Friday, August 10, 2018

A Disgraceful Attack on the Chief Rabbinate

People seek fame and recognition by many means -- some make positive contributions while others seek to tear others down.  

Seth Farber belongs in the latter category.  His goal is to be the “enlightened” voice of Orthodoxy, and his modus operandi is to tear down the legitimacy of existing Orthodox institutions, particularly the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. 

In a particularly egregious example, Farber last week caused a huge Chilul Hashem by slandering the Chief Rabbinate in the New York Times, with his essay Fighting for Judaism in the Jewish State.  He succeeded in giving its large readership of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews a maliciously false and negative impression of that institution, in order to further his personal agenda.

After stating “valiantly” that “I am an Orthodox Rabbi dedicating my life to breaking the Ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life in Israel”, Farber set out a laundry list of complaints and talking points that actually have little to do with (a) the Chief Rabbinate or (b) the so-called Ultra-Orthodox. 

Briefly, his complaints are the following:

  • 1) A conservative rabbi was questioned in the early morning by the police because he was trying to perform a marriage.   The truth is that:
  • The reason he was being questioned was not that he is a non-orthodox rabbi -- standard policy for a long time has been to not enforce this law and many non-Rabbanut rabbis have performed marriages in Israel, and
  • The main reason that he was being questioned is that he was about to perform a marriage of someone who was considered a “mamzer”, which would result in severe future consequences in Israel, and
  • It is standard practice that police arrive to pick people up for questioning early in the morning: this had nothing to to do with the Rabbinate.

  • 2) The new Nation-State law makes some people (Arabs and other non-Jews) feel second class in Israel.

    Aside from the fact that the law says nothing of the kind, only affirming that Israel is a firmly a Jewish State, this has nothing to do with the Chief Rabbinate, but rather is the brainchild of various groups on the right, including many Religious Zionists.  It certainly has nothing to do with the Ultra-Orthodox, who may have voted for it but did not sponsor nor promote it.

  • 3) Gay couples are not allowed to have a child using a surrogate. 

    Again, there are many reasons that reasonable people might conclude that a child should have a mother and a father - the surrogacy Law was rejected by the Knesset on the recommendation of a committee of experts it had formed - mostly secular. Again, this has nothing to do with religious coercion or the Chief Rabbinate or the Ultra-Orthodox

  • 4) A “new” law would give the Chief Rabbinate “unprecedented power” over conversions. 

    Again, the “Who is a Jew” question is an old one, and there is nothing really new happening, other than that the Orthodox population in trying to maintain the status quo that has existed since the founding of the State, in which conversions must be Halachically acceptable to be valid.

And so on and so forth.

The truth is that the Chief Rabbinate is valiantly trying to hold the line so that Israel does not fall into the huge problems that exist in the rest of the Jewish world, in which the very Jewishness and personal identity of people who consider themselves Jewish must be questioned.   When I was a Rabbi in a West Coast city, a young woman named Shaina Schwartz (similar name - slightly changed) asked me to perform her wedding.  It turns out that although her father is Jewish her mother had a reform conversion, and thus she is not Halachically Jewish. Her sister, Fruma, was born from a mother who married her father after not having a proper get, and was therefore possibly a mamzeret.   That is, according to the Orthodox.  However, in the reform temple wherein they had their Bat mitzvah they were considered fully Jewish eligible to marry other Jews because of their doctrine of patrilineal descent and the acceptance of civil divorce as halachically sufficient.

The Chief Rabbinate is determined to keep problems like this out of Israel.   The supposedly “Orthodox Rabbi” Seth Farber is determined to oppose that -- by smearing the Chief Rabbinate and the “Ultra-Orthodox”.

The truth is that the Chief Rabbinate, despite Seth Farber's calumnies, is NOT an “Ultra-Orthodox” institution.  Very few Chareidim rely on the Rabbanut Hechsher on food, they prefer their own Hashgachot.  Very few, if any, Chareidim look to the Rabbanut or the Chief Rabbis for Psak Halacha or spiritual guidance; in fact, in the more extreme Ultra-Orthodox circles, the Chief Rabbinate is unfortunately vilified even worse than by Farber for being too Zionist and too lenient.  While many of the employees of the Chief Rabbinate are Chareidi, this is mainly because the most qualified candidates tend to come from those circles (although there really ought to be more Religious Zionist employees as well).  In short - the Chief Rabbinate is far from being an Ultra-Orthodox institution.

I am fully aware that the Chief Rabbinate does have its warts, and deserves some criticism.  The fact that a former Chief Rabbi is sitting in jail for corruption is a huge and awful Chillul Hashem. Furthermore, there have been far too many reports of people being treated poorly by the bureaucratic hacks who work there.  And there is too much job patronage going on, where it is difficult for someone without "protektzia" to find a position within it.

Nevertheless, most “Ultra-Orthodox” would agree that the Chief Rabbinate plays a vital role in maintaining at least minimum standards, so that the Jewish State can remain a place where Jews of all types can function.  They ensure that – at least – the lowest level of Kashrut is maintained in the food industry. (This is the reason that those who truly are concerned about Kashrut want a more stringent hechsher).  They ensure that situations like the Schwartz family (described above) do not happen in Israel. And they ensure that those who wish to join the Jewish people through conversion undertake at least a minimally serious commitment to observe Halacha.

Why does the Chief Rabbinate (thankfully) have this power?  It is a vestige of the pre-state Turkish law norms that prevailed even before the Mandate that placed personal status matters are in the hands of the religious authority.   Similar to the rules in many European countries, every person was assigned a religious authority that they would adhere to. Thus in Israel today, marriages between Muslims are handled by the Waqf, between Christians by the Church, and between Jews by the Chief Rabbinate.   This was not a power grab by the Chief Rabbinate -- it is just a continuation of the status quo.   

And Orthodox Jews, particularly Orthodox Rabbis, ought to get down on their knees and be grateful for this status quo, as this ensures the proper continuity of at least minimal standards in matters of personal status.  The standards that the Chief Rabbinate strives mightily to uphold – despite fierce opposition – is not for the sake of the Orthodox; the Orthodox will uphold standards for themselves with or without the Chief Rabbinate.  The Chief Rabbinate is upholding these standards for Klal Yisrael, for the multitudes of Jews of all types, so that at least minimal standards of Kashrut, personal status, conversion etc are upheld by the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, the Farbers of the world are trying to break down this authority by pandering to the emotions of people who are unaware of the true issues and of the lies that they are being fed.  Farber claims to be an “Orthodox Rabbi”; he, in fact, is advocating for the acceptance of reform and conservative Judaism.  Farber claims to be fighting the “Ultra-Orthodox”; in fact, he is attacking all of Torah true Orthodox Jews, right left, and center, including Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist,  all of whom are opposed to his agenda.  (Note:  Farber represents only the “Open Orthodox”, which in many ways, as evidenced here, has placed itself outside the Orthodox camp - See here for a recent important article on the subject.).

We in the Orthodox camp - of all stripes - need to counter this falsehood and support the efforts of the Chief Rabbinate, and of the very worthy current Chief Rabbis.

Note: A slightly edited version of this essay appeared in the Jewish Press

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