In the spring of 1921, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook became the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel in modern times. This was almost 30 years prior to the formation of the State of Israel. Rabbi Kook was a visionary and inspirational leader who understood like very few others in his generation the currents of his time. He understood the revolutionary period of Jewish life that he was a part of and courageously and boldly responded to it. Rabbi Kook envisioned a Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland that would be, like him, courageous and visionary in charting a course for the Jewish people in the brave new world of Jewish sovereignty and self-expression. He imagined that it would become an entity that would positively and profoundly impact the entire “national rebuilding process” of the Jewish homeland.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Kook and for us this dream was not fulfilled. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has become an impediment to the re-invigoration of Jewish vibrancy. Instead of bravely charting a course for modern Jewish life, with its unprecedented entrance into national sovereignty and the restoration of Jewish political freedom, it has resisted that course and insisted on old paradigms from the period of Jewish exile and diaspora. There are exceptions, of course, like Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l’s work on behalf of the wives of missing Israeli soldiers after the Yom Kippur War or his halakhic (Jewish legal) stance on the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, but they are few and far in between. Rather the organization of the Chief Rabbinate seeks to coerce through legal and political force the State of Israel to adopt its decidedly non-Zionist views of Jewish theology and practice.
This coercive influence has begun to extend across the Atlantic into the United States as well. Several years ago the Chief Rabbinate sought to impose its heavily bureaucratic and highly centralized system of conversion unto the North American Orthodox rabbinate. Many in the American Orthodox rabbinate acquiesced to the demand and created a strictly centralized system of conversion courts in major American cities and imposed uniform non-halakhic standards on all rabbis part of their system. For example, a couple living far away from the Jewish centers of the United States would find it very hard to convert themselves and their family because one of the requirements is enrollment in Orthodox Jewish day school for all the children, which is impossible for anyone living in a city that does not have an Orthodox Jewish day school. This newly created requirement for enrollment for all 12 years of schooling in an Orthodox Jewish day school as a prerequisite for conversion is not be to be found in any code of Jewish law simply because it was invented as part of this capitulation to the Chief Rabbinate.
Recently, the aggressive posture of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has taken another sharp step. One of the most common activities any rabbi does is to write letters for congregants attesting to their Jewishness for the purpose of making aliyah to Israel or getting married in Israel. This is highly common. The community rabbi knows the congregation better than anyone else and thus can write a simple letter stating that they know the people in question to be Jewish. This was never questioned until now. Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a powerful essay at the Times of Israel describing the rejection of a letter he wrote for a couple. He is not alone. The continued move towards centralization of power and the imposition of an unnecessarily complex bureaucratic system has and will continue to lead to abuses of that power.
Two years ago while I was working as a campus rabbi at Harvard, I had the great privilege to welcome Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was at the time the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom to campus for a visit. He spoke on a panel with Professors Alan Dershowitz and Noah Feldman. On that panel, Rabbi Sacks was asked about the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the damage it has brought unto Israeli society. I will never forget his reply to that question. Rabbi Sacks argued that a Chief Rabbinate ought to forge its influence through persuasion and not through coercion. The Chief Rabbi must be able to articulate his vision and desires through the power of words not through the power of law. The Chief Rabbinate of the United Kingdom, and Rabbi Sacks in particular, is a prime example of that persuasive influence and the good it can bring. People may disagree with some of the approaches of the British Chief Rabbi and they are free to do so while the Chief Rabbi does not have the power of the state to impose his will on them, only the power of his words.
The time has come for those who care about the future of the Jewish people to stand up and be counted as those not willing to give in to the demands of a power hungry and corrupt Chief Rabbinate. I generally do not advocate for diaspora Jews to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the State of Israel but this is a powerful exception. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel impacts all of us and is continuing its attempt to further its reach into our communities. Ending the power of the Chief Rabbinate is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people worldwide and together we can make that happen.
I recently read a lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, delivered at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in 1968 at the South Manchester Synagogue in Manchester, England. Rabbi Lamm was invited to speak about the contemporary rabbinate and in it he bemoans the diminishing and diminished role of the rabbi in American and English synagogues. He decries the relegating of the rabbi to a purely functionary position:
Unfortunately, in the eyes of our contemporaries and even, alas, our own eyes, we are no longer Rabbanim in the grand tradition, but professional generalists in charge of communal trivia, pious superficialities, and ritualistic irrelevancies. We have, under the impress of an all but inexorable sociological development, yielded one realm after another of special and significant rabbinic competence. We have surrendered our Halakhic positions to the Yeshivot and Rashei Yeshivah; mahshavah [Jewish thought] to the professors of religion and theology; and communal leadership to the professional fund-raisers and executives… What we are left with is enough to discourage any intelligent man — a required weekly sermon; ritualistic “prayers” dutifully pronounced at official occasions and listened to by no one, probably not even by the Deity; minor counseling; Hebrew school supervision; and the development of just enough dignity to stand on when our own spiritual “authority” is challenged… No committed and ambitious young man should ever aspire to become a functionary in an arid community; certainly not to become a parish butterfly.
The traditional American synagogue is sinking under the weight of apathy and disinterest. The very thing that used to bring American Jews in large numbers to synagogue life is now turning away the new generations: formality at the expense of spiritual feeling; procedure at the expense of passion and committee, sub-committee and task forces at the expense of mission. I firmly believe that declining membership numbers, fundraising woes and empty seats are symptoms of a much larger problem that once addressed will help alleviate those immediate issues.
A solution that would go a long way in addressing these systemic issues would be developing more mission driven synagogues and more rabbis articulating and living by their own personal mission. Neither mission driven synagogues nor mission driven rabbis are anything new. There are synagogues and rabbis throughout North America whose work and purpose is deeply inspiring and transformative. We just need to cultivate more of them.
What a mission driven synagogue is I will leave to another blog post in the future but for now I would like to focus in on a mission driven rabbi. A rabbi who lives and breathes his mission is a rabbi who does not see his or her job only to offer quality sermons or run a good staff meeting but sees his or her work as bringing forth a vision of Judaism in the place in which he/she works and in the lives of the people he/she leads. A mission driven rabbi can be inspiring at times, motivating at other times and sometimes frustrating to the people he/she leads because that rabbi will not compromise the mission even though adapting it to the particular place is desirable.
Mission driven rabbis are often accused of having an “agenda.” The word itself means nothing more than having a list of things to get done but has taken on a negative connotation. It has come to mean the rabbi wishes to hoist a particular platform unto their community. This is absolutely not what being mission driven is all about. To be mission driven is to articulate the vision and then be able to incorporate the feedback of the community to make it home grown and sustainable. It is to offer a compelling picture for the future and empower the entire community to actualize it.
A mission that answers the spiritual needs of the membership and that speaks loudly to the needs of the larger community is a mission that motivates people to support the institution, to join the institution and to want to simply be in the room.
Rabbi Lamm began his speech by declaring that: “I believe we have slipped into a rut, but we are not lost. We are in many ways stricken, but not irreversibly. I submit that we can still recapture our commanding role as spiritual leaders and effective guides if we bestir ourselves–before it is too late.” May this truly be so.