Dissolve the scandal ridden Chief Rabbinate now…writes Isi Leibler

June 1, 2015 by Isi Leibler
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The despicable effort by the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate to purge Rabbi Shlomo Riskin because he does not conform to their stringent halachic approach may prove to be a blessing in disguise.

The anger this outrageous initiative generated could be the final straw needed to dissolve this corrupt institution, which is held in contempt by most Israelis — including, ironically most haredim.

Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler

Rabbi Riskin is one of the outstanding role models of the religious Zionist community. I am privileged to have known him for over 30 years and consider him one of the greatest and most beloved Modern Orthodox rabbis of our generation. He is also an extraordinary creator of Jewish institutions.

A student of the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in 1964 Riskin became the rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, which he transformed into one of New York’s most successful Orthodox religious centers.

In 1984, at the peak of his career, he moved to Israel and became founding chief rabbi and a leading developer of Efrat, which is today a highly successful community.

In addition to acting as a communal rabbi, he launched the Ohr Torah Stone institutions, which include one of the best networks of Modern Orthodox schools in Israel, ranging from junior high school through to graduate programs. He also created a special program to inculcate young men with the knowledge and skills to be effective rabbis and educators throughout the Jewish world.

He displayed innovation by seeking to blend Halachah with the requirements of a modern industrial Jewish state.

He strove to upgrade the status of women and to this effect launched Midreshet Lindenbaum, a college designed to educate religious women. He also created a five-year program designed to train women to act as religious advisers paralleling rabbis. This and his efforts to address the issue of agunot (women in unwanted marriages whose husbands are unwilling or unable to grant them divorces) outraged the ultra-Orthodox.

Rabbi Riskin also had a major impact in the field of marriage, divorce and above all, conversion, where he established independent conversion courts that were bitterly challenged by the haredi establishment. Riskin considers the issue of conversion — especially related to immigrants from the former Soviet Union — as one of the greatest religious, national and societal challenges facing Israel.

He was at the forefront of efforts by the moderate Tzohar Rabbinical Council to decentralize the appointment of rabbis and provide Israelis with choices beyond the extremist ultra-Orthodox candidates appointed by the Chief Rabbinate.

When at the age of 75, Rabbi Riskin’s tenure came up for a five-year extension — an automatic procedural formality, the Chief Rabbinical Council took the unprecedented step of refusing to reappoint him. It was only due to a plea from the recently elected chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Stern, that the council reluctantly agreed to interview him. He only learned about his provisional rejection from the media.

This was not merely an attempt to publicly humiliate one of the doyens of Modern Orthodoxy. It was a ploy by the ultra-Orthodox fanatics to assume unprecedented total centralized control of religious leadership and to marginalize those with different approaches.

But choosing to impose their agenda on Efrat, a bastion of national religious Zionism, is likely to backfire and the crude effort to oust Rabbi Riskin against the wishes of his community, exposes crude agenda of the Chief Rabbinate.

As far back as the Mishnah, there were robust debates in the interpretation of Halachah between the more liberal Beit Hillel and more stringent Beit Shamai schools. And this process of debating the “70 faces” of Torah ensured that a plurality of interpretations prevailed at all times. Now even the ultra-Orthodox compete among themselves to impose the most stringent interpretations of implementing Jewish laws.

This is being extended to the Diaspora with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate insisting that conversions to Judaism by Orthodox rabbis lacking their endorsement should no longer be recognized as Jews by the government of Israel and thus ineligible for aliya.

This is outrageous and entirely beyond the jurisdiction of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Former chief rabbis like Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Rabbi Shlomo Goren and others were outstanding religious scholars, moderate and devoted religious Zionists in stark contrast to the mediocrities and corrupt individuals who succeeded them when the haredim hijacked the Chief Rabbinate.

It is significant that the current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau ensured his election by giving an unqualified undertaking to haredi groups that he would resist any proposed reforms relating to conversions or rabbinical administration without their prior approval.

To make matters worse, the level of corruption and scandals associated with the Chief Rabbinate reached bedrock when the former chief rabbi (whose appointment was orchestrated by the haredim to block a national religious candidate of genuine stature) was arrested and charged with purloining millions of dollars from illegal activities and corrupt practices.

Not surprisingly, the attempts to humiliate Rabbi Riskin created enormous outrage. The Tzohar Rabbinical Association stated that “above any effort to depose Rabbi Riskin flies a clear red flag of revenge directed against his positions and halachic decisions” and accused the rabbinical council of initiating this solely “for political considerations and to enable them to appoint insiders in his place.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party, stated that the Chief Rabbinate was behaving in an “unacceptable” manner and that he would not stand by and permit this.

Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, described Riskin as “a Jewish leader and an Israeli patriot,” insisting that there can be “no questions about his qualifications for his continued service.”

The Efrat municipal council unanimously voted to extend the rabbi’s tenure and condemned the intervention. Rabbi Riskin made it clear that if necessary, he would appeal to the Supreme Court but that so long as the Efrat community wished to retain him, he would continue to serve them as rabbi without payment.

The abject silence of Diaspora Orthodox institutions was disappointing, encouraging

Rabbi David Stav, the head of Tzohar, to call on Jewish communities in the U.S. to stop inviting Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef as their guests if the Riskin provocation is not withdrawn.

The Rabbinical Council of America, once a robust Modern Orthodox group, expressed the hope that the differences would be amicably settled. One of its executive officers, Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, actually accused Rabbi Riskin “of violating the trust of his employer and contravening the rulings of the most pre-eminent halachic authorities of this and previous generations,” alleging that “the employer had more than ample reason to maintain that his employee was not adhering to the policies and values that he was hired to uphold.” This obscene depiction of Riskin as an employee of the Chief Rabbinate reflects the distorted mentality of those currently controlling the institution.

In view of the waves of protest, there is every probability that the Chief Rabbinate will back down. But now is the time for Israelis and Orthodox Jews throughout the world to raise their voices and say enough is enough. Despite the repercussions of a division, breaking away and setting up independent religious courts directed by moderate Zionists is the only means by which to terminate the exclusive control of the haredim.

Throughout the Exile, the rabbinate never imposed centralized religious control and there was always a plurality of differing halachic interpretations. The issue is not whether we should be more or less stringent in the application of Jewish law. Any Orthodox community should be entitled to select its choice of spiritual leader. Haredim are entitled to practice their religion as they see fit. Indeed, there are aspects of their spirituality and lifestyle that our hedonistic society could benefit by emulating. But that does not provide a license to enable the most extreme elements to impose their limited worldview on Israeli society.

The Chief Rabbinate is regarded with contempt and despair by the vast majority of Israelis, including most haredim, who merely exploit the institution for their own purposes. The greatest impediment to the current religious revival is the deplorable status of the rabbinical bureaucracy, which alienates rather than attracts Israelis to their Jewish heritage. The scandalous effort to degrade one of the most beloved and successful Orthodox rabbis of our generation should be a wake-up call to introducing highly overdue, radical changes in the rabbinate.

Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.



6 Responses to “Dissolve the scandal ridden Chief Rabbinate now…writes Isi Leibler”
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    No, you haven’t convinced me, Otto. Not by a long shot. I, too, have lived in Israel, so am not without first-hand experience. (One small experience, of many different kinds, was a Charedi man knocking on my front door in Rosh Ha’Ayin one Friday afternoon, asking me for money ‘because his wife was out of work’. Yep, his wife, with a number of children to care for as well, out of work. I ignored my own knowledge of the situation, and asked him if he did not have work himself. I have nothing but contempt for this kind of thing.) When considering the small percentage of extremely devout against those who are not, the very religious have far too much sway and influence in Israel, and they seek more. Look at the make-up of Netanyahu’s ministry for starters (yes, I know why). Then see the continual erosion of people’s (especially women’s) rights to live freely without the interference or disturbance of ultra-orthodoxy reprimanding, negating or denying those rights, in public places too.

    Look at the situation in Beit Shemesh, where the Supreme Court has ordered posters to be dismantled that tell women what to wear and how to behave (it’s becoming a Bnei Brak even though it’s a mixed community), as more and more pressure is applied of all kinds to make women invisible. These Court orders (2) have been ignored. Even the Mayor of the city buckles under the religious influence. Look at the ridiculous situation where women’s faces are blotted out in photographs, or the figures of the women photo-shopped out of the photos completely, as in the case of recent photo of newly elected Knesset members, and earlier we had Angela Merkel photo-shopped out of the march in Paris of world leaders et al in relation to the Charlie Hesbo affair. Consider the Charedi IDF trainees refusing to be trained by a woman, refusing to stay seated at an IDF concert because some of the women soldiers were singing. Consider the religious pressure put on a commercial radio station to disallow women’s voices on phone-ins, which they complied with for a while until ordered not to do so. Consider all the kerfuffle in public transport about where women ‘should’ sit, and even in aeroplanes of late. It is really getting beyond the pale. The negation of the female and the increasingly invasive and exaggerated application of what is supposed to be Halacha in relation to men/women contact is something of grave concern. Completely inappropriate, completely unnatural. To go to this extreme will only make men more aware of women in a most destructive way, and cause misery for women due to the necessity for them to be almost non-existent as people. Then there’s the highly orthodox few who administer HaKotel claiming it for themselves and their ilk only – an extremely religious boys’ club! I could go on. For such a small group they have inordinate power and they’re doing their best to exercise it more and more aggressively. I’m not just talking here about whether or not someone does or doesn’t wear a kippah. The situation is far more dire and extensive than that.

    It’s easy to label what we don’t agree with, or like to hear, as rhetoric. In the case of Isi’s comments on this occasion, to me they are worthwhile. Whether you’re for Riskin or against him, is beside the point – it’s the inappropriate use of power that’s the issue for me. I am not easily taken in by rhetoric. But, like anyone else, am influenced to some extent by what I happen to agree with. Even with that though, if it were poorly argued, I would see through it and distance myself accordingly. Don’t get me started on cold, hard logic …

    Don’t talk to me about my arguments for the less devout being slightly redundant, Otto. They’re not redundant at all. But we must work towards making them so.

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Dear Liat

      Logically….you are right to be broyges and kvech about that list of excesses by the Charedim, but only as one who dismisses entirely the necessity of devotion to Judaism Charedim have. As I already accepted that what you mentioned are excesses, I still hold it that Jewish identity can only be preserved by the level of commitment to our values Charedim observe. The rest have a “use by date” provision….

      Mind you, I admire and aspire to be like them and the least I can do is go into bat for the Charedim.
      I am going to say something which may sound terrible. Israel is being heroically defended by its people today because IT IS the LAND of the JEWISH people and because all Jews who live there are under threat and need to fight for their survival. I would venture that, once the enmity of all those after destroying our country will be resolved onto a real and lasting peace, the struggle for retaining Israel as a JEWISH land will commence on “religious” matters and the Charedi will find themselves in trouble with the “other” Jews living in the same Israel.

  2. Otto Waldmann says:

    Dear Liat

    Let’s get stuck right into it:

    – “Room for the less devout “… where, in Israel !! Sliha, habibti ( “habibi” is for blokes, “habibti” for ladies ), but Israel is THE MOST LAY country in the Middle East, bar none !! I don’t remember Israel’s PRIME MINISTER and/or THE PRESIDENT wearing a yarmulke, let alone tzitzkes outside strict religious occasions, but tzitzkes, forget it !!!
    – Your very arguments for the freedom of the less devout is slightly redundant. The less devout practically rule in Israel far greater “slices” of urban and other types of places with complete irreverence to any kind of religious “impositions”. When I lived on a very left wing kibbutz ( Hashomer Hatzair ), I tested their reactions on a Friday evening in the chadara ochel – dining room – by wearing a kippa….I cannot describe the looks of horror on the chaverim !!!
    On the other hand, the very reality you defend, that of the right to defy chalacha in its “cold and rigid” form , must be necessarily addressed by the very existence of those Jews who believe in the continuity of our values UNdiminished by serious departures.

    – There is only one type of acceptable logic and that, unfortunately, needs to be cold and rigid. Alternatives cannot possibly be “logic”….and that is only logical.

    – Isi carries on passionately about his life long mates and life long impulses of objection to almost anything with a whiff of legitimate authority, Governments being his beloved priority of attack. We are not offered anything in terms of tangible data, just opinions unqualified by the EXPECTED numbers, tested by reliable research. Persuasive rhetoric is just that….but only for those who allow mere rhetoric to be persuasive. Have I convinced you !!!!

    • Liat Nagar says:

      Dear Otto,
      It’s not just ‘other’ Jews, many Charedi themselves are concerned with the way some of their community are behaving, and the misuse of power by some of their leaders. I can understand you wanting to go in to bat for the Charedim; they have many worthy people among them, are devoted to Judaism and have been fantastic in their assistance and care for Jews in the Diaspora (whether those Jews are travelling through or resident in different countries). However, those behaving inappropriately and badly cannot go unscathed due to the logic and generality applied to the kind of ideal you speak of. And the situation in Israel in this regard is grim. What happens in real life must be confronted and responded to, for actions wreak change.

      (I can recall an incident in Bnei Brak while I was in Israel: three young women of the community walking down the street in new clothing bought from a women’s clothes store (perfectly modest apparel, covering all the right places) which had not yet obtained ‘official’ approval from local religious authorities – bleach was thrown at them by the women related to those in authority, thereby ruining the clothes, of course. An obvious deterrent to going back to that shop, and an exercise in extreme and excessive authoritarianism. This, in 21st century democratic Israel. The very devout, such as these, take it upon themselves to live by their interpretation of the law of G-d and Halacha, and are arrogant and smug enough to assume that no other law or reality matters. I am sincerely repelled by this and afraid for the future of Jews and Judaism if it were ever to become prevalent.)

      Israel is for all Jews, and all Jews should be for Israel.That is my ideal. I rarely allow myself to say ‘should’ to ‘all’, but can’t comprehend how any Jew with knowledge of our history could think otherwise, even though there are some that do; obviously they don’t have much imagination in relation to survival, apart from anything else. We need to co-exist together, united by the common cause that is Israel and our own differing yet connected identities, and be free to live lives respectfully, responsibly and to the law of the land, without stringent conditions and inhibitions imposed by others of more devout religiosity interfering or impairing our lives. And we need to resist mightily any prospect of Judaism becoming a fundamentalist religion in the nature of fundamentalist Islam. We are a thinking people, not dogma chanting, glaze-eyed mesmerics, who harden into positions of inhumane, intolerant belligerents. There is room in our lives for art, literature, music and science, the natural wonders of the world. There is room in our lives for the beauty in and of woman and man in the most humble and grandest of ways, which need not be threatening at all in the eyes of Halacha. Judaism itself does not prevent all this – it endorses it – but a fundamentalist Judaism would.

  3. Liat Nagar says:

    There has to be room for the ‘less devout’, Otto, and respect for them as people, as Jews, and as sincere and intelligent proponents of humane reading and rendering of Halacha.

    Writing with passion from the heart does not necessarily remove acuity of expression or denote incorrectness – indeed, sticking to cold, hard ‘logic’ (which is used subjectively anyway) only relates the barest of dimension to an argument or opinion.

    It matters that the current Charedi-controlled Chief Rabbinate is lacking support of many Israelis and Charedim. It matters that more and more influence is being exerted, and impositions sought, on Israeli society by what is an increasingly fundamentalist push by these people. When you have Halacha imposed rigidly, without the freedom of ongoing Jewish interpretation and re-interpretation allowed for genuine consideration and possible implementation (which procedure has been one of the glories of Judaism, keeping it ever alive and energetic, rather than steeped in concrete dogma), then you have nothing better than Sharia law imposed in the same judgemental, harsh and cruel way. That is what it can come to. It is dangerous to assume, Otto, that the Halacha you so respect is always in good hands – power corrupts, as it always has through the centuries, and must be rooted out when seen to do so.

    The one and only thing that would ever prevent me from considering living in Israel again is the rise and rise of a powerful and corrupt ultra-Orthodoxy that had its way.

  4. Otto Waldmann says:

    When Isi dips his pen into his heart – which he does most of times – feathers fly and, at times, passion slightly strangulates reason.
    OK, his old mate Rabbi is a great achiever, loved and hailed on the streets and shuks of his shtetl and beyond, yet we are not quite properly edified as per the “criminal” averot instituted by the dreaded Charedim against what Isi himself describes as a restless reformer of a chalacha the same Isi at intervals seems to consider essential to Jewish continuity/identity. I am saying that more by the way of assumtion simply because we are not quite convinced by Isi’s “arguments” that the changes in the vision of Rabbi Rifkin are entirely consistent with what serious Jews know as worth respecting.
    One needs to find out more about some of the value ridden exchanges between what Leibler considers flatly as a corrupt Charedi authority – somehow still in “power – and the initiatives taken by a local hero, admitedly popular in certain loud and confusing circles – evidently and I am referring specifically to our Yenta Brigades…..
    Pandering to the less devout is the cheapest tactic in seeking approval by mere numbers and here Isi at is his own low best, himself not famous for tolerance/flexibility in the heat of dialectics…..
    Bluntly put, Judaism cannot live by a diminution of its tenets, no matter how passionate or well versed/articulate one is in exposing personal stances.

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