“Who is a Jew” is a powerfully evocative rallying cry meant to unite the non-Orthodox masses against the State of Israel’s reported attempts to delegitimate them. Israel, of course, never had such intent, and “who is a Jew” was never the issue. It always was about “who is a Rabbi,” and it was not Israel’s policy, as much as it was the policy of its religious affairs ministry and the office of the chief rabbinate, aka the rabbanut. It also never was only about delegitimizing non-Orthodox rabbis and their streams; for the last several decades at least, the rabbanut has maintained a list of Orthodox rabbis who were not acceptable in its eyes.
It was never just about conversions. The rabbanut in Israel must sanction all lifecycle matters, from birth to death. If it concludes that a person is “not Jewish” by its standards, for example, such person may not be buried next to “acceptable” Jews in a Jewish cemetery in Israel. That issue received prominent attention at the most recent Yom Hazikaron ceremony on Mt. Herzl, when the IDF chief of staff broke protocol by not placing his flag on the most recent fallen soldier, Yevgeny Tolochko, because he was buried in the “doubtful Jewish” section.
Marriage is another example. Couples must be able to prove their Jewishness before the rabbanut will grant them permission to marry. Until now, a couple coming from outside Israel could do so by presenting a letter from an Orthodox rabbi.
No more. With new leadership in place, the rabbanut apparently has begun rejecting the word even of Orthodox rabbis if their names do not appear on an approved list, and seems to be on a course to require certification by an acceptable religious court, rather than individual rabbis. This is something unheard of until now.
The matter came to light last week, when it was reported that the rabbanut rejected the word of Rabbi Avi Weiss, leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, attesting to the Jewishness of a couple who traveled to Israel to be married. According to the New York Jewish Week, at least 10 other Orthodox rabbis recently were rebuffed in this way.
Israel is the “Jewish state” and should adhere to certain accepted communal norms. Those norms, however, must be broadly constructed, not narrowly constricted.
What is made clear in this latest affront to diaspora Jewry is that the “who is” debate never was a religious one. This is all about political power. The rabbanut wants to be the central address for all religious matters throughout the Jewish world.
What is also made clear, however, is that the rabbanut is not representative of any Jewish ideology but its own, narrowly defined and an insular charedi one. It must not have the right to represent anyone other than itself.
That is a message all of us must make clear and we must do it quickly, before the stranglehold the rabbanut seeks to place on diaspora Jewry chokes the life out of any connection the Jews of the diaspora have to the Jewish state.