Regime Change, Realpolitik And The Rabbanut


An Opinion column by Steven Bayme and Dov Zakheim (“Not a Proud Moment for the RCA in Dealing with the Chief Rabbinate”, Feb. 7) takes frequent and explicit issue with my Jan. 21 column (“Does the US Now have a Chief Rabbinate?” Jan. 24), and left me with mixed feelings. While it is quite flattering when two distinguished and long-serving American Jewish leaders take note of one’s writing, my views on the Rabbanut [Israeli Chief Rabbinate] and its relationship with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) were misrepresented. While I am a member of the RCA and have rabbinical ordination from the Rabbanut, I speak for neither and have been publicly and openly critical of both, and especially the Rabbanut, since 2006 at the latest.

It is even somewhat ironic that I, a freelancer working from home in Israel, am identified with the establishment, while those in attendance at the SAR Academy dinner are identified with the “grass roots.”

I am actually in general agreement with the authors’ view of the Rabbanut, though with certain reservations. I applaud the AJC’s new initiative to create a coalition to end the Rabbanut’s exclusive control over certain facets of life in Israel. Many wonderful organizations and individuals have done some great groundwork in this regard, and I hope that all of the various ideas and proposals are brought to light during this process.

Nevertheless, like any attempt at “regime change,” directly challenging the Rabbanut entails potential pitfalls and has no guarantee of success (Dov Zakheim literally wrote the book on this subject based on the U.S. experiences in Afghanistan). The battle to end the Rabbanut’s exclusive control over Jewish religion in Israel will be a long one. Though some major victories – implementation of a civil marriage option, for example – may come soon, it will, and should, take decades to judiciously disentangle religion and state in Israel.

It is with this in mind that I disagree with the authors’ assessment of how the RCA handled the recent controversy. It is perfectly understandable that an organization would adopt a “realpolitik” approach for reasons other than cowardice. Why jeopardize a relationship with a powerful century-old body that may yet survive for another century? Perhaps, when the dust settles, we will all be thankful that at least one organization did not burn its bridges with the Rabbanut. Thus, although I support regime-change, I believe the RCA takes the correct approach given its circumstances.

As to some of the authors’ other contentions:

Firstly, I do not “celebrate” the RCA gaining greater power. I merely observe that this is the case – an observation with which the authors concede they are "forced to agree."

Secondly, the RCA did not “stand by silently” as the Rabbanut “systematically discriminated against” Rabbi Avi Weiss and others. The RCA was actually engaged in discussions with the Rabbanut from the beginning. I was in attendance at the Knesset in November when the RCA and several MKs discussed the issue in an open forum. Throughout, the RCA’s realpolitik approach was to lobby the Rabbanut to accept its members, and that goal seems to have been reached – to the benefit of Rabbi Weiss, other RCA members, and their congregants. Regarding what various members wrote on blogs and Jewish news sites, I have demonstrated that the RCA’s “neutral” statement was in fact a plea to stop treating an essentially bureaucratic issue as a litmus test for recognition as an Orthodox rabbi. The RCA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch vouched for Rabbi Weiss’s reliability to attest to someone’s Jewishness, ideological disagreements notwithstanding.

I agree with the authors’ initial contention that the Rabbanut’s actions are “senseless and arbitrary,” not systematic. The initial decision about Rabbi Weiss seems to have been based on an ad-hoc decision based on the opinion of some anonymous rabbinic acquaintance of the new chief rabbis – apparently an officer of the RCA, but who was not acting in that capacity and, to my knowledge, remains unknown. All agree that this state of affairs is intolerable, which is why the RCA and Israeli organizations ITIM and Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avoda have proposed solutions. Each solution has its strong points and drawbacks, but each organization should be commended for attempting to impose some order on an arbitrary and capricious state of affairs.

Thirdly, the narrative about the Rabbanut that has been adopted by the authors and numerous others is that the Rabbanut must be reformed because it is becoming increasingly haredi. It is no accident that the current crescendo of anti-Rabbanut sentiment came on the heels of the election of chief rabbis backed by haredi parties and the defeat of Rabbi David Stav, considered the more open-minded of the Religious Zionist candidates.

However, this narrative is doubly flawed. On one hand, control of the Rabbanut by haredi parties is but one symptom of structural flaws that would obtain even if Rabbi Stav had been elected. On the other hand, the new chief rabbis have moved the needle back toward moderation. To list just a few examples from the past few weeks, they have taken concrete measures to intensify sanctions against recalcitrant husbands, appoint rabbinical court judges willing to take action against recalcitrant husbands, appoint women as kashrut supervisors, improve the overall efficiency and transparency of a flagging kashrut system, instruct mikvah attendants not to interrogate their clients, and implement an interpretation of the laws of shemitta (the upcoming Sabbatical year) that takes farmers and the average consumer into consideration. Moreover, the current Knesset is drafting and passing laws to limit, decentralize, or take away the Rabbanut’s authority over various realms.

Finally, the authors interpret RCA deference to the Rabbanut as Modern Orthodoxy kowtowing to its haredi detractors instead of “recaptur[ing] its distinctive and independent voice.” Yet it is unrealistic to expect an association with as broad and diverse a membership as the RCA to articulate a unified vision of Modern Orthodoxy. That task is left to numerous capable individuals and institutions. Moreover, an ostensibly Modern Orthodox RCA working with an ostensibly haredi Rabbanut is no more inconsistent than working with any other arm of the Israeli government.

It’s called realpolitik.

Elli Fischer, writing from Israel, is a regular contributor to The Jewish Week.