Feb 12, 2009

haaretz: "Conservative rabbis call for official dissolution of Israel's Chief Rabbinate"

Conservative rabbis call for official dissolution of Israel's Chief Rabbinate
By Shlomo Shamir (New York) and Raphael Ahren

A body of Conservative rabbis passed a resolution yesterday calling upon the government of Israel to "privatize the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and dissolve it as a governmental organization." The motion was approved at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, known in Israel as the Masorti movement, which this week convened in Jerusalem. More than 300 rabbis participated in the four-day convention, most of them from the United States.

In the first initiative of its kind by a respected American rabbinic institution representing the second-largest stream in American Jewry, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is described as "a structure that is outmoded and unnecessary" and one that "misrepresents the nature of Judaism to the world at large, even to Jews."

The resolution further asserts that "for many, Israel's chief rabbinate fails to represent the majority of Israel's Jewish population." It also argues that politicization of the process of choosing the chief rabbis "has created a general antipathy to Judaism and its practices." The assembly toned down the original statement, which declared that the chief rabbinate had become "synonymous with corruption, favoritism, and cronyism."

The dominance of issues dealing with the religious quality of life in Israel lies in the fact that the Rabbinic Assembly holds its annual convention in Jerusalem only once in five years, explained Rabbi Benjamin Segal, who served on the Masorti movement's special committee that dealt with the planning of the convention. The Israel-based Rabbis have had topics such as the Rabbinate and conversion - which directly affect them - on their minds for a long time, and so they tried to take advantage of the visit of their international colleagues to pass these resolutions.

Senior Conservative rabbis are attributing special significance to the convention. They are calling the ten resolutions, which were passed at yesterday's closing session, "an important turning point" in the movement's attitude toward its status in Israel and as a significant buttressing of its aspirations to play a major role in religious matters in Israel.

Others are more skeptical. "It has happened very rarely that anything we agree upon has had any impact outside our movement," said Rabbi Moshe Levine, of San Francisco's Ner Tamid community, yesterday. "Even most of the people within our movement hardly ever hear or care about the resolutions we pass."

In the past, the movement promoted religious pluralism in Israel and concentrated on the demand to recognize its rabbis who are active in Israel. However, most of the resolutions passed yesterday demand explicitly that Israel recognize and accept the Conservative rabbis' positions and views concerning fundamental religious issues and call for revocation of the exclusive authority of the Orthodox establishment in Israel in these matters.

Condemning the current climate

For instance, one resolution calls upon the Israeli government to recognize "conversions performed in Israel by Masorti rabbis as confirmation of Jewishness for citizenship (according to the Interior Ministry) and proof of Jewishness on a par with Orthodox rabbinic conversions for the registry of life cycle events and status." The resolution condemns "the rabbinical establishment [that] has exerted its power to prevent and discourage conversion from being completed including refusal to recognize conversions performed outside of Israel."

Another resolution on marriage in Israel asserts that "the current climate established by the Orthodox religious authorities in Israel leads unfortunately to a large number of Israeli couples to seek alternatives to the mitzvah [commandment] of huppah [coming under the marriage canopy] and kiddushin [nuptial blessings]." The resolution calls upon the government of Israel "to grant license to rabbis of all branches of Judaism to officiate at weddings" as well as to allow non-religious alternative arrangements.

After a passionate discussion, the convention also passed a resolution on "Shabbat in the Public Sphere in Israel." The proposal seeks "common ground and not coercion in matters relating to Shabbat observance," and the Rabbinical Assembly expresses its "support for the various efforts to establish an agreed pattern of public observance of Shabbat in the Jewish sector of Israel, which would curtail commercial activities on Shabbat, while allowing cultural activities."

A separate resolution addresses "the Current Economic Crisis" and its implications for the Jewish community and resolves that "our rabbis offer spiritual comfort to those suffering the effects of this economic downturn, offer material assistance, set up employment networking opportunities in our institutions and communities, and partner with local agencies providing these services."

Before the event, Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, who is the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel chairman, commented, "Hosting the convention in Jerusalem at this time has afforded an opportunity and a challenge to the movement's rabbis in Israel." He added: "This is an opportune time to show our work and activities in Israel to our rabbinic colleagues from the United States and other countries." Rabbi Schlesinger, who grew up in New Jersey and immigrated to Israel in 1972, is the spiritual leader of Jerusalem's Moreshet Avraham Congregation He has a son who was wounded during Operation Cast Lead.

That military operation also had an impact on attendance at the conference. Planned months ago, organizers say the financial crisis dampened initial registration.

However, in the wake of the Gaza operation and the wave of international criticism of Israel, the timing of the convention was perceived as an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with Israel and the number of rabbis who have registered for the convention has grown in recent weeks.

"Suddenly," said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, of New York, who was involved in organizing the convention, "the synagogues decided that presence at the convention that is being held in Jerusalem at a time when Israel is defending itself from waves of hostility is important and funds were raised to pay for the costs of the rabbis' trips. It is also important to us to be in Israel at the time when the elections are being held so that we can follow the results closely."

She concedes her movement does not have the final say but stressed the importance of voicing its position. "Ultimately, the realities on the ground will be determined by the will of the Israeli people," she said yesterday. "It's a very bold statement. Just because [the Rabbinate] is a big establishment, we can't give in to a sense that we can't change it. By writing the statement, we're giving people the opportunity to agree with it, to stand up and say: Yes, I agree with that."

At the conference, Rabbi Schonfeld was appointed executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which the Conservative movement says makes her the first full-time female rabbi to head a rabbinic organization in a salaried professional capacity. She is replacing Rabbi Joel Meyers, who led the Rabbinical Assembly for 20 years.

Despite the display of solidarity, the resolutions are expected to elicit harsh criticism from Orthodox leaders in the U. S. and Israel. Relations between the Orthodox rabbis and the rabbis of the Conservative and Reform movements in the U.S. are reportedly strained, with few channels of communication between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. In the past, resolutions of the sort discussed at the Rabbinical Assembly in Jerusalem, and especially those concerning conversion and modern types of marriage, have led Orthodox rabbis to charge that the Reform and Conservative movements distort the true meaning of traditional rabbinic law and the values of Judaism.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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