Written by Rabbi Fishel Jacobs
The audacity. Really, that’s probably the right word. Audacity.
Let’s face it: it’s trendy to hate the Israeli rabbinate. Leading thinkers, heads of every major American Jewish organization (except Orthodox ones), act as if it’s open season.
One prong of this onslaught is that the rabbinate makes it disproportionally difficult and drawn out to approve conversions to Judaism. Another is that the rabbinate doesn’t recognize at all the authority of many Jewish chaplains from the diaspora. That alienates huge sections of the Jewish community there. Another claim is that the rabbinate actually charges money for the services the rabbis provide – e.g., processing marriage paperwork and issuing kashrut certificates for restaurants and hotels.
The list of complaints seems endless. It’s mind-boggling. Barely a day passes by when you don’t see a headline, an interview, an article emotionally and unapologetically bashing the Israeli rabbinate.
The reality is that the Israeli rabbinate, in all its branches – e.g., law enforcement (from whence this writer is retired), community, military, university chaplains, burial societies, mikvah-ladies, the list goes on and on – deserves a well-deserved tip of the hat.
On a daily basis, year in and year out, they exemplify what writing articles like this takes: courage to stand for unpopular beliefs which are besieged by popular attack.
By glaring contrast, the overriding custom has always been that American Jewish leadership avoids expressing opinions on all policies that involve internal Israeli decision-making or internal affairs.
The most ready example is AIPAC. Their perennial efforts to garner bipartisan congressional support for Israel are well known. That’s what they do.
Yet, concurrently, they support the so-called “two state” solution – even though that would be the only state in the world where a Jew could not live or even visit. It would be a state established to openly declare that it will continue to pursue its charter’s call for Israel’s destruction.
AIPAC supports this two-state goal because it is the organization’s policy, like other Jewish American groups, that AIPAC doesn’t “interfere in Israel’s internal workings or policies,” per se. That is the gist, according to this author’s understanding. The people at AIPAC encourage congressional support of Israel but don’t take stands on internal Israeli policy. (Though supporting a so-called two-state solution is in fact a stand.)
When it comes to the Israeli rabbinate, the rules change. Decorum is out the window; everybody and everyone knows better. Everyone is a “maven.”
And it’s open season on the worst enemy to world Jewry today. In fact, the vehemence toward the Israeli rabbinate often exceeds that toward our real enemies – those actively seeking to kill Israeli civilians.
We never see media pieces championing the Israeli rabbinate. Here we will suffice to touch on one or two points.
First, the empowerment, the very establishment, of the rabbinate branch is not a modern Israeli concept. It was, remarkably, the policy for centuries (!) throughout the enormous Ottoman Empire. The exact areas as are today under the Rabbinate jurisdiction – marriage, divorce, conversion, burial – were, for centuries, the domain of religious tribunals. That was the policy under the Islamic Ottoman Empire for Jews, Christians, and of course Muslims. These sensitive areas connected to family life were, by law, considered most appropriately decided by the religious authorities.
Under the British mandate in Palestine, that legal situation was intentionally preserved. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious courts.
When the modern state of Israel was established, through numerous political decisions – from Ben Gurion to legislation enacted by the Knesset, which is a democratic representative body – this centuries-old practice of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim decision-making was protected. In modern-day Israel, these courts and bodies are anchored in primary and secondary legislation – and, naturally, implemented by regulatory rules.
Religious courts, the rabbinate, Muslim and Druze courts, and ten recognized Christian communities is the law in Israel. It’s not the wild west here. It’s law, democratically established laws enacted by the representative body called the parliament. Primary, secondary, and regulatory.
For example, as a Major and the only American chaplain in the Israeli prison service, for thirteen years, I was empowered to oversee all religious activity in my maximum-security installation. Whenever one of my hundreds of Muslim inmates petitioned to marry while still finishing his sentence, it was my job to process the paperwork. I personally visited the local Islamic court and submitted paperwork with the “kadi,” the Islamic judge. That judge is a highly educated, certified, and well-paid Israeli government employee.
This system – that delegation of personal and family-oriented issues should be under the jurisdiction of properly screened, educated, and extremely regulated representatives of each religion – isn’t modern Israel’s concoction. Nor is it the diabolical tool of the Orthodox Jews to keep power. It was the wise policy for centuries of the Ottoman Empire, followed by the British empire, and then explicitly left untouched by Israeli politicians and democratically entrenched into primary and secondary legislation and regulation.
Second, the conversion process. In my role as the Chabad campus chaplain at Tel Aviv University for almost two decades, it was my privilege to escort many converts through that process. I officiated at many of their weddings. Not one of them ever complained about overbearing bureaucracy. They were sincere in their desire to embrace our tradition in their private lives. They worked hard; they were focused and determined.
There’s nothing wrong with working hard and being focused.
Converting is a life-changing event. Becoming a doctor is a life-changing event. Becoming a computer programmer is a life-changing move. Becoming a rabbi was a life-changing move.
The common denominator in all these is that everything real and worth going after in life takes time, effort, and determination.
Becoming Jewish is not different.
The rhetoric today that seeks to demonize the Israeli rabbinate as fighting to keep a strong hold on who can and who cannot become Jewish is a cop-out. Those community leaders who strain to stoke the flames of animosity against the Israeli rabbinate on this subject are doing a dire disservice to those sincere non-Jews who do wish to make this sensitive and personal move in their lives.
It is a disservice because it is a distraction. When it took this writer two years of failures and retries to pass the first test toward the Israeli rabbinate ordination, my family and confidants didn’t say, “They’re making it hard because of x, y, or z.” Fortunately, and responsibly, they did encourage me by saying, “If you really want it, study harder. It’s worth it!” Four years later, I became presumably the first American to achieve such an ordination.
It’s called hard work and will power.
Enough is enough: these constant attackers against the Israeli rabbinate, primarily (not entirely) in the diaspora. It’s really enough. Check your own deeds first. What are you doing to strengthen belief and observance in the Jewish tradition?
I am retired from my government chaplaincy positions. I do not represent anyone but my own ideas.
In my experience, the Israeli rabbinate does a critical job. Often without fanfare. And I respect all the workers for doing a hard and often unappreciated service. I recognize it’s unpopular, but that’s what I think.
Rabbi Fishel Jacobs served as a major in the Israeli Prison Service and Chabad campus chaplain at Tel Aviv University. He has authored numerous bestselling books on practical Talmudic law and speaks worldwide. (PowerRabbi.com.)