Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of the West Bank settlement Efrat, made this pronouncement at a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel this week.
A renowned and respected Orthodox Rabbi himself has tangled with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate over the legitimacy of his conversions. He took his case to Israel’s Supreme Court and won. The Court pronounced his Beit Din “Kosher” for purposes of the Law of Return and Israeli citizenship.
This was an important case because it established the precedent of a rabbi outside the authority of the Chief Rabbanate having authority over his conversions. His statement resonates with non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. However – what the court granted to Rabbi Riskin, Rabbi Riskin does not grant to the Conservative and Reform movements.
Natan Sharansky, the chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, had invited his friend Rabbi Riskin to speak to us, and Rabbi Riskin spoke for nearly 45 minutes on why Halacha must be observed in all cases in matters of gerut (conversion). He did not address the question of marriage and divorce, a far more pressing matter for Israelis generally. I assume that he applies the same standard there.
Rabbi Riskin is far more lenient than the Chief Rabbinate that autocratically holds power in matters of conversion, marriage, divorce, and burial in the state of Israel and grants approval only to rabbis it deems kosher enough to officiate at life cycle events. No Conservative or Reform or unapproved Orthodox rabbi can officiate officially in the Jewish state.
In surveys taken by Hiddush, an organization committed to freedom of choice in matters of religion, the vast majority of Israelis want civil marriage, and a large plurality of Israelis said that they preferred the Conservative and Reform movements as opposed to anything having to do with the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and Ultra-Orthodox political parties.
For the sake of the “unity of the Jewish people” Rabbi Riskin said there can be only one standard governing all matters of Jewish status, and that standard must be the commitment to traditional Halacha.
When asked what he thought of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel refusing his converts as Jews, he said shockingly, “I don’t give a damn!”
After Rabbi Riskin held forth, a spontaneous unplanned hour-long debate erupted led by the Rabbis Steve Wernik (President of the United Synagogue – Conservative), Rabbi Rick Jacobs (President of the URJ – Reform), Rabbi Meir Azari (The Daniels Center of Tel Aviv – Israeli Reform), and Rabbi Gilad Kariv (Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Reform Judaism).
The cadre of liberal rabbis made the following points:
- Israeli Orthodox Judaism does not represent 80% of Israeli Jews many of whom have fled from Judaism altogether because of the rabbinate’s coercive and harsh interpretation of Jewish law;
- The Israeli Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has utterly failed the people of Israel because after 5 Billion Israeli Shekels of support is given to orthodox synagogues and yeshivas every year, still only 20% of the country wish to be associated with the Orthodox community;
- If equal amounts of money were granted the liberal streams, surveys indicate that far more Israelis would be engaged in Jewish life;
- Thousands of conversions are performed by Conservative and Reform Rabbis in Israel and around the world who identify strongly as Jews and are living Jewish lives but are not are accepted as Jews in Israel and so cannot marry in Israel;
- In Israel a shift in attitude has taken place over the last 20 years in favor of Reform and Conservative streams, and large numbers of Israelis view positively the Conservative and Reform movements;
- It is time to end the authority over personal status by the Chief Rabbinate, and for the Knesset to pass a civil marriage law;
- The Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate threatens Jewish unity. In a democracy, Jews should have the right to live as Jews according to their own choices;
- Reform and Conservative expectations are that equal funds be given to all the religious streams (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) by the government in the Jewish state;
- The Chief Rabbinate should be abolished and freedom of religious choice applied to Jews.
I asked Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the leader of the Israeli Reform movement if he had ever had such a conversation in Israel including the three streams. He said he had not.
Tomorrow morning, Wednesday, November 2, Reform and Conservative Rabbis and Women of the Wall will meet at Dung Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem to march with Sifrei Torah to the Kotel and join with the Women of the Wall for their monthly Heshvan Rosh Chodesh prayer service.
The Chief Rabbinate of the Wall forbids Torah scrolls it does not approve to be used at the Kotel. It also forbids women from holding them.
We will defy those rules so we can pray as we choose at the holiest site in Judaism and for the Jewish people as a whole.