(Jewish Ideas Daily) — The organization Tzohar has just resumed performing its popular “alternative” weddings in Israel, ending a dispute with the Ministry of Religious Services that was resolved only after a media war and a high-level Knesset meeting. Tzohar won — but has not won much.
After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1996 assassination, Tzohar (in Hebrew, “window”) was founded by a group of idealistic religious Zionist Orthodox rabbis to bridge the growing divide between Israel’s religious and secular populations. Soon afterward, Tzohar began the Wedding Project. Because Israeli law does not recognize — or “register” — civil marriages performed within the country, the only recognized marriages between Jews that can take place in Israel are marriages approved by the Chief Rabbinate. But Israeli law does recognize civil marriages performed abroad; so, Israeli couples were getting married in civil ceremonies on Cyprus.
Tzohar saw the trend as a sign of alienation from the rabbinic bureaucracy. The Wedding Project addressed this alienation by setting out four operating guidelines. A Tzohar rabbi would not accept payment for performing a wedding. He would meet with the bride and groom beforehand. He would schedule just one wedding per day—and arrive on time.
With these few rules, the Wedding Project became Tzohar’s popular calling card. The rabbinate did not interfere with it — at first. Things began to change in 2003, however, with the achievement of ultra-Orthodox control of the Chief Rabbinate. Since then, the rabbinate has sought to enforce increasingly strict standards of Jewish law and keep non-official rabbis from providing religious services (and threatening the rabbinate’s patronage). Tzohar has criticized the rabbinate for insisting on ultra-Orthodox standards, bureaucratizing religion, and driving people away from Judaism.
These tensions came to a head a few weeks ago. Under a loophole, a Tzohar-affiliated official municipal rabbi was deputizing other Tzohar rabbis to perform and register weddings. The rabbinate, through the Ministry of Religious Services, closed the loophole. Tzohar shut down the Wedding Project and launched a media blitz, prophesying that thousands more Israelis would marry abroad in civil ceremonies, assimilate, and be lost to the Jewish people.
Why the doom-saying? The reason lies in Tzohar’s view of the Chief Rabbinate. Tzohar’s religious Zionist rabbis see themselves as spiritual heirs of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi. He envisioned a rabbinate that would transcend politics, reach out to all Jews living in then-Palestine, and create a renaissance both spiritual and national. Kook exhorted rabbis to “look for the positive in each faction” so as to “expand the spiritual influence” of the rabbinate over the “exhilarating national renaissance taking place in our day.”
Kook’s successors continued to believe in an independent, apolitical rabbinate but were subject to the politics of the governing Labor Zionist coalition, including the National-Religious party. In 1960 Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik declined to be a candidate for Chief Rabbi, writing, “The Chief Rabbinate “is really a government agency, so it is childish and naïve to think that the chief rabbi would be able to act independently.”
Today, with Israel’s demographic challenges and the intense pressures to end the Orthodox monopoly of matters of personal status, Kook’s vision seems even less realistic. But Tzohar’s rabbis, acknowledged even by their critics to be sincere (having once been a Tzohar fundraiser for three months, I concur), continue to believe in the rabbinate. Tzohar views the period before ultra-Orthodox control as a heyday in which the institution was beloved and apolitical and chief rabbis were giants of Torah, sensitive to popular needs.
Ironically, the ultra-Orthodox have historically held the rabbinate in contempt and ascribed no religious significance to it. Now they control it — and continue to view it as the spoils of coalition politics, a place fit for political hacks. In behaving this way, they do grave harm to Judaism. But Tzohar watches helplessly, unwilling to advocate abolishing or privatizing the rabbinate or offering alternatives to it. Tzohar rabbis believe that if its rabbis were in power, they would be able to resist the temptations associated with controlling huge government budgets. They think the problem lies with the people currently in power in the rabbinate, not the institution of the rabbinate itself.
For many Israelis, Tzohar is the spoonful of sugar that makes the bitter pill of dealing with the official rabbinate palatable. And increasing numbers of them would prefer never to have to deal with it in the first place: They want the oppressive, despised rabbinate be removed altogether. Yet Tzohar’s rabbis, clinging to an imagined ideal of what the rabbinate might have been, refuse to address the sad reality of what it is. This group has the talent and stature to articulate a vision of what the Jewish state could be without an official rabbinate. Instead, Tzohar continues to enable its opponents, so that it can maintain its pipe dream.
(This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.)