state. Gershom Gorenberg’s superb book The Unmaking of Israel goes into the way this came about and the problems with it in great detail, but the short summary is that the Orthodox chief rabbinate controls marriage, divorce, and conversion, giving it absolute power over who is considered a Jew and of the largest personal milestones in the Jewish life cycle. The monopoly that Orthodox Judaism has is so absolute that Israel does not even recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis as being rabbis, and instead categorizes them as community leaders. This would not matter in practice except for the fact that the state pays the salaries of Orthodox rabbis to provide religious services to municipalities and communities, and does not do so for non-Orthodox leaders as they are not recognized as having rabbinical authority.
In May, the Israeli government announced that it was going to correct this imbalance and begin recognizing Conservative and Reform rabbis and pay their salaries as well. The financing is slated to come from the Culture and Sports Ministry rather than the Religious Services Ministry, and the Conservative and Reform leaders are to be called “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” so as to effectively put an asterisk by their names, but this is undoubtedly an important progressive step nonetheless, especially given the fact that the majority of Israelis are not Orthodox and this in no way infringes upon Orthodox Judaism’s own practices and strictures that it sets up for itself.
Sadly predictably, however, there has been a huge backlash from Orthodox rabbis against the government’s plan. This week, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a letter to hundreds of Orthodox rabbis in which he called for them to fight the government’s plan and reimpose the absolute religious monopoly that he and his compatriots have enjoyed. He also made his pernicious views on non-Orthodox rabbis crystal clear, expressing his “sorrow and terrible pain” over the recognition of “uprooters and destroyers of Judaism who have already wrought horrible destruction upon the People of Israel in the Diaspora.” Rabbi Amar and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger have called a strategy meeting for Tuesday and declared rabbinical attendance to be mandatory, and no doubt both of them will have some more unpleasant words for those with whom they disagree. Israel now faces the specter of one arm of the state – the Chief Rabbinate, which is an official state office – actively working to subvert the government and the High Court, and having its chief rabbis openly call for the attorney-general to consult with them before issuing legal directives. This is, of course, completely outrageous, particularly since the decision to recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis does not affect the Orthodox in any meaningful way other than diluting their political power and hold over the 70% of Israeli Jews who are not Orthodox, and the Chief Rabbinate is marshaling all of its resources in an effort to maintain rank state discrimination in an area in which the state should not be choosing sides. All of this is a sad consequence of the religious monopoly that Orthodoxy was granted at the state’s founding, since over decades this monopoly over religious ceremony has been internalized in a way that has led many Orthodox rabbis in Israel to believe that no other branch of Judaism is even legitimate.
One of my closest friends and college roommate, Ephraim Pelcovits, is the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in New York. Ephraim is an astoundingly deep thinker on all issues under the sun but particularly on the role of religion in Israel and Jewish communal issues more broadly. Over too many hours-long conversations throughout the past 15 years to even count, he has been a major influence on my thinking on Israel, Israeli politics, and Judaism. Since this appears to be guest posting week on O&Z, and since he is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic having grown up in the Orthodox community in the U.S. and spent a year of his rabbinical training in Israel, I present to you Ephraim’s thoughts on Rabbi Amar:
This Saturday, Jews all over the world will read the Bible portion dealing with the rebellion against Moses’ leadership, led by a party so uninterested in dialogue or reconciliation that it was designated as “evil” by God for its constancy in conflict, and was later held up by the Jewish tradition as the paradigm of senseless infighting.
Earlier this week – just as world Jewry was about to get its annual reminder about the dangers of senseless conflict – Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, decided to designate me – and all my colleagues in the liberal rabbinate– with that same moniker in a letter he distributed on his official government stationary. We – Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Rabbis – were disparaged as “…enemies of God, wicked people who are like the turbulent sea that cannot be quieted, their entire aim being to do harm to the sanctity and purity of the Torah in our Holy Land…”
The cause of this vituperative rant? A decision by the Attorney General of Israel’s Office to begin paying the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis who serve in Regional Councils or in Agricultural Settlements, just as it has always done for their Orthodox counterparts.
Obviously it is inappropriate for a State employee – like Rabbi Amar – to use the trappings of his office to lobby for a personal initiative – in this case the overturning of a new State Law which begins to allow for religious pluralism in Israel. Yet what really terrified me as a religious leader was reading the fierce and dehumanizing tone of his letter, including the highly incendiary language Amar uses to describe the non-Orthodox movements and their leadership.
For the rabbis of the classical period, God’s designation of the rebels against Moses as evil opens a broader discussion of other villains marked with the same moniker, a list which includes those who seeks to do physical harm to their peers as well as those who borrow money and refuse to repay their loans.
It seems to me that Rabbi Amar misses the entire point of the classical rabbinic teaching on this week’s Torah portion. What I believe the ancient rabbis were teaching by connecting the ills of physical violence and shirking loans with the theme of provoking conflict is that all three will lead to the crumbling of society.
Let me explain that connection. In a culture like that of Traditional Judaism, which forbids interest paying loans between community members, the presence of even one shirking borrower threatens the ability of all those in need from receiving money from their more fortunate brethren. The resulting freezing of credit parallels the power of the violent and of the provocateur to rip apart a tight knit community. All of these actions – which tear tenuous human connections apart – are designated as evil.
This Saturday, in my synagogue, we’ll take a stand for community and join together with our brethren the world over to hear the traditional narrative read from them Bible. When we finish hearing the story of a rabble rouser from Biblical history, I will tell my congregants about a contemporary thug – Rabbi Shlomo Amar – who is using his government office and it’s powers to tear our people apart, and to label us – members of a Conservative Synagogue – as “uprooters of the faith.” I will then encourage those in attendance to take a stand against incendiary speech, and to make connections and open dialogue with people – Jews and non-Jews – who live religious lives that look different than ours. Israeli society and democracy is too precious – and too precariously held together – for Rabbi Amar’s fear driven brand of Judaism to hold a monopoly on Israeli religious expression!