Friday, September 4, 2015

My thoughts on the Rabbanut

Lately a lot of opinion writers have asked why be need a chief Rabbi or government recognized Rabbanut in Israel. For example, earlier this week, Isi Leibler wrote in the Jerusalem Post that the State Endorsed Rabbinical Leadership should be disbanded.

(Full disclosure: I live in Modi'in,  and regularly attend shiurim from Chief Rabbi Lau, and a lot of my opinion is based on comments or observations I have heard from him)

One of the common misnomers is that the Rabbanut doesn't represent anybody, not the Charedim, not the secular, and not even the National Religious community.
This is simply not true. It is true that most Charedim do not respect the institution of the Chief Rabbanut, in much the same way they don't respect many Zionist institutions, however in the Religious Zionist world, there is a strong segment which not only respects the institution of the Chief Rabbanut, but regards it as a critical corner stone of Zionism and the redemptive process.
Rabbi Gil Student has an excellent article on the topic, here is a key quote:
Religious Zionists, particularly among the Chardal, see the Chief Rabbinate in messianic terms. We pray three times a day in the Amidah for the return of the centralized religious judicial system. The Chief Rabbinate is not the fulfillment of that prayer but its precursor. It represents a step in the flowering of the Redemption. Seen in those terms, undermining the Chief Rabbinate is forestalling Mashiach. 
In other words, while it is true that in Galut, each shtetle, community, or congregation appointed its own rabbi (although many cities and countries also had a Government-recognized Chief Rabbi), now that we are building a Jewish nation, just like we have a centralized, government-recognized Jewish army, police force, court system, education system, medical system, postal system etc, we should have a recognized Rabbanut. This was the vision of Rav Kook when he established the Rabbanut before the state.

None of these government institutions are perfect, many need restructuring or fixing, however there is a difference between fixing a poorly run government institution, and calling for it to be disbanded.

In addition to the ideological principle of having a single uniting rabbanut, there are practical advantages.

Having a centralized record of marriage and divorce is of enormous benefit. If you have ever met a Ba'al Tshuva from Chutz L'Aretz trying to determine whether he is Jewish according to Halacha you would understand why.
If the person comes from England, or any other country with a centralized Rabbanut, provided that their parents or grandparents had a Jewish wedding registered through the Rabbanut (and the vast majority of UK Jews do, even today), it is very easy to get a copy of the Ketuba and details of the Rabbi who conducted the wedding and verify their halachic status.
In contrast, with a Jews from the US, unless they know exactly where and when their grandparents got married, and the Rabbi or community where the grandparents got married is still around and maintains accurate records, it is extremely difficult, and some times even impossible to confirm their halachic status 2 generations later.

There are many other areas where we benefit from a government recognized and funded rabbanut.
In Chutz La'retz Jewish services such as burial, eruv, mikva, marriage registration, and beit din, if they exist at all are privately funded by a congregation, and often individuals who are not members of a congregation are denied these services; many Jews belong to a congregation just so they are entitled to a Jewsih Burial.

Here in the Jewish State almost every city has an eruv, every Jew is entitled to be buried according to Halacha, and there is a Beit Din or Possek available to everyone. Who would be responsible for maintaining these services if we did not have a recognized Beit Din.

With regard to marriage. Personally I am in favour of recognizing civil marriage, in the same way that the government recognizes civil marriage performed abroad. However if individuals want a Jewish wedding, not a civil wedding, weddings should be under the auspices of the Rabbanut and the Rabbanbut should maintain records. I believe that like in England, the vast majority of Israelis would prefer a Halachic wedding, and would want to be able to prove that their future children and grandchildren a Jewish without any question.

With regard to kashrut, there is also a benefit to the kosher consumer knowing that legally an institution can only call itself kosher if it meets a minimum recognized standard of kashrut.
There are big problems in the kashrut industry now, and different Rabbanuts do have different policies or levels of efficiency, and this should be standardized - but removing any level of control and letting anyone advertise themselves as kosher without any supervision at all, is a step in the wrong direction.

In recent years there were real problems with Charedim who did not recognize the Rabbanut taking over key positions, and that was to the detriment of the entire institution, however since Rabbi Lau took over, there has been a definite move to reform  the Batei Din, Kashrut supervsion, city eruvin, and other institutions under the umbrella of the Rabbanut.
May these changes continue, and may the office of the chief rabbanut return to the respected position that it deserves, and may the individuals involved be worthy of their office and turn the institution into a Kiddush Hashem.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Response from Mr McCully

Yesterday I received a response from the Right Honourable Mr McCully.

Nothing new or surprising in his response, he just repeats that instead of looking for new or creative approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (such as promoting peaceful interaction between Israelis and Palestinians), he will repeat the tried and failed method of meaningless gestures in the UN Security Council.

Given that there was zero chance that New Zealand would have advanced the cause of peace, the fact that he is only going through the motions and not attempting to come up with new or creative solutions to the issue can't further increase New Zealand's irrelevancy to the situation.

Anyway, in the interests of full disclosure, here is the full text of the letter from the right honourable minister:
6 JUL 2015
Michael Sedley

Dear Michael Sedley
Thank you for your email of 3 June 2015 regarding the current position of the New Zealand government in relation to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
New Zealand pursues a balanced and constructive approach to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. New Zealand supports a negotiated two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian state existing side by side, in peace and security.
Given the threat the conflict poses to international peace and security, we believe the Security Council has a role to play in the Middle East Peace Process. We are assessing the best approach for its next steps, including the possibility of working on a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Yours sincerely

Han Murray McCully
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Welcome Mr McCully

As New Zealand gets ready to sit at the head of the head of the UN Security Council next month, Foreign Minister Murray McCully is visiting this part of the world.

Following is a letter that I sent to the Right Honourable Minister:

Hon Murray McCully,
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Dear Minister,

Haere mai, Bruchim Haba’im, and welcome to Israel

As a New Zealand citizen currently residing in Israel, I was initially pleased to read that the New Zealand Government is taking an active interest in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian authority.

However, according to media reports, instead of encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to work together towards living in peace, the New Zealand may back or even draft a UN resolution which will try to impose a solution from outside.

As a relatively new player to the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, New Zealand has the unique opportunity to propose or suggest new approaches, instead of rehashing proposals that have been repeatedly tried and failed over the past 20 years.

Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, all proposals have focused on borders, refugees, and security concerns. What has been overlooked is actual peaceful relations between citizens of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Although Chapter 4 of the Oslo Accords did discuss cooperation, including educating children towards peace, there has been almost no effort to enforce or encourage this. 
If you look at changes to the Palestinian textbooks since 1993, you would be hard-pressed to find any effort to encourage Palestinian children to live in peace with their Israeli neighbours.

In fact, as governments have spent 20 years discussing possible borders and security arrangements, personal peaceful interaction between Israelis and Palestinians has become more and more difficult. 
Tragically the negotiating process is actually discouraging normalization between Palestinians and Israelis. The result is that we have a whole generation of children on both sides of the conflict who have never met people on the other side, and have grown up in an environment of fear and violence.

In this environment, even if the representatives of both people could come to an agreement, or the UN or other world body could impose a solution, the chances that the agreement would lead to peace between people or a reduction in fear, hatred, and violence is almost zero.

If New Zealand wants to bring new ideas to the table, and really advance the cause of peace, could I suggest that instead of focusing on government-level negotiations or external proposals that are sure to fail, and may lead to another escalation in violence, maybe the New Zealand Government could use its influence to encourage interaction between individuals, particularly children.

Maybe the New Zealand Government could look for ways to encourage joint educational, cultural, sports, economic, or other interaction between Israeli and Palestinians. 
New Zealand is a sports-loving nation, and knows the impact that sports can have on a child’s development. If the New Zealand Government was to sponsor sporting events, concerts, or cultural events that bring Israeli and Palestinian children together in a peaceful, non-threatening environment, this would help to plant seeds of peace.
If the New Zealand government found a way to encourage joint economic ventures between Israelis and Palestinians, the entrepreneurs in these ventures would have a personal interest in maintaining peaceful relationship and free access between business partners on the other side of a future border.

These personal relationships would do more for the cause of peace than a discussion over which neighbourhoods in Jerusalem should be banned for Jews, or how many guns the Palestinian police force should be allowed, or who should control the border check-points in a future Palestinian state.

Thank you for your time,

Shalom and Haere rā

Michael Sedley

Monday, November 10, 2014

Death of Innocence

The third Intifada has claimed another victim, a few minutes ago, the 20 year old soldier who was attacked in Tel Aviv earlier today succumbed to his injuries and returned his soul to his Maker, ה' יקום דמו

This young soldier was the son of one of my daughter's teachers.

When Yael went to bed a few hours ago, she asked whether her teacher Michal would be in school tomorrow, whether her son would be OK, how he was so badly hurt, and why did someone want to hurt him. She also said that she is afraid - maybe it could happen to her.

As a father, she thinks that I am supposed to have answers, that I should know why a young soldier was murdered today for being Jewish, or why a young woman from Tekoa was murdered, or families waiting at a train station, or passengers on a train or a bus, or teenagers on their way home from school are being murdered - all for the same crime - of being Jewish.

Instead of answers, I only have questions - how could we allow terrorists to walk freely in our county? How is it that our police and security forces can't restore security to the streets of Israel? Why is it that after all these years Eisav (and Yishma'el) still hates Ya'akov.

Now I need to decide how to break this news to my daughter, whether to take her to her teacher's Shiva, whether to tell her about the dozens of other attacks that are occurring on a daily basis. How do you explain that to a 11 year old girl?

May Hashem grant the courage and wisdom to our leaders and armed forces to find the way to stop this Intifada before it continues to grow, and to bring peace and quiet to this tiny beautiful land of ours.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Reflections on Bicycles, Yom Kippur, and Religious Coercion

One of the uniquely Israeli aspects of Yom Kippur is the association of bicycles with Yom Kippur.
While in other parts of the world, Jews associate Yom Kippur with prayer, fasting, long prayer services, and maybe repentance and atonement, in Israel many Israelis associate the day with bicycles.
(If you don't know what I'm talking about, go to YouTube and search for "bicycles Yom kippur").
There are several religious practices observed by almost all Jewish Israelis, for example, I would estimate that over 90% of Jewish Israelis do the following:
  • Place a Mezuza on their front door
  • Give their sons a Brit Mila
  • Attend some type of Passover Seder
  • Refrain from driving on Yom Kippur
There are probably rituals with almost universal observance in Israel, but the above sprung to mind. If you can think of others, please leave a comment.
Interesting that if you made a similar list of ritual practiced by Jews outside Israel, the first 3 items would probably be in the list, but not the last
One of the interesting things about these observances is that none of them are required by law - there is no law in Israel that you must place a mezuza on your door, or circumcise you son, or not drive on Yom Kippur - yet almost all Israelis do this for cultural, historic, or religious reasons.
In spite of regular complaints about "religious coercion", there is very little ritual that is mandated by law in Israel, the only examples I could think of are:
  • No public transport on Shabbat
  • Forbidden to display Chametz for sale during Pessach
  • All Jewish weddings must be conducted through the Rabbanut
(Again, if you can think of areas where religious observance is mandated by law, leave a comment).
What is interesting is that the legally-mandated ritual is less widely observed than the first list above. There are more Jewish Israelis that get married outside the Rabbanut than there are who drive on Yom Kippur.
To me, this is evidence that you cannot legislate religion. Israel is a Jewish country, and all Jewish Israelis will observe mitzvot that are meaningful or culturally significant to them; but you cannot force people to keep mitzvot. In fact, I would imagine that if the Knesset passed a law making it illegal to drive on Yom Kippur, the following year a number of people would make a point of driving, just to show that knesset has no business telling them how to be Jewish - and they would be right, miztva observance is between you and your Maker, not between you and your legislator.

G'mar Chatima Tova and Chag Sameach to all my readers

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

י-ה רבון עלם - G-d, Master of the World...

Suggestion for this Shabbat (I know it's only Wednesday)...

As our soldiers have returned to Gaza, where they will spend Shabbat in the most miserable of conditions, in honour of one of Gaza's most famous residents, maybe people should include "Kah Ribon" in their Friday Night Zmirot, even people (like my family), that don't always sing Zmirot on Shabbat.

Kah Ribon was written by Rabbi Israel b. Moses Najara, who lived in Gaza city in the 16th Century. At that time, Gaza hosted a vibrant Jewish Community, and Rabbi Najara wrote poetry there, and was buried there after his death in 1625. I don't know whether anything remains of the Jewish Cemetery of Gaza, but until recently there were remains of the ancient synagogues of Gaza (I don't know what remains since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip 9 years ago).

The first letter of the 5 verses in Kah Ribon spell the word ישראל - ISRAEL, which was Rabbi Najara's given name, but is also the name of our nation and our land.

The song is in Aramaic, a language they say is so holy, that even the angels don't understand it - a language which we use to communicate directly with the Master of all Worlds.

As the song says:

אֱלָ-הָא דִי לֵיהּ,     יְקַר וּרְבוּתָא
פְּרוֹק יַת עָנָךְ,    מִפּוּם אַרְיְוָתָא
וְאַפֵּיק יַת עַמֵּךְ,     מִגּוֹ גָּלוּתָא
עַמֵּךְ דִי בְחַרְתְּ,     מִכָּל אֻמַּיָּא

O God to whom belongs glory and power,
Save your sheep from the mouth of lions,
Take your people from the nation of their exile,
The people that you chose from all the nations.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Failing to Condemn Evil

Earlier today a New Zealand organization that represents Jews, Christians, and Muslim leaders came out with the following media release calling for peace:

NZ Jews, Christians, and Muslims United in Call for Peace
Wellington, 23 July 2014

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders in Wellington issued a joint statement today regarding the current conflict in Gaza and Israel:

“We call upon all of the parties involved in the current conflict in Gaza and Israel to cease hostilities, and sit down at the negotiating table and do the hard work necessary to obtain a just and lasting peace. We urge all New Zealand Jews, Christians, and Muslims to pray for peace.”

Dave Moskovitz, Jewish Co-Chair, Wellington Council of Christians and Jews
Jenny Chalmers, Christian Co-Chair, Wellington Council of Christians and Jews
Sultan Eusoff, CEO, Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand 
On the surface, this media release sounds like a wonderful thing, what could be better than Jews, Christians, and Muslims calling for peace.

The first problem is that it is totally meaningless. It does not suggest any realistic solutions to the problem, Hamas have made it clear that they have no desire to sit and negotiate over a "just and lasting peace", and even if they did - there would be no reason for Israel to trust or believe them as Hamas has stated repeatedly that they intend to keep fighting until every Jew is Dead.

But besides being a meaningless statement, there is a bigger problem, a council of religious representatives organizations, who should be moral examples for their adherents, seem unable or unwilling to recognize evil when it is staring them in the face.

Hamas is an evil organization. It is founded on hatred, preaches hatred, rejoices when children are killed, and does everything in its power to kill as many people as possible. And proudly states that. This is pure evil.
To make this evil even worse, they do it in their name of their religion.
You don't hav eto take my word for the fact that Hamas is evil. It is clearly visible in statements and videos released by Hamas and their supporters, and is stated explicitly in the Hamas charter.

When religious leaders, such as the council of Christians, Muslims, and Jews are confronted with evil in the name of religion, they should be the first ones to stand up and say that this evil is a perversion of their religious teachings and they totally condemn it.

When Jews do horrible things, such as the savages that murdered an Arab teenager 2 weeks ago, the entire Jewish world, right wing, left wing, religious, and secular expressed revulsion. They made it clear that these individuals in no way represented Judaism, or Jewish teaching, and should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The Israeli authorities quickly apprehended them, and they will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Now we have an organization that is firing rockets from schools, hospitals, and heavily populated civilian buildings. The stated purpose of these rocket attacks is to kill as many people as possible, and the celebrate when anyone is killed. And they claim that this is what their religion teaches.

I would have expected the Muslim representatives in the council of Christians, Muslims, and Jews to be the first to stand up and say - this is not Islam! Islam is a religion of Peace that totally rejects killing innocent people.

If they are unable to stand up and say that, if they are unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, then general statements about how we should all pray for peace are not only meaningless, they show a moral vacuum.

And before anyone starts leaving comments about how the Israelis have killed civilians, gunned down children playing, kill children for pleasure then use their blood for Matza, crucified Jesus, and are plotting to take over the world, and are responsible for Global warming, please show me an example of when Israel deliberately killed innocent civilians, or rejoiced at the death of civilians. If you can find me such an example, from and Israeli source, I will be the first to condemn it, as should all Jews, including the Jewish representatives on the interfaith body.