The Ministry of Religious Affairs or more accurately the Chief Rabbinate is back in the cross hairs once again. The Ministry of Religious Affairs did it once again by abolishing Tzohar as an option for couples seeking to marry in Israel by an orthodox rabbi other than the standard cleric who is nothing more than a ‘pakeed” with a black hat and tinted glasses. Eventually they were reinstated, but there is a lingering concern that this incident may repeat itself. Tzohar was founded by rabbis with a religious Zionist background sensitive to the religious polarization in Israel with an aim at outreach. They offer a full panoply of social and spiritual programs including pre marital counseling as well as performing the wedding ceremony. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, not able or willing to compete with rabbis who are actually educated and trained as clergy, ministering to the needs of the community and the individual, understood that unless they eradicate the competition they would be out of business. They can't compete against professionally trained and religiously committed rabbis other than by fiat. They no longer have a raison d’ etre and are virtually illegitimate.
Reading of this episode of Tzohar brought me back 27 years when my fiancé and I presented ourselves to the Rabbanut in order to register for a marriage license. It was a nightmare and ultimately it was the attitude of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which drove me over the brink, seeking a much easier, and more pleasant experience. The rabbi with whom we met was concerned solely with our pedigree and setting a marriage date based on my fiancé's menses. The atmosphere in that office was stultifying and oppressive with the distinct impression that we were intentionally humiliated. Rather than feel spiritually uplifted with the knowledge that we were going to marry and become another proverbial link in the magnificent Jewish chain, we felt deflated. Rather than feel optimistic about a future with the potential of creating a new generation we felt as though we need to rethink the entire enterprise.
Marrying in America by a rabbi, a personal friend who performed the service out of an act of love rather than, as part of his job description was what we needed and wanted. It was a breath of fresh air. No one was raking over our proud lineage, and no one was getting that personal with my fiancé’s reproductive cycle without first having developed a relationship with her, creating a comfort zone with and for her so that any questions asked weren't the result of prying, but because it was in the name of our revered tradition, laws and customs.
Our wedding, small and intimate as it was, composed of barely more than a minyan of men, family and a few dear friends was a truly spiritual moment in our lives, as it should be. After all our marriage wasn't intended to legalize k'dat Moshe v'yisrael a union, but to solemnize the union of two souls whose merger would create joy and fulfillment hopefully bringing forth offspring. When I recollect those moments and the feeling of satisfaction that I had with the decision to shrug off conventional wisdom and at the last minute run off to America to solemnize our love I am happy but also a little sad. Twenty seven years have passed since that monumental decision producing two wonderful Jewish adults, committed to their heritage as well as their moledet, and with so much change in our world there is one constant. The corrupted Ministry of Religious Affairs whose oversight is managed by a chief rabbinate as corrupt as the politicians who occupy Knesset seats.
While politicians are concerned with aggregating power and exercising influence for unholy motives rabbis ought to be free of that temptation. The only way to do avoid this trap is to remove the odious political thorn from their area of civic responsibility. Ironically, in this upcoming season of Chanukah when we retell the Hashmonayim story we need to recall more than just a contrived miracle or victorious battle but lost war. We need to note the break, the revolt of the Pharisees with the Hashmonayim and King Alexander Janneus (103-76 BCE) who wished to aggregate political power and merge it with the priesthood and the holy responsibilities of serving God in the Temple. The Pharisees knew that power corrupts and therefore insisted on separation of "church and state". The chief rabbis of Israel, by far, less wise than our ancestors, the Hashmonayim wouldn't dream of relinquishing political influence.
The chief rabbinate is, unfortunately myopic, suffering from the tunnel vision of those Hashmonayim who sought power, even at the spiritual expense of their wards as well as their own loss of spiritual innocence. In the end they lost: in spite of the fact that we light candles for eight days celebrating a hollow victory made meaningful with the artificial infusion of a miracle story. The chief rabbinate lost the war, the day they defined their power in terms of political aggrandizement instead of spiritual independence and authenticity. Our young people are running at every opportunity from their batei knesset, avoiding the rabbinic hacks and clerics, seeking alternative marriage ceremonies at every opportunity, starting their marriages and beginning their families with little spiritual direction and assistance from what could have otherwise been a spiritually blessed beginning of holy matrimony.