Orthodox Rabbis Fight Tradition — Attempt to Organize a Hierarchy…It Won’t Work, Guys

The Modern Orthodox American rabbinate, as represented by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), provoked a public debate by siding with the current Chief Rabbi of Israel in agreeing that the Israeli rabbinate will no longer automatically accept conversions done by RCA members. The agreement of the RCA and the Israeli rabbinate (http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=100907 and http://www.rabbis.org/documents/Comprehensive%20and%20Final%20Geirus%20Policies%20and%20Standards%20Protocol.pdf) presents a detailed plan for regional courts that will officiate at Orthodox conversions across the country. While any Orthodox rabbi may conduct conversions independently of these courts, he does so at the risk of said conversions not being accepted by the Israeli chief rabbinate.

Although I had some strong initial reactions, there are some rabbis who I deeply respect who are far more knowledgeable and articulate than I am, and who are doing a fine job of putting the pros and cons of this on the public agenda (http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1203605147501).

Instead, here is a take on it that doesn’t deal so much with the issues around conversion per se, but with the tangential issues that it raises (which perhaps shouldn’t be seen as that tangential):

  • 87% of American Jews do not consider themselves Orthodox (Source: United Jewish Communities Report Series on the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01). Of the 13% who claim to be, a significant number belong to Orthodox groups that do not participate in or follow the lead of the Rabbinical Council of America. That means that the current debate matters to less than 10% of American Jewry. On a good day.
  • Similarly, the vast majority of Americans who choose to enter the Jewish people do so through movements that are not Orthodox.
  • The vast majority of Orthodox Jewish converts are not moving to Israel any time soon.
  • The majority of Israeli Jews are not strictly observant by Orthodox standards.
  • Personal opinion: the last Israeli chief rabbi who had the respect and admiration of the full range of the Israeli population was Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. He died over 70 years ago. Even if I give you Rabbi Herzog, another great leader, that still only takes us to 1959.

So the point of part one of my blog entry is that the real argument may make great reading (who wouldn’t pay to see Rabbinical Celebrity Death Match?), but the actual issue is fairly irrelevant to a huge number of Jews.

What is interesting to me is this angle: Did the rabbis involved miss the Jewish history lesson in which they taught that Judaism works best as disorganized religion? Do they really expect — here or in Israel — to impose structure or order on the Jewish people?

Here are some texts and stories that tell of attempts to impose this kind of top-down hierarchical structure — with only one or a small number of leaders calling the shots — on the chosen people:

Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand about you from morning to evening?’ And Moses said unto his
father-in-law: ‘Because the people come unto me to inquire of God; when they
have a matter, it comes unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and
I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.’ And Moses’ father-in-law said unto him: ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away…for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it alone. Listen now to my voice…provide out of all the people able men, those that fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring before you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves…So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law

(Exodus / Shemot 18)

Oh, and then there’s the Mishnah, circa 200 CE. Rabbi Judah the Prince takes the time and energy to gather oral rabbinic teachings into one set of documents, the Mishnah. What do the people do? Over the next few hundred years, the push-back is the Gemara which often rejects certain mishnaic teachings and which includes teaching from the beraita, those very teachings that Judah chose not to include in the mishnah.

Fast forward to the 18th century. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (a.k.a. the Vilna Gaon) tries to take a top-down approach and get rid of those pesky Hasidim that are starting their own brand of Judaism, by excommunicating the lot of them. How did that work out? One look at Brookyn, Jerusalem, Yavne’el (in northern Israel) or for that matter, Postville Iowa, will tell you that the Ga’on was ignored.

Bottom line here: If you want top-down hierarchy, try the Catholic church. Jews just don’t take orders very well. We seem, however, to do just fine with a little bit of chaos and some good old-fashion populism. Putting power into the hands of the Israeli chief rabbis and their approved American rabbinical leaders should be just about as effective as Moses’ attempt to be a solo judicial act, Rabbi Judah’s attempt to be the last word on rabbinic literature, and the Ga’on’s attempt to stamp out a movement that was catching a popular wave.

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