Rabbi Andrew Sacks directs the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, the organization of Masorti/Conservative rabbis.
The office of the Chief Rabbinate is established in law. The need for such an office is altogether another question.
Only the State and four cities are obligated under law to have a Chief Rabbi. Since there is no agreement as to who should hold the position – we have two; one Ashkenazi and one Sefardi. Except in Tel Aviv where the city council refused to allocate funds for two rabbis – so they have one.
Jerusalem has gone years without a Chief Rabbi. There is lack of agreement as to whether at least one of Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbis must be a Zionist.
All told there are thousands of employees “working” for the rabbinate and for the Ministry of Religions. Hundreds of millions of shekels are allocated.
Last week, for the first time, a decision was rendered that will require regional councils to employee non-Orthodox rabbis. This is an historic breakthrough in a country which, while not employing all Orthodox rabbis, has employed only Orthodox rabbis. As many as fifteen such positions for non-Orthodox rabbis may be filled.
The courts have yet to determine if municipalities shall also be obligated to hire non-Orthodox rabbis. It is difficult to now imagine a legal basis to prevent this.
Is there a need for State rabbis? I would suggest that there is not. The zealously Orthodox communities have their own rabbinic authorities (I do not like the term Ultra-Orthodox. Ultra usually means better. Ultra-Tide gets your clothes really clean). The secular Jews, by and large, have a strong distaste for the official rabbinate. So very few really need the services offered. They are, however, required to use the service when it comes to marriage.
Hiddush, and organization supporting religious pluralism has pointed out that the majority of Israelis support freedom of choice in marriage: 62% of the Jewish population support recognition of all forms of marriage, including Conservative, Reform and civil; 91% of the secular population supports this right. This stands in stark contrast to the existing situation in Israel where only Orthodox marriages can be legally performed for Jews, and civil marriage is not a legal option. 61% of the Jewish public supports equal recognition of conversions of all streams of Judaism.
The official position of the Masorti Movement calls for the privatization of the rabbinate. We would like to see an end to a government funded rabbinate which has resulted in the tragedy of too many Agunot, too few conversions, corrupt practices in the field of Kashrut, untold sums of money passed under the table, religious exemptions from the military, racist policies toward non-Jews, and vile descriptions of the non-Orthodox movements.
Yet we celebrated last week’s decision to have our rabbis become civil servants. How can this be?
The Masorti Movement has never called for the separation of religion and State. I know of virtually no Jewish citizens who oppose the extra costs paid by the State treasury for maintaining two kitchens, dairy and meat, on military bases. It is the separation of religion and politics which we so desire.
Where our rabbis have been involved (and this is so of many of my Reform colleagues as well) life has become more tolerable for many. Our involvement in Menucha Nechona has allowed the creation of alternative cemeteries where a person may be buried with dignity. Women may recite Kaddish at the graveside. A coffin may be used.
We have become involved in Hashgacha. We reject the exclusive understanding of Jewish law which prohibits non-Jews from being involved in certain aspects of the production of foods and wine.
Couples wishing to wed may opt for an egalitarian ceremony. Same sex couples may sanctify their relationships with ceremonies performed by our rabbis. Those wishing to convert may avoid a system that is non-responsive at best and humiliating at worst.
Our rabbis realize that a hospital chaplain must be present to provide spiritual guidance to those who are ill and to the families of those who are ill. The rabbi’s role is not simply to ensure a steady supply of Shabbat candles and that all electronic doors are made ready for Shabbat (not to dismiss these matters as unimportant).
With the introduction of non-Orthodox rabbis into the system, young girls and boys may now grow up to know that the rabbinate is not a bastion reserved only for men.
The courts in Israel have recognized our conversions (there are still some unsettled issues). The government has provided for at least four synagogue buildings. We await a court decision on our use of Mikvehs (we view the Mikveh as a public tax supported institution much as a public library). We await a decision on a variety of issues.
But the public is with us. The average so-called secular Israeli is not anti-tradition. But many have a bitter taste in the mouth as a result of the religious establishment.
The stranglehold of the religious establishment is to blame in some measure for turning off parts of Diaspora Jewry. It has created, in too many cases, a view that the rights of minorities need not be honored.
It is largely (although not exclusively) rabbis of the non-Orthodox streams that have spoken out against the violent outburst against the African migrants and the rhetoric of incite that our tradition abhors.
The voices of our Chief Rabbis have been virtually silent at this ugly show of racism. They have been silent as the lands of others are illegally appropriated. They have been silent as court rulings are ignored.
No better , the voices of the State rabbis have supported the channeling of funds into Yeshivot where the numbers of students are fictitiously bloated. They (again not all) are at the core of the demand to push women to the back of public buses. Hardly a day goes by without some new shocking statement or policy.
So, will the entry of fifteen Masorti and Reform rabbis into the system bring about change? Maybe it will. Those living in areas served by regional councils will now be able to call upon a rabbi who may be able to present Judaism in a light that draws a person close to tradition.
The door may now be opened for our rabbis to serve in cities and neighborhoods. Already we have had rabbis take the exam to serve as army rabbis (although they have not been accepted).
I would be happy to see religion and politics separated. I would give up these new rabbinic positions if a free marketplace of ideas were to exist. But that day is not yet upon us.
The funding for the new positions to be filled will not be channeled through the Ministry of Religions. The bottom line is that it is government funding. The head of the Ministry of Religions, as well as other prominent rabbis, have threatened to quit if the funding is directed through the Ministry. I say, “Gay Gezunt.!”