10/18/2007

Conversion Collision Course

[Part II of this]


Yesterday, Haaretz reported about an initiative to set up conversion courts that will be independent of the Chief Rabbinate. It is being initiated by the usual suspects - Tzohar, Hakibbutz Hadati, et al - as part of their mounting campaign to replace the Rabbanut with something else (or, more likely, with a milder version of the same darn thing).

Today, they reported about Chief Rabbi Amar's visit to the USA to check out the RCA's revamped conversion procedures, their primary response to the Rabbanut's threat to pull the plug on accepting RCA conversions. This was a huge news item about a year and a half ago, both in the mainstream media and in the blogs (especially this one).

This juxtaposition highlights the schizophrenia that exists within the MO Rabbinate about these issues. On one hand, they (we) feel that their derech in life and in psak is legitimate and that they must stand up to the ever-more machmir and strident haredized rabbinic establishment. At the same time, they poo-poo the Rabbanut and keep making nice because they recognize that they are at the Rabbanut's mercy when it comes to recognizing giyur (this goes for both Rabbanim in the Diaspora and 'unfranchised' Rabbanim in Israel). The MO Rabbinate wants its own identity, yet lives in mortal fear that chareidi elements like the 'Vaad Horabbonim Haolami Leinyonei Giyur' or its bedfellow the Eternal Jewish Family will influence the Rabbanut to basically lump, with perhaps a few exceptions, MO Rabbis in with their Reform and Conservative colleagues.

Personally, I am a proponent of austritt. In order for it to work, though, a few things must happen. First of all, from the Rabbinic side of things, it must be war. No footsie-playing on the side. Tzohar flirts with the RCA (thinking that what the Israeli Rabbinate lacks is the proper training of Rabbis - which it thinks that organizations like YU, the OU, and the RCA can help solve with their great expertise and their massive stashes of US $$ - and not realizing that the real issue is accountability; the minute a community has the power to fire its Rabbi, the Rabbi becomes very, very interested in learning about pastoral counseling), and the RCA likes the attention but must also then kiss the Rabbanut's tuchis. Tzohar itself walks a tightrope between competing with the Rabbanut and playing by its rules. They have lately been declaring war more openly against the Rabbanut, especially with these giyur and kashrut initiatives, but still has to make sure, for its own purposes, that the public keeps faith in the idea of a Chief Rabbinate while working to depose the current one (Pesonally, I am against the idea of a Chief Rabbinate in any form, I just don't think the Israeli public is ready for that).

The second, and most important thing that must happen is the buy-in of the RCA and Tzohar's core constituency, namely, the dati rank-and-file, the kosher-keepers, those who care about Jewish observance. This constituency is different in Israel and America because in Israel there are no denominational affiliations, really. Tzohar can claim to represent the 'dati-lite' and the traditional segments of the population, whereas the RCA only represents Orthodoxy. Be that as it way, the Rabbanut itself lives and dies by public faith. Can this public faith be undermined?

It depends. With regard to kashrut, it's easy. The law can say who has the right to put a certificate in a store window, but it cannot tell people what to put or not put in their mouths. If the people do not think that a Rabbanut-certified restaurant is kosher, then the weight of the law will not get them in the building (unless there is an supplementary certification, which really does not threaten the Rabbanut as long as they get their check in order for the Badatz to get theirs). Similarly, if people are convinced that something is kosher despite the lack of certification, then the lack of a sticker will not serve as a deterrent (especially if it is certified by another agency). Thus, the Rabbanut’s kashrut apparatus relies on public faith (and, ultimately, the dues paid by the food seller)in their process. If that faith is undermined, then the apparatus collapses, laws notwithstanding. The Heiter Mechirah controversy has created a perfect storm for another organization to step in and usurp the Rabbanut's role.

With regard to marriage and conversion, it is much more complicated. To a degree, people can vote with their feet in these matters as well. They can live together out of wedlock. They can get married civilly in a foreign country. They can find a rabbi who is willing to (risk arrest and) perform an ‘unofficial’ halakhic wedding. Here again, public faith plays a role, but it is a bit more complicated: the cost of not playing ball with the Rabbanut is much higher. Of course, the Rabbanut wants people to get married in Israel, according to ‘the law of Moshe and Israel’; for the most part, the people want the same thing. If everyone would stop caring about whether the Rabbanut considers me Jewish or not, or stopped caring about marrying Jewish or about mamzerut, etc., then its power would be broken. But people do not want to stop caring.

Furthermore, kashrut makes money, but weddings and conversions do not. Registries and databases cost money (though not too much anymore), the Rabbi must spend a lot of time with the couple and on the ceremony, and the fact that the Rabbanut is so well funded - by the government - makes it difficult to imagine that people will put up the money for a new apparatus when their taxpayers' NIS already pay for a local Rabbi. This, ultimately, is the biggest problem of all. The Rabbis who are 'official' have very cushy jobs and much security. Those who do not will not be paid by private initiative, because there's simply no money for that. So people make do with the imperfect current situation. Tzohar has already done what it can with regard to marriage, even getting the Rabbanut to begin changing from within. Truly breaking the Rabbanut's monopoly, however, may take decades, and must begin with those few brave sould who are willing to actually break the law to have an unsanctioned but halakhic wedding or conversion.

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