Pay attention to the Rabbinate: The heart of Israel’s existence


Anyone following politics in Israel over the past few months, and especially the campaigns for Knesset mandates, saw the true face of Israel’s complicated internal predicament. To those outside of Israel’s daily life, its story is one of existentialism because of an ever-looming threat from seemingly trigger-happy neighbors. And not just Hamas in the south and Hizbullah in the north. There also is the nuclear threat posed by Iran, and whether Syria will launch attacks on Israel as a way of giving its rebellious citizens a different outlet for their anger.

If we accept the current world view of events, Israel is a country mired in a muck of its own making: an unwillingness to come to a peaceful coexistence with the hundreds of millions Arabs living alongside and within missile-shot of the small state. This is an absurd view, of course, but that is for another column to address.

Whether Iran will have nuclear capabilities or just when Syria’s civil war will begin to become Israel’s problem, or what Hamas and Hizbullah may be up to are not, in fact, the biggest problems facing Israel. What is the biggest problem can be seen in the January election results. When properly analyzed, the results graphically demonstrate what really can stand in the way of Israel’s ability to continue striving forward, to continue innovating for the world, to continue being a beacon of democracy and freedom in a part of the globe that is becoming ever more unfriendly to western values.

Israel must deal with all of the security concerns unique to its situation, of course. It also must cope with the burdens that come from being the birthplace and focal point of the three major monotheistic religions. Like every other enlightened society, however, it also has to face all of the traditional mundane issues, such as education, food, water, jobs, taxes, traffic, smog, and garbage collection — and it is in the mundane realities of life that we find the issues that had the greatest impact in the last election.

One issue in particular looms large — what sometimes has been referred to as “the tyranny of the minority.” Because of Israel’s strangely constructed electoral system, which makes it almost impossible for any one party to ever get a clear majority, small parties with few seats wield enormous power.

The fact that the political parties that came in with the most support nationwide were ones that opposed what many see as the burdensome and selfish agendas of the religious right should not be a shock. Anyone living in Israel and working understands the financial burdens wrought by the mandated social responsibilities toward the ultra Orthodox communities who take from the state but oppose national service. They often advocate against the state itself, but nevertheless, they want to maintain a flow of public assistance to maintain their lifestyles without risking joining the outside world. The poverty rate in their communities is high, so the encumbrances are felt by the working class.

Whenever I write along these lines, I tend to attract the most criticism. It seems self reflection is the hardest characteristic for Jews to deal with. This is a more profound problem the more Orthodox one seems to be. Such people dig deep in their beliefs and see any deviation as an attempt to dilute the faith or practice.

In any case, unless Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu takes bold steps to create a coalition that excludes the religious parties, the tyranny of the minority will continue.

And that is why there is an even more important election to look at — an

election for the real heart of Israel, and the one that may truly determine whether it will be able to survive as a nation united.

In June, Israel will elect a new Ashkenazi chief rabbi. More than the politics of governing, the politics of the rabbinate and what it means to the Jewish state will set the tone for the real future of Israel. As it is, about half of the citizens of Israel feel that they are not really part of the country, and the way the current rabbanut sets rules, dictates law, and forms policy on marriage, divorce, kashrut regulation, and Jewish identity, all serve to either bring people closer, or push them farther away. For example, not much has been done, or some can argue that we have actually regressed, when it comes to defining “who is a Jew,” which more accurately in Israel must be called “who is a rabbi”; the rigidly right will accept only their own when it comes to conversions or even life-cycle issues, and the Knesset endows the rabbanut with such power.

For the past ten years now, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi has been Rabbi Yona Metzger, who has held firm against the modern Orthodox and the non-Orthodox Jewish streams.

That alone is fracturing the country as resentment grows over laws and rules no one but the religious right can live with comfortably.

The chief rabbinate, of course, must represent Jewish law, but it needs to also recognize that it represents a mix of people who make up the country, and that Jewish law is not black-and-white. There are halachically acceptable diverse opinions on all sorts of matters.

Sadly, the people who work for the country, fight for it, and contribute to its place as a global leader in innovation, science and technology, and medicine, are by and large dismissed by the rabbanut as irrelevant. Tolerance is important, but the chief rabbinate has little for anyone who may not look or act as its minions do.

Metzger has politicized his role as a means to control money, jobs, and even parliamentary legislation — and the public seems to have had enough. The kashrut situation is an example of this, where some of the most reputable eating establishments are now pushing back, refusing to cave in to the growing overwhelming demands that the rabbanut imposes for financial gain. Collectives of restaurant owners are now rebelling against the Jewish religious authorities who insist that they are the only ones who can certify restaurants as being in compliance with Jewish dietary laws — and who use such criteria for decertification as, for example, whether a restaurant hosts a New Year’s Eve party.

Many owners are now organizing and taking the rabbanut to court to challenge its special authority. The argument was that the system was once based on trust between the customer and the owner of the establishment, without the monopoly and without all the other commercial interests of the chief rabbinate — like the need to hand out jobs, many of which are paid kashrut inspector slots.

The last chief rabbi to seek unity and broadmindedness was Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, who stepped down in 1972. Since then, the rabbanut has grown more political and dominant than rabbinical and learned.

The question of “who is a Jew” is perhaps the most difficult situation now.

With the influx of new immigrants ever since the late 1970s, and especially several waves of Russian immigrants, new issues of who is a Jew arose. There also was the large scale immigration of Ethiopian Jews.

Many of these people were converted by rabbis — Orthodox and non-Orthodox, it matters not — of whom the rabbanut did not approve. These people came to Israel, had children there, and today literally many hundreds of thousands of people live as Jews, practice as Jews, serve in the military and support the country, yet the rabbanut seeks to invalidate their conversions and declare these people and their offspring as non-Jews. It is all done to satisfy the whims of some of the rigidly right religious parties, and to force new conversions through rabbis the rabbanut chooses, in order to demonstrate its power and extend its political patronage in order to maintain that power.

In June, the country will see a campaign that can get a nasty as any political race, but the people of Israel deserve a chief rabbi who is not only a true Zionist and believer in the cause of the Jewish state, which many under the auspices of the current rabbanut do not, but someone who can deliver tolerance and unity. Israel has so many enemies, yet the internal fractures created between the unyielding hardline right-winged groups and everyone else can do far more damage to the state that any outside influence.

Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, is a major contributing factor to the fall of the Second Temple and the eventual exile of the Jews from their land of Israel. The ultimate cause, the Talmud tells us, was a “tyranny of the minority,” with one extremist rabbi preventing action that could have averted disaster.

Without someone who can unify the people, create harmony among the streams and the secular, and acceptance of diversity as legitimate, Israel can easily extinguish itself.

A man named Rabbi Dovid Stav has put his name into the ring to become the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. He believes in Zionism, embraces tolerance, and wants to heal the fractures. He sees Israel as it should be, unified and strong, and his ideals are what is needed to bring Israel’s society truly into this 21st century.

This is the existential fight Israel’s citizens must win.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive at the New York PR firm, 5W Public Relations.