Why religion and politics cannot mix

Among the more pressing challenges facing Israeli society today is the increasingly disturbing linkage between politics and religion.

While Israel defines itself as a proud Jewish state, and this is central to our identity and ethos as a nation, this cannot mean that political forces are able to determine who is and is not a Jew and allow political considerations to make decisions on halacha (Jewish law) and Jewish practice.

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Yet, this is exactly what seems to be taking place when Israel’s Chief Rabbinate enacts decisions to categorically deny specific Diaspora rabbis from serving as rabbinical court judges because they are not associated with the rabbinical courts it deems worthy.

Based on the newest proposed criteria of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, a Diaspora rabbi’s value is not being measured based on their integrity, breadth of knowledge or experience as halachic decision-makers, but because they are not members of these rabbinical organizations that are “approved” by the Rabbinate.

Acting with such broad paint strokes reeks of political motivations. It essentially claims that those individuals don’t share the worldview of the small group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) power-brokers who drive how the rabbinate makes decisions.

Such a decision also serves to create further division between Israel and the Diaspora by alienating proud and dedicated rabbinic leaders, as well as their constituents, and marginalizing the integrity of tens of thousands of Diaspora Jews. The result is that at a time when we should be desperately looking for every possible avenue to make Jews around the world feel more connected and loved by Israel, the rabbinate seems to be actively working to achieve just the opposite.

It should be clear I appreciate that the rabbinate deserves – and is in fact obligated – to ensure that rabbis whose halachic decisions impact on the Jewish nature of our country are leaders worthy of their positions and people of integrity. But to do so because the rabbi isn’t associated with specific organizations, is clearly politically motivated and should insult the intelligence of any Israeli or Jew who believes our Jewish nation must be governed by principles of honesty and transparency.

I would also stress that I have no issue with the organizations that are being recognized by these most-recently established criteria – most notably the Rabbinical Council of America. The RCA is an entity worthy of great praise in advancing Torah values and strengthening the bond between our communities. But the worthiness of the RCA should not be to the detriment of other leading rabbis – guided by the sincerest and strictest interpretations of halacha – simply because they are not associated with that organization.

Like many of the rabbinate’s decisions, I fear that this one too is inspired both by those political considerations, but perhaps as disturbingly, also by a severe misunderstanding for how rabbinical leadership works in the Diaspora. There are many deeply committed rabbis, men of incredible integrity who inspire people to develop a closer attachment to tradition and our nation through their commitment to halacha, who for various reasons operate rabbinical courts outside the confines of these approved entities.

But the rabbinate is failing to think in these broader terms and failing to recognize the damage that can be done by their actions. They are thinking only that if a rabbi doesn’t overtly conform to how they think and operate, than such a person is not worthy of making the halachic decisions that impact on the future of our Jewish nation.

Such narrow-minded thinking has no place in rabbinical thought. It serves only to advance a political perspective – again catering primarily to the haredi community – that has limited interest in being welcoming to the needs and interests of Diaspora Jewry.

Halachic decision-making must be practiced in an entirely objective manner, free from personal, social or political influences, and guided only by our legal traditions and the teachers who have come before us. Acting in any other manner is counter to Torah and Jewish values and will be to the great detriment of our people and nation.

Rabbi David Stav is the Founder and Chair of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.