the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at: www.shoshanakordova.com.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Time for a new Chief Rabbinate

This blog was first posted May 13, 2005, on Haaretz Underground.

For those who have not been following the latest scandal to come out of the Holy Land, the family of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is involved in a strange and somewhat sordid affair - but it is his reaction that is even more troubling.

Amar's son Meir, wife Mazal and daughter Ayala, 18, are accused of involvement in the abduction and assault of a 17-year-old ultra-Orthodox suitor of Ayala, in an attempt to get him to stay away from the rabbi's daughter. The two reportedly met in an Internet chat room.

This week police questioned Rabbi Amar, who denied involvement. However, both the suitor and Meir, who is now secular, say the rabbi knew about the attack. The rabbi expressed his "anguish" at the beating of the youth, saying his son was responsible.

Amar has not taken the opportunity to issue a statement denouncing the practice of beating people up if they aren't deemed suitable suitors, or even a statement claiming that his family members would never engage in such barbarous behavior. But lest you think he is unaffected by the media reports on this incident, rest assured that Amar has issued a staunch clarification. It turns out that what truly disturbs the Sephardi chief rabbi about this whole story is that people think his daughter uses the Internet, when really, he says, she communicated with her suitor via SMS messages on the family's sole cell phone.

"Unfortunately, the family was hurt by unpleasant reports that we have the Internet," Amar said in an interview with the Ma'ariv daily that was published Friday. "I'm afraid of desecrating God's name, that yeshiva students or God-fearing people will think this is right. I don't know what the Internet is; I have never seen what it is. There has never been anything like this in the house, and there is nothing like this [here]."

There are two elements of this response that I find incredibly disturbing. First, there is the obvious absurdity of Amar's implied contention that abduction and assault by the immediate family of the chief rabbi of Israel, and possibly with the awareness of the rabbi himself, doesn't desecrate God's name - but Internet use does.

Or, in the words of sources close to the chief rabbi who were quoted in Haaretz, the Amar affair is merely "a private incident, like a serious traffic offense."

This would explain why Amar is not considering suspending himself from his position as president of the High Rabbinical Court. After all, aren't people who assault others for the "right reasons" entitled to an ally - or, at least a perceived ally - in charge of the rabbinical courts?

In the same week in which the Amar case was unfolding, Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran saw fit to recuse himself from hearing petitions against the West Bank separation fence because two of the petitions involve the West Bank village of A-Ram, where Joubran's brother lives. Yet the chief justice of the rabbinical courts seems never to have heard of conflict of interest.

Then there is the second disturbing issue, which concerns Amar's heated opposition to modernity, in the form of the Internet.

The institute of the Chief Rabbinate has strayed a long way from the days of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who became the first chief rabbi of Israel in 1921 and was a pioneer in combining Orthodox Judaism with political Zionism as an extension of the traditional religious longing for the Land of Israel.

How is it that as we celebrate the 57th anniversary of the State of Israel, the current embodiment of the Chief Rabbinate fears that he will be defaming God if he accepts the modern world? Although I am specifically referring to the Sephardi chief rabbi here, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger is no less tainted by charges of corruption, and also identifies with the community commonly described as "ultra-Orthodox."

But while the English term connotes a high degree of Orthodoxy, the Haredim, as the community is called in Hebrew, are not a more religious sector of modern Orthodoxy or its Israeli equivalent, religious Zionism, but a sector that embraces an entirely different conception of what Judaism means.

A cornerstone of Haredi ideology is an explicit rejection of the modern world. That is why Ashkenazi Haredi men wear the clothing that was prevalent in Poland in the last century and speak Yiddish: They feel a religious imperative to retain an idealized past and keep out what they consider to be the negative influences of modern life, as transmitted by devices such as the television and Internet. As a rule, Haredim also reject the State of Israel as an expression of the Zionism of liturgy and religious tradition, refuse to celebrate national holidays such as Independence Day and Memorial Day, and do not serve in the army - believing, they say, that Torah study will protect the nation, and fearing the corroding influences of the IDF as a non-yeshiva environment.

Why, then, are Haredi rabbis representing the public face of religion in Israel in the first place? The Chief Rabbinate is a government institution, but Amar and Metzger represent a group of people who refuse to assign a religious value to the state. They represent a modern country 84 years after Rav Kook first embraced modernity, but they themselves reject the world of today. So who is it that these chief rabbis actually represent?

When Amar and Metzger were selected in 2003, Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a former Meimad MK, had this to say: "At the end of the day, the only population that related seriously to [the Chief Rabbinate] was the religious Zionist population, since the ultra-Orthodox population doesn't recognize the Chief Rabbinate and the secular population thinks the rabbinate is an issue for the religious. And if the religious Zionist population loses its faith in [the Chief Rabbinate], then we have a very sad situation."

The situation as it exists today is indeed a sad one. Perhaps the aura of corruption and criminal behavior that now surrounds the Chief Rabbinate will have one positive impact: a new rabbinate that is far more suitable to the nation of Israel and the State of Israel.

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