Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, director of Israel policy and advocacy for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that American Jews of various stripes believe that the time for major change has arrived.
“There’s a sense [that] it’s time for the [Chief Rabbinate] to enter the 21st century, if not the 20th,” Weinblatt said.
Focus on the topic is building, according to Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. However, he said that his umbrella group, which includes representatives of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist groups, will not be taking a public position on the matter.
“There clearly is great interest in the Jewish community regarding matters of religion and state in Israel,” Raffel said. “The JCPA considers the impact of Israeli policies and actions in this arena on Israel-world Jewish relations, and routinely shares assessments with government officials and others. But as an umbrella body – for the sake of ‘shalom bayit’ [Hebrew for ‘peace in the home’] – long ago we decided not to take positions with respect to specific legislative matters” in Israel regarding religious pluralism.
Likewise, the AJC usually stays out of internal Israeli affairs, but not when they “directly affect the position of American Jewry, the American Jewish-Israeli relationship and the Jewish people,” Bayme said.
About a year ago, he said, AJC leaders started deliberating on their statement in response to Knesset member David Rotem’s unsuccessful effort to pass a bill cementing Orthodox control of the Chief Rabbinate. But religious pluralism is not the only reason for such actions, Bayme added.
“We’re trying to signal to Israeli society that the U.S.-Israel relationship, which we pride ourselves on, rests on democratic norms,” Bayme said. “Those norms and a coercive monopoly [by the Chief Rabbinate] don’t easily exist.”
The AJC, he said, is not calling for the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate but for its radical transformation. One model suggested by the organization is England’s Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the 80-million member Anglican Church. The archbishop is chosen by the prime minister on behalf of the monarchy and has a largely ceremonial and ritualistic role with no political power.
But, Bayme cautioned, that is only one idea.