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American Jewish Leaders Criticize Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Urge Its Dismantlement

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 1997

The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, has called for the dismantling of Israel’s chief rabbinate, saying that Israeli religious authorities are "dysfunctional" and "without a scintilla of moral worth."  

The Forward (April 18, 1997) reports that Rabbi Schorsch seeks "to achieve a separation between synagogue and state in Israel."  

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, described the Israeli chief rabbinate as "extremist and radical and fanatic . . . a medieval chief rabbinate that is a disgrace to the Jewish people and to its religion."  

The Forward (April 11, 1997) notes that Rabbi Yoffie "made his remarks . . . at a convention of Reform Jews . . . The comments came the morning after a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabbi Yoffie and other Reform leaders, as well as Conservative leaders and top officials of the Council of Jewish Federations. The meeting and the rhetorical offensive that followed, mark an escalation in Rabbi Yoffie’s campaign to use the charitable donations of American Jews to pressure the Israeli government into recognizing for the first time conversions performed in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis."  

The current controversy over the issue of religious pluralism in Israel started after Reform and Conservative leaders mounted a court challenge in Israel, demanding government recognition of conversions done by their rabbis. Such recognition is already granted to conversions done by Reform and Conservative rabbis outside Israel. The court sent the matter to the Israeli Knesset, which in March voted 51 to 32 against recognizing the conversions done in Israel.  

Reform and Conservative leaders in the U.S. have urged their congregations to "refrain from welcoming as honored guests those members of Knesset who support the conversion bill in its final reading." In addition, there have been calls for Jewish federations and the Jewish Agency for Israel to spend more money supporting Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel.  

Rabbi Schorsch declared that, "The supreme irony of Zionist history is that the founders of Israel who fled an intransigent Orthodoxy in eastern Europe ended up relinquishing all control of Judaism in the Jewish state to that self-same Orthodoxy." He stated that, "The time has come to dismantle the Chief Rabbinate and its network of courts. Sustained by a political alliance between cynicism and fundamentalism, the system is today without a scintilla of moral worth . . . For Israel to be the center of world Jewry, it cannot be exclusively identified with but one denomination in modern Judaism."  

At the same time, Rabbi Schorsch referred to the recent declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis that the Reform and Conservative movements were "Not Judaism." He compared this statement to the extremist rhetoric which preceded the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and noted that it "seems to be an ominous replay" of events prior to that event. Before the assassination, some Israeli rabbis "had stretched medieval Jewish law beyond all reasonable limits to classify Mr. Rabin as a ‘pursuer’ whose life could be taken in self-defense. The same body of medieval law explicitly sanctions the killing of Jewish heretics, as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis surely knows."  

According to Rabbi Schorsch, to make an accusation of heresy "in the current highly charged atmosphere is to incite unwittingly some unbalanced young fundamentalist either in Israel or America to carry out the letter of the law."  

The New York Times (April 17, 1997) reports: "If the chief rabbinate were to be dismantled, Rabbi Schorsch said in an interview, the Israeli Government would accept a marriage performed by any rabbi in Israel. ‘It would mean that the state would be a Jewish state,’ he added. ‘It would no longer be an Orthodox state.’"

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