Who is a Rabbi?

June 6, 2008

This “On the Ground” report is going to describe an “underground” war that has been going on in Israel for quite some time. Since it is not a war of deadly weapons and actual bloodshed, it doesn’t get the proper headlines, but for us Israelis and for involved Diaspora Jewry, it needs to be defined as a real war. The nature of this battle is nothing less then to secure the future health of our society, the struggle to shape our public Jewish identity, the fight to determine “who is a Jew?” and, even more important: “who is a Rabbi?”

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot is not just when, according to tradition, we received our holy Torah, the Ten Commandments of our moral code; it is also the feast of the “Jews by choice,” the converted. Megilat Ruth (the book of Ruth), which we read on Shavuot, describes a very meaningful but friendly process in which Ruth the Moabite joined the Jewish people. Unfortunately, this ancient Jewish accommodating gate is now closed for hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who chose to come here and live with us in the Jewish state, wanting to be equal, but who are not halachically Jewish. In order to become so, most of them are willing to go through halachic orthodox conversion, but they should not have to become Haredi Ultra-Orthodox Jews if they don’t wish to, which is what the rabbinate requires.

Unfortunately, the State of Israel, its elected officials, and its religious establishment chose to unconditionally surrender to an ultra-Orthodox hegemony and a very extreme interpretation of the conversion process, which does not allow these converts to join the Jewish people at all. We, the silent majority on both sides of the ocean, were too silent with our protest and too busy with our other challenges, and we let it happen without really fighting back or even making a meaningful protest.

However, even though we lost one battle, the war is not over; it is an ongoing one. In order to win the entire campaign and shape Israel’s future for the better, we need to join forces and develop a coalition of all those who care. It is a rare opportunity for modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism, together with liberal Jewish streams and Diaspora communities, to work together for the sake of Klal Yisrael.

UJC MetroWest is the only North American Jewish Federation that is already taking an active leadership role in this struggle. Our community is knowledgeable enough, involved enough, and caring enough to take action, and we should all take pride in our leadership in this regard. In order to make some sense in the chaos of conversion, in order to educate and understand the ridiculous situation that we are facing, here is a list of some of the players, the soldiers of this struggle:

Rabbi Chaim Druckman: A mainstream, distinguished, Orthodox Rabbi. He was appointed by Prime Minister Sharon to head the special governmental authority for conversion, under the Prime Minister’s office. The main role of this authority was to find a proper, friendly, yet halachically accepted conversion process that will allow some 400,000 non-Jewish Israelis, mainly olim from the former Soviet Union, to become full Jews. Rabbi Druckman was committed to the cause but found it difficult to cope with political and religious pressures. The end result was that not very many converts went through this court and the problem was not solved. There was one success though, a special track for conversion within the IDF. Through this course, called Nativ, many youngsters were able to study Judaism and eventually convert with full support of the army and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

UJC MetroWest has financially supported Nativ for the last few years and is the only Jewish community to do it permanently. UJC MetroWest past president Murray Laulicht is a leading force behind the community’s involvement in this. Murray sits on the JAFI committee “Unity of the Jewish People,” which is the only forum that brings together the various streams in Judaism along with Israeli and Diaspora representatives to discuss and help resolve this complex issue. UJC’s Religious Pluralism committee, chaired by Ava Kleinman, is our community vehicle for taking an active role in the struggle for a better Israel. The committee, among other organizations, supports Panim, which is an umbrella for many organizations representing all streams of Judaism. Panim is now developing a public campaign to introduce a new approach to help resolve this situation.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar: The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. He is in charge of all the regular Batei Din, the religious courts. On one hand, Rabbi Amar is aware of the challenge of conversion and supports efforts to ease the process. On the other hand, he is unable to lead the moderate forces within Orthodoxy against extremists that come from the Ultra-Orthodox sects. This reflects the tragedy of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Unfortunately, it is not relevant anymore to almost any segment within the Israeli society and has slowly become Haredi and even non-Zionist oriented.

Rabbi Avraham Sherman: A Dayan (judge) in the high Beit Din (religious court) of Israel. Recently, while sitting as the head of the court, he led a ruling not to accept any more conversions performed by the “special courts” headed by Rabbi Druckman because they are not kosher enough. But this was only the first portion of that ruling; the main part was the demand, which is unheard of, to retroactively cancel all conversions of this track, going back 15 years, including the Nativ conversions that took place in the army. Just because of a dispute between Orthodox Rabbis, this will create a situation where thousands of people will have their Jewish faith taken away from them unilaterally.

Rabbi Seth Farber: An American-born modern Orthodox Rabbi and the head of the ITIM institute, which is helping Israelis find accommodating alternatives to Jewish life cycle events. Rabbi Farber organized an advertising campaign in the Israeli media, protesting against the ruling of the high rabbinical court.

UJC MetroWest was the first and only Diaspora community to join forces with this Israeli-based initiative in order to try and awaken the public. The ads read: “The Jewish people are being torn apart.” UJC MetroWest supports ITIM and various other modern Orthodox institutions on a regular basis, as well as Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated programs throughout the country.

Various organizations from Israel and North America joined this protest against the high rabbinical court. They included leading Orthodox groups like the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Tzohar Rabbis in Israel. The feeling is that perhaps the mainstream Zionists and modern Orthodoxy will join forces to disqualify the Ultra-Orthodox ruling.

In the meantime, the State of Israel took action, as well. However, in the opposite direction: Rather than condemning the extreme ruling and going with the more moderate forces, the Prime Minister’s office decided to fire Rabbi Druckman from his position, claiming that he is too old.

Rabbi Ada Zavidov: A female Reform Rabbi and the head of the rabbinical council of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. She spoke at the opening of the IMPJ annual convention last week. She told the crowd about her family. Her grandfather was Aba Achimeir, one of the main leaders of the pre-state Zionist right wing underground. Her father was the founder of one of the Zionist left wing Kibbutzim in the Negev. Rabbi Zavidov was complaining about the ridiculous fact that, in spite of her deep roots, her unconditional commitment to the Jewish state, and the proud history of her family, her choice of practicing her Judaism is not acceptable to the State of Israel and its religious establishment, while Ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist groups are getting full recognition here.

I don’t know if the above list of Rabbis makes it easier for the average reader to understand the extreme complexity of the religious and state relationships within the Jewish state. However, three outcomes from this crisis are clear to me:

  1. The line between the traditional camps, Orthodoxy on one hand and the rest of the Jewish world on the other, is almost not relevant anymore. We should help draw a new line between the people, movements, and organizations that care so much about the future Jewish and Israeli identity of the entire society and those who only care about their own sect.
  2. The line between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry is less relevant. We should all intervene in each other’s issues, because we can’t afford such division among us.
  3. The more pluralistic, open, and tolerant our collective Jewish identity is, the more of a chance there will be that we will have more committed Jews.

The leadership of UJC MetroWest is already acting accordingly. Let’s hope that others will follow, and together we will make a real difference to win this war. It is too important to ignore.

Drishat Shalom,



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