Saturday, March 3, 2007

Chief Rabbi Menelaus

Alienation, assimilation, disenchantment and irrelevance are but a few of the adjectives used to describe this generations relationship with Judaism of the 21st century. Is it because our religion has become too sterile or too concerned with minute halachic application which has little or no significance to our lives? Perhaps it is because there is little regard for the ethical teachings of our prophets and rabbis with consequently little application of moral standards. Unfortunately, it isn’t difficult to note the lack of ethical standards in our organizations and institutions whether they be Rabbinic, professional fund raising, or social-political organizations. For the most part we should be able to cut them a little slack, because at the end of the day their intentions are good and they offer the community enrichment and sometimes spiritual enhancement. Regrettably this can’t be said of the institution of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate, at its inception was perceived as the state spiritual oracle that sought to transmit Jewish values to a people reborn and re-instated after the Shoah. It sought to give expression to the prophetic vision “that out of Zion will come forth Torah”. Less than 60 years after Rabbis Unterman and Kook gave meaning to the institution by which ethical Judaism could be transmitted to its citizens within and without its borders and make some theological sense out of our recent history, the office has been hijacked by a coterie of gangsters disguised in rabbinic garb. There are monumental issues confronting the Jews of the 21st century such as feelings of disenfranchisement in the secular community vis a vis the Jewish establishment; secular Israelis defining themselves as Israeli first and Jewish incidentally; assimilation of Israeli and Diaspora Jews; disaffection of Jews from around the world with the religious establishment in Israel; and the consistent lack of an ethical message from the portals of the Heichal Shlomo. Rather than deal with issues confronting the existential corpus of the Jewish people their real concern is the amalgamation of power under the guise of genuine concern for halachic standards as manifested, for example, by their obsession for formulating new standards which would limit and deligitimize conversions performed by many orthodox Rabbis.

The chief rabbinate no longer wishes to recognize those conversions performed by bona fide orthodox rabbis (and recognized by their respective communities) unless they are on an approved list authorized by the chief rabbinate. Those unfortunates who were converted by an orthodox Beit Din, but not approved by the Chief Rabbinate may not be recognizedas Jews in Israel. Ostensibly, the reasoning of the Chief Rabbinate is that they wish to create an international standard for conversions.

In truth, however, there is neither ethical justification nor logical grounds for redefining halachic standards. There is the Talmudic authority of Sevara, the use of common sense and its application for the greatest good and for creating as little ill will as possible. Sevara is a very powerful tool and as its basic principles are summarized here lends credence to the need for being mindful of an ethical approach when dealing with sensitive issues of Dinei Ishut:

Principles from a Sevara, sound common sense with accompanying logical reasoning have the validity of a biblical statement. TB Baba Kama 46b.
A Sevara may be so convincing that it may compel one to reinterpret the plain meaning of biblical text into a forced interpretation which gives meaning that it can hardly bear textually. TB Yevamot 11b & Tosefot.
A Sevara can show that in some instances the prevailing law in unacceptable. Raba’s clarification of the principle of “Ones Rahmana Patrei” is but one example. TB K’Tubot 2b-3a.

There have been many documented instances in Jewish Law setting precedence that you don’t necessarily follow the prevailing majority opinion if the Sevara indicates otherwise. Examples of this can be founf in TB Brahot 37a, Brahot 23b, Gittin 15a, Kedushin 59b and Shabbat 60b. Thus, if the Sevara of the minority opinion is logical and valid it may be accepted. Majority opinion isn’t based on logic but pragmatism. On this basis alone there is no reasonable argument for the Chief Rabbinate to behave in such a cavalier manner.

To buttress the ethical argument of the Sevara let us not forget the tefilah U’Venucha Yomar which the Chazan and Kehilla sing every Shabbat during the Musaf which underscores the compelling argument that above all else treat your fellow human being with pleasantness:

For I have given you a good teaching do not forsake my Torah. It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are are peace….

Take note of the fact that the text says “all its paths are peace”. There isn’t one path, there never was, nor will there ever be and so the Sages taught “eilu v’eilu devrei elohim chaim”. We need to recognize that there are different entry points into Judaism.If we apply these simple ethical standards to the issue at hand its clear that any conversion performed by an orthodox rabbi, regardless of any lists drawn up by the chief rabbinate should be recognized and welcomed. I’d go beyond that and submit that any conversions performed by any rabbinic court regardless of affiliation should be recognized if for no other reason than by the power of the Talmud.

Historically, Jewish law was viewed as an amorphous system that was clearly dynamic, organic and ever changing. Our oral tradition, upon which halacha was based wasn’t supposed to be reduced to writing, nor was it intended to be codified, but intended to be kept loosely defined in order to meet the needs of the differing communities throughout the ages. To prevent ossification of our tradition was the original intent of our sages. For example, conversion, as delineated in BT Yevamot 47a-b is comprised of only two elements: the candidate’s identification with destiny of the Jewish people and acceptance in principal of the “yoke of the commandments”. That standard was later modified and elaborated upon as a result of our laws becoming codified. Evidence of this is in the interpretation of the Rambam on this particular citation in Yevamot. The Rambam interpolated just a few words into the text of the Talmud. In Mishne Torah he added that the convert should be made acquainted with the principles of faith regarding the oneness of god and the prohibition against idolatry. This was never mentioned in the Talmud in connection with standards for conversion. As a matter of fact Alfasi, in his commentary on TBYevamot 45b believes that a court of three is only L’chatchila, but if a conversion already took place without a court it is still valid.

There is no need to establish an international standard. That standard exists already in ther form of the Shulchan Aruch, which every orthodox Rabbi must demonstrate a level of proficiency. The real motive of the chief rabbinate is the consolidation of power. This is a turf war, a power struggle, between the established politically corrupt orthodox rabbinate and the spiritually enlightened liberal rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate fears the mounting pressure and encroachment from the more liberal movements including Israel’s Supreme Court. The ethical concern of theirs ought to be an approach by which they can find a way of inclusion, a means by which Jews regardless of their affiliation or persuasion are welcome.

The ethical and moral standard of the Chief Rabbinate is probably at its lowest point in the history of the state. The institution of the Chief Rabbinate had tremendous potential for wielding spiritual and ethical standards, but their “spiritual capital” has been squandered by two unethical and incompetent men. Rabbi Metzger not only has been accused of forgery and extortion, but also of sexual abuse involving men and women. Rabbi Amar, although acquitted from charges involving violent behavior against his daughter’s suitor, charges were made against his wife and son. Amar was deeply concerned that the publication of the story would create a Hillul Hashem. Interestingly, he wasn’t concerned that the violence leveled at his daughter’s suitor (which placed him in a hospital) was a greater Hillul Hashem!

The standards of the Chief Rabbinate and their rise to power bring to mind the corruption of the high priests during the later period of the second temple as manifested by Menelaus. It is not surprising then that the alienation, disaffection and disenchantment are but a few of the adjectives that describe the condition of Judaism in the 21st century.