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Friday, July 12, 2013

Abolish the Chief Rabbinate or Reform it

Throughout Jewish history there has been constant theological dissent. The joke of two Jews, three opinions is no joke.   It is paradoxically, the source of our greatest creativity and of our fragmentation and discord.  The foundation of the power that missionary faiths possess has always been their ability to rally the troops around a central banner; to speak with a single commanding voice.  And to annihilate any opposition so that there was one narrative only, to present to outsiders.  While this hegemonic characteristic successfully built nations and empires it also became the source for wars of terrible ferocity, and always, the instrument for exploitation and persecution of dissident opinion and sects.

Religious Jewish unity, if it exists, exists only in myth.  The special advisers to various plenipotentiaries were created for one purpose, and that was to represent the Jewish community before the king or emperor.

During the British Mandate of Palestine the High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, in 1921 established the Orthodox Rabbinate.  Separate Ashkenazic and Sephardic Chief Rabbis were created to replace the religious leader in the Ottoman system.

David Ben Gurion and his secular colleagues did not believe the ultra-orthodox community would survive the existence of a modern, pluralistic Jewish State.  Their secular indifference to any religion was sufficient reason for them to leave all issues of personal status to the religious authorities of all the recognised confessional communities.   

Their intellectual cowardice was arguably their greatest failure. By outsourcing personal ethics to separate faith communities they created the foundations for national division and gave succour to all those people and groups whose rejection of the notion of Jewish independence was unfazed by history.  The millet system of the Ottoman Empire kept separate communities in their place even as it gave them the opportunity to govern themselves. It was always corrupt. The early leaders of the state lacked the vision to appreciate the damage to national cohesion their repudiation of responsibility for forging a national identity implanted in the social fabric of modern Israel.

Institutions can be both for profit and for society and while one does not preclude the other, institutions are usually imbued with social purpose.

The Chief Rabbinate does not represent nor has it ever represented the people of Israel. It represented a minute sub-set which was continuously looking over its collective shoulder for affirmation by the most extreme elements of a disjointed constituency.  The hostility of its pronouncements on issues affecting Israeli society inevitably placated no-one and alienated everyone.   Secular inertia and growing mutual disdain was the impetus behind the religious status quo.  Religious authorities were largely ignorant of secular society with little or no secular education.  Ambivalence towards Zionism contributed nothing towards reconciliation between people of diverse religious backgrounds.

Islamic radicals living in the West explain the generous funding they receive from their host state as proof that the contempt they hold for a demoralized and decadent Western society (as they perceive it) is God given and therefore justified. In the same way the Rabbinate in Israel showed its hatred for secular society.

It expected the state to fund a lifestyle that returned nothing but contempt to the taxpayers that supported them and by this means it alienated the majority of secular Jews from Judaism even as they expected all of us to genuflect before them.

One former Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, ‘branded non-religious education and the civil justice system as "corrupting, evil forces."  He decreed that any parent who sends his kids to secular schools is unfit to lead his congregation in prayer at the synagogue, even if he maintains a religious lifestyle.’ (Kobi Nahshoni, Ynet 21st August 2012)

He claimed that ‘most’ teachers were heretics and ‘most’ judges, evil.

The Chief Rabbis should guide the nation’s morals, provide direction in time of crisis and consolation when the nation grieves or is in pain. Instead, just one small example demonstrates the failure of this institution.   Following a tragedy in which a dozen school girls died in a terrible accident, one of the Chief Rabbis blamed the parents. 

The rabbinate is perceived as being a corrupt body that provides jobs for the boys. Its coercive power has not been diminished even when its ultra orthodox followers state that Judaism is theirs and no-one else’s.    Rabbi Eliezer Schach forbade his party from joining a coalition government because of the appointment of an ultra-secular politician as Education Minister (Shulamit Aloni in 1992).

When we engage with our adversaries we also humanize them. Democratic politics is concerned with the freedom to make mistakes. The quality of its success is dependent on its constructive adversity between alternative paths to the similar visions and different paths to unrelated visions.  It is what drives innovation and change. Reactionary institutions are terrified of any change that they cannot control.  To quote Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (“Occidentalism – a short history of anti Westernism”) …“Guardians of tradition, culture and faith see a conspiracy to destroy what is profound, authentic and spiritual”.

While attending a wedding, the current front-runner for one of the two posts of Chief Rabbi was physically assaulted by ultra-orthodox guests.  Rav David Stav is ‘modern orthodox,’ he served in the IDF as a combat solder.

Let us be clear.  Most Israelis are secular Jews but most secular Israelis want a rabbi to conduct their wedding ceremony. The Rabbinate is a malicious, corrupt and out of control bureaucracy, it is supposed to serve as a spiritual beacon to the people of Israel.  If it has failed the test of a state institution it is because its employees are employed by a state for which they have no respect.

It is odd that in the month of Av the ultra orthodox have performed a modern day version of desecrating the Temple by attacking Jews, praying at the Western Wall. Add to this, Haredi soldiers being mobbed by ultra-orthodox Jews for whom service in defense of the state is simply a waste of time and it becomes clear that the orthodox community is guided by power and not by ethics.

The contract between Israel and its citizens is broken. Ben Gurions' heirs are now reaping the consequences for his failure to bring all Israel’s minorities into the mainstream.

Guidance from the Chief Rabbinate has been political, not ethical. If the Institution is to continue to exist, its membership and not only its leaders must all be graduates of a secular education system, people who have lived and worked in a world of toil.  Only then can they have the character that previous incumbents have lacked – without love for all their fellow men (and women), and without grace they are no different to the narrow minded secular bigots that demand liberation from religious coercion. In fact they are much worse because in their public visibility they betray the essence of what is positive in leading a life of religion.

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