Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable to visualize myself endorsing moves by the Knesset to dissolve the Chief Rabbinate. In the early years of the state, the Chief Rabbinate was one of the jewels in the crown of religious Zionism. It was headed by charismatic and respected Zionist personalities like Rabbi Shlomo Goren – learned men whose principal objective was to reinterpret and harmonize a halacha which had evolved in the context of the Diaspora to cope with the requirements of a modern, industrial Jewish state.
Regrettably, with the collapse of the National Religious Party, non-Zionist haredi parties filled the vacuum. While enjoying the benefits of Jewish statehood, they employed their political leverage to extort funds to subsidize institutions which deterred youngsters from serving in the army and denied them an education which would enable them to earn a living. They granted sinecures and jobs in the state rabbinical system to their followers.
In recent years, they also succeeded in hijacking the Chief Rabbinate (an institution which they had always held in contempt) by appointing puppets to implement the most stringent haredi interpretations of religious observance. This ignited numerous crises in many fields of society and polarized the already tense relationship between religious and nonobservant sectors of the nation.
BUT THE greatest damage inflicted on the nation by the eradication of a national Zionist vision within the rabbinical establishment is the devastating human suffering inflicted by the radically negative approach adopted toward conversion.
There is a national obligation to resolve the question of Israelis of Russian origin. The tragic repression inflicted on them for 70 years by the Bolsheviks led to high levels of intermarriage and the emergence of large numbers of people with Jewish antecedents but in terms of halacha could not be deemed Jewish. A substantial component of the Russian aliya fell into this category.
The sabra children of these olim attend Israeli schools, live side-by-side with halachic Jews and, unlike most haredim, serve with distinction in the army. Some 90,000 of them – many of them currently in the IDF – are ticking time bombs who, when they seek to get married, will discover that not being halachicly Jewish, they cannot be married within the state framework.
The negative implications of this situation for a nation under siege must not be underestimated.
It must be a national objective and part of the Zionist ethos for the state to facilitate, within the framework of halacha, the conversion of all olim willing to convert, especially those with patrilineal Jewish descent.
With radical haredim controlling the rabbinical establishment, the situation has become utterly untenable. Aside from the question of conversion, for many even pre-marriage registration procedures have become a nightmare, with rabbis demanding documents going back three generations to testify to being Jewish and dismissing those unable to provide such records.
Solutions for Ethiopian olim, who posed far more formidable halachic problems, were devised by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and today most are recognized as Jews.
The situation deteriorated further after the intervention of Rabbi Avraham Sherman of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, who began retroactively annulling conversions of those no longer observant – a concept unprecedented in halacha.
Even the traditionally more tolerant Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is being constantly pressured to rescind conversions carried out in the army under the auspices of venerated religious Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman.
Only recently, Amar was forced to retract a previous proclamation stating that the conversion process in the army is acceptable.
This followed a statement released in the name of centenarian haredi rabbinical leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv castigating the state conversion instrumentality which Amar had sanctioned. It was accompanied by the Ashkenazi haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman referring to the IDF’s “bogus” conversion industry.
Amar ran for cover and agreed to set up a committee to “investigate” the status of conversions, including the thousands carried out within the framework of the IDF-sponsored program. The report will be submitted to him in four months, pending which everything remains frozen.
For many, this represented the ultimate outrage, creating considerable concern and anguish for those currently undergoing conversion, and intensifying fear among existing converts that their conversions might someday no longer be recognized by the state.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), head of the Knesset Law Committee, who had initiated the legislation to facilitate conversions, was outraged and announced that he intended to introduce legislation to dismantle the Chief Rabbinate and provide state recognition for all conversions consummated by IDF rabbis.
If Rotem proceeds along this path, he deserves our support. Unless radical action is taken to bring about conversion reform, we are heading toward an inevitable social explosion. It is now a crucial national Zionist obligation to facilitate the conversion of those seeking to become halachicly Jewish.
It should be emphasized that this issue has no bearing on Reform and Conservative conversions in the US.
It is an Israeli crisis that can only be resolved by severing the stifling grip of the haredim on state religious institutions. We have no interest in interfering in the internal lives of haredim who may choose to live apart from us and marry exclusively among themselves. But they cannot be permitted to impose their values on the nation.
Today the Chief Rabbinate is controlled by those who are hostile to Zionism and hold it and the nation in contempt, merely exploiting it as a vehicle to impose their approach on the people and provide jobs for their own.
THE CURRENT situation warrants the substitution of the Chief Rabbinate by a religious Zionist infrastructure which has the capacity and will to unite the nation. We need rabbis who seek to resolve halachic problems with compassion and flexibility, rather than haredi appointees competing with one another to display ever-greater stringency. We require a rabbinate whose members have served in the army, not puppets of extremists who pose no less a threat to the nation than the Hebrew-speaking Canaanites or post-Zionists seeking to undermine the Jewish character of the state.
Regrettably, a sense of inferiority among religious Zionists makes many of them fearful of publicly challenging the haredim, and they are inclined to whisper behind closed doors instead of demanding changes. Now is the time for them and their rabbis to speak out.
This is an issue that Likud and Kadima could resolve overnight if they had the capacity to set aside short-term politics and break the stranglehold of the haredim on the political balance of power by collaborating on this issue.
We desperately need a system in which religious Zionist rabbis can operate without hindrance. The first step toward achieving this is by substituting or bypassing the Chief Rabbinate with an institution controlled by Zionist rabbis.
If we fail to resolve this issue soon, we will bequeath our children an intolerable crisis that could tear the nation asunder.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post
Click here to read a letter (in Hebrew) sent to Rabbi Amar last week by Benny Ish Shalom, the highly respected head of Bet Morasha which is engaged in the IDF halachic conversion efforts