Thursday, May 29, 2008

Runaway rabbis

This month brought two more reasons - if any were needed - to bolster the case for disbanding Israel's established "church" and its ultra-Orthodox curia.

The first was the ruling by a panel of High Rabbinical Court judges upholding an earlier decision by the Ashdod rabbinical court that retroactively annulled a 15-year-old conversion to Judaism by Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Conversion Authority.

The ramifications of this hard-hearted decision are immense. Not only has the Jewish legal status of the woman involved (and her four children) been annulled, the genuineness of thousands of other conversions under Druckman's authority has been willfully cast into doubt. The ruling could also raise doubts about conversions conducted abroad by non-haredi Orthodox rabbis.

The reason for these rulings is straightforward: Orthodoxy of all stripes demands that Jews-by-choice accept the "yoke of the Torah" - meaning an Orthodox lifestyle. The woman in question purportedly failed that test and, for the haredi rabbinate there are no mitigating circumstances.

Reason number two was the suspiciously coincidental decision by the Prime Minister's Office to dismiss Druckman from his post because of his age - 75 - and administrative "shortcomings." It may be that the busy rabbi (who until 2003 was also an MK) is not God's gift to office management, but the timing of his dismissal - coming in the wake of a blistering personal and theological attack by the rabbinate's Rabbi Avraham Sherman - reinforces the perception that Ehud Olmert, like his predecessors, is politically incapable of reining in a runaway rabbinate.

DRUCKMAN is a leader of Orthodoxy's national religious camp. But unlike the non-Zionist, haredi-dominated rabbinate, his community feels obligated to bring as many Israelis as possible into the Jewish fold. Its conversion candidates tend to be people who have demonstrated a filial relationship to the Jewish people and do indeed commit themselves to a religious way of life.

The government established the Conversion Authority in 1995 as an Orthodox "work-around" in face of the rabbinate's deliberate sluggishness in processing conversion applications. But no temporary fix is feasible. The rabbinate cannot be circumvented because its ultra-Orthodox rabbis register most marriages, oversee most divorces and can block most conversions at will.

It is hard to think of any redeeming qualities of this anachronistic establishment that would make retaining it worthwhile. Neither Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar nor Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger provides much spiritual succor to the Israelis who pay their salaries. And because one of the paradoxes of Orthodox life is that one can never be "religious enough," these chiefs do not even have the allegiance of the rabbis who nominally report to them. The municipal clerics of Ashdod, Petah Tikva and Rehovot, for instance, do not recognize the legitimacy of non-haredi conversions approved by Amar and Metzger.

This is an institution that cannot be reformed. It must go.

THERE IS nothing intrinsically wrong with rabbis disagreeing among themselves. On the contrary, rabbinic Judaism evolved on the basis of argument and disputation, with the most convincing view usually emerging victorious.

Doctrinal evolution has always been an essential element of Jewish civilization. Today's rabbinate, however, brooks no dissent. With Orthodoxy generally growing ever more "ultra" - not just in Israel, but also in Britain, Europe and the US - the prospect of permanently entrusting key life-cycle events, let alone the very definition of Judaism, to these marginal, yet dominant holy men becomes ever more alarming.

To be fair, the desire of the ultra-Orthodox (along with their national religious competition) to define and direct the course of Judaism isn't exclusively fueled by money and patronage - although it's about that, too. The Orthodox stream, which comprises a minority of Jews worldwide and perhaps 19 percent of Israelis, is convinced that the future of "authentic Judaism" is in its hands. So even if the rabbinate were in the hands of Orthodox modernizers, the institution would still see itself as God's oracle imposing its definition of Divine will upon the rest of us.

Orthodox Judaism has many qualities to recommend it, but the 60-year-old experiment in which the state entrusted its functionaries with control over our personal and spiritual lives has failed.

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