Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Rabbinate
The organization Tzohar is fighting for the right to perform its popular "alternative" weddings in Israel. A recent dispute with the Ministry of Religious Services was apparently resolved after a media war, frantic mediation, and a high-level Knesset meeting. Tzohar's victory lasted all of two days before the Chief Rabbinate decided to enforce a long-neglected and selectively applied regulation, again placing the future of Tzohar's program in jeopardy.
After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's 1996 assassination, Tzohar was founded by a group of relatively open-minded, idealistic Religious Zionist Orthodox rabbis to bridge the growing divide between Israel's religious and secular populations. ("Tzohar" is a Hebrew word for window; the organization's motto is "a window between two worlds.")
Soon after its founding, Tzohar began the Wedding Project. Because Israeli law does not recognize, or "register," civil marriages performed within the country, the only recognized marriages between Jews that can take place in Israel are marriages approved by the Chief Rabbinate. But Israeli law does recognize civil marriages performed abroad, so Israeli couples were going to Cyprus to marry in civil ceremonies. Tzohar saw the trend as a sign of alienation from the institutionalized rabbinic bureaucracy, and the Wedding Project was designed to address this alienation. It did not advocate the recognition of non-Orthodox ceremonies but merely established four operating guidelines. A Tzohar rabbi would not accept payment for performing a wedding. He would meet with the bride and groom beforehand. He would schedule just one wedding per day—and arrive on time. That these guidelines were considered innovative speaks volumes about the prevailing situation under the rabbinate.
With these few rules, Tzohar transformed a soulless encounter with officialdom into a positive encounter with Jewish tradition. The Wedding Project became Tzohar's calling card. Despite the sharp criticism implied by the Wedding Project and its threat to the "gray income" that rabbis got from performing marriages, the rabbinate did not interfere with Tzohar's operations—at first.
Things began to change in 2003 with the election of Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger and the achievement of ultra-Orthodox control of the Chief Rabbinate. Since then, the rabbinate has sought to enforce increasingly strict standards of Jewish law and keep non-official rabbis from providing religious services (and threatening the rabbinate's control of patronage). Tzohar has criticized the rabbinate for insisting on ultra-Orthodox standards, bureaucratizing religion, and driving people away from Judaism.
These tensions came to a head a few weeks ago. Under a loophole, an official municipal rabbi affiliated with Tzohar was deputizing other Tzohar rabbis to register weddings they perform around the country. The rabbinate, through the Ministry of Religious Services, closed the loophole. At that point, Tzohar shut down the Wedding Project and launched its media blitz, prophesying that thousands more Israelis would marry abroad in civil ceremonies, assimilate, and be lost to the Jewish people.
Why the alarm and doom-saying? The reason stems from Tzohar's view of the Chief Rabbinate. Tzohar's rank-and-file Religious Zionist rabbis see themselves as ideological and spiritual heirs of Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel's first Chief Rabbi, who played a central role in founding the Chief Rabbinate in 1921. Kook envisioned a rabbinate that would transcend politics, reach out to all Jews living in then-Palestine, and create a renaissance that was spiritual as well as national. Kook exhorted rabbis to "look for the positive in each faction" so as to "restore the honor of the rabbinate and expand its spiritual influence" over the "exhilarating national renaissance taking place in our day." Additionally, Kook's followers believe the instruments of Israel's sovereignty to be sacred inasmuch as they reflect the will of the Jewish people.
Yet even in 1921, when the community numbered just 75,000 Jews barely a generation away from traditional observance, Kook's vision was aspirational. Kook's successors continued to believe in an independent, apolitical rabbinate but were subject to the politics of the governing Labor Zionist coalition, including the National-Religious party. In 1960, Joseph B. Soloveitchik declined an invitation to be a candidate for Chief Rabbi, writing that "the Chief Rabbinate is really a government agency, so it is childish and naïve to think that the chief rabbi would be able to act independently."
Today, with Israel's current demographic challenges—including hundreds of thousands of citizens whose Jewish status is in question—and the intense pressures to end the Orthodox monopoly on matters of personal status, the implementation of Kook's vision seems even less likely. But Tzohar's rabbis, acknowledged even by their non-Orthodox critics to be sincere and idealistic (having briefly been a Tzohar fundraiser several years ago, I concur), continue to believe deeply in the importance of the rabbinate. Tzohar views the period before ultra-Orthodox control as a heyday in which the institution was beloved and apolitical, secular citizens happily submitted to the rabbinate's determinations, and chief rabbis were giants of Torah, sensitive to the needs of the people.
Ironically, the ultra-Orthodox have historically held the rabbinate in contempt and ascribed no religious significance to it; indeed, the current Ashkenazic chief rabbi, whose scholarly and spiritual credentials fall far short, to say the least, of his predecessors', was installed because of his professed allegiance to the ultra-Orthodox parties. Now that these parties control the rabbinate, they continue to view it as nothing more than the spoils of coalition politics, a place fit for political hacks. In treating it this way, they do grave harm to Judaism. But Tzohar watches helplessly, unwilling to advocate abolishing or privatizing the rabbinate or offering civil alternatives to it. Tzohar rabbis believe that if its rabbis were in power, they would be able to resist the temptations associated with controlling huge government budgets. They are convinced that a kinder, gentler rabbinate would prevent the development of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, but less obviously and violently. They think the problem lies with the people currently in power in the rabbinate, not the institution of the rabbinate itself.
For many Israelis, Tzohar is the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitter pill of dealing with the official rabbinate palatable. However, it seems clear that increasing numbers of them—including Orthodox Israelis—would prefer never to have to deal with it in the first place, even with Tzohar as a buffer: They would prefer, that is, to have the oppressive and despised rabbinate be removed altogether, whether because they do not share its values or its interpretations of Jewish law, or because they feel that moderns states should stay out of ecclesiastical business.
Yet Tzohar's rabbis, clinging to a nostalgic or imagined ideal of what the rabbinate might have been, refuse to address the sad reality of what it is. This is a group with the talent and stature to articulate a vision of what the Jewish state would look like without an official rabbinate. Instead, it spends its energy in a way that continues to enable its opponents, just so it can hold on to its pipe dream.
Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at adderabbi.blogspot.com. He has rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.