Thursday, July 05, 2018

Power Trip? I Don't Think So

The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. (Jerusalem Post)
I have never been reticent to criticize the Charedi world when I believe it is warranted. That has earned me continuous accusations of being a Charedi basher by certain people.  I am not. But my constant denials fall on deaf ears all the time because of the frequency of posts criticizing them.

I mention this not to offer yet another explanation or defense of my criticism. It hasn’t helped till now and it won’t help in the future. I mention it, only to put into context what I am sure will be an unpopular view of what I am about to say. Especially to those that wrongly celebrate my criticism of Charedim.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has written an oped in the Jerusalem Post that I can best describe as an unfair and biased attack against the Chief Rabbaniate and the Charedi community in Israel. While his description of why there is a lack of popular support for the Rabbinate might be true, that does not mean that the Rabbinate is wrong in their decisions. And although he doesn’t say so outright - the subtext of his op-ed is that they are a selfish organization interested only in retaining and expanding their power for no other purpose than their own self interest.

Rabbi Riskin notes that the chief rabbinate has been taken over by the  Charedi leadership. This is in essence true.That has resulted in  what many – even religious Jews - see as a heavy handed  and overly stringent rule over religious matters. Which, he says was not the case when the Religious Zionist rabbis controlled it.

Although I sympathize with his concerns, I must object to his characterization of the Chief Rabbinate and Charedi leaders.  I do not see them as a self aggrandizing group of people on some sort of power trip. On the contrary. I truly believe that they act on what they believe is in the best interests of Klal Yisroel – the people of Israel. Despite the fact that some of their recent pronouncements have been very unpopular.

These are the issues Rabbi Riskin has problems with: The Chief Rabbinate  monopoly over Kosher certification; and their full control of personal  status issues such as marriage, divorce, conversions and Agunos (women whose husbands refuse to give them a Get – a Halachic divorce).  He says that the rabbinate has been unnecessarily strict on these issues causing much pain to people seeking their help to resolve these matters. He then goes about demonstrating it.

The problem he cites with respect to poor Kosher supervision is something that should surely be addressed and thoroughly investigated by independent experts. And they should not have ties to either the rabbinate or their newly minted competition. Their recommendations for improving Kosher supervision should be followed. Be that as it may, my main concern is Rabbinate control over personal status issues. Rabbi Riskin’s characterization of the rabbinate in this area is unfair. Let me just take one issue to demonstrate why.

The Halachos that makes a woman an Agunah  (as defined in our day) is one of the most difficult things to understand in Judaism. Briefly, a woman can only be divorced if her husband gives her a Get (a religious divorce document). If he refuses, she cannot give her husband a Get. She may not get remarried without committing biblical level adultery. She is stuck. There is no way out of the marriage that she has any control over.

A man on the other can find a way to get remarried while still married to his first wife. Although it’s complicated it’s possible and has happened.

Meanwhile rabbis have been trying for centuries to find ways to convince the recalcitrant husband to give his wife a Get. But at the end of the day, it’s is still up to him. If he refuses –  his wife remains an Agunah.  There are Halachic devices that have been used in the past to help these women out of their predicament. But using them now is at best controversial and rare.

A non Rabbinate court in Haifa  recently applied such a Halachic device to free an Agunah. The Rabbinate rejected it. Did they do this to be mean? Did they do it only to assert control over this issue? I do not believe that for a minute. That would make them beyond cruel. They are not.

They do not want to hurt Agunos.  They actually believe that the method used by that court to free her might be illegitimate leaving her technically still married. Which means that if she re-marries she might be committing adultery. And that any children of that marriage would be Mamzerim.

They simply want to prevent that by being strict. That there are lenient opinions about what that court did does not make it OK – just because of the terrible state she –as an Agunah - is in.  

Rabbi Riskin said they are not choosing the pleasant ways of the Torah by being so stringent. But the Rabbinate might respond by saying that by being strict they are being kind. They are preventing a situation that would cause a lifetime of hardship for their offspring.  A leniency that  might not be legitimate would end up being quite cruel.

Who is being more caring? The court that allows a woman to commit possible adultery or the court that tries to prevent it?

I am not here to impugn the motives of the court that tried to free an Agunah by those means. I’m 100% convinced that their intentions were to help her out of an impossible situation. I am here to defend the motives of the Rabbinate. And reject the notion that this is all about power and control.

The Rabbinate does not want to be cruel to Agunos. They do not want to prevent legitimate conversions. They do not want to monopolize Kosher certification as a matter of asserting their control for purposes of retaining unbridled power. They believe they are doing the right thing – despite it having negative consequences in some cases.

That popular opinion goes against the Rabbinate now should not matter to anyone. Judaism is not a popularity contest. Halacha cannot automatically follow the lenient path because of convenience or politics. It ought to be considered in the ideal. Which is to find out and follow the path that God wants His people to follow – wherever it may lead.