Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rabbinic Competition and the Tzohar Law

An old rabbi joke you might have heard:
A man walks into the rabbi's office to talk. After exchanging pleasantries, he finally gets down to business.
"Rabbi," he says, "I want you to make me a Kohen."
"Make you a Kohen?! We don't do that!"the rabbi responded.
"I thought you might respond in this manner," the man said, reaching into his pocket and removing his checkbook. "So I'm prepared to make a ten-thousand dollar donation to the synagogue in exchanging for your helping me."
Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money, and the shul certainly needed it, but the rabbi held firm.
"Sorry, but I can't help you."
A week later, the man was back.
"Rabbi, I really want you to make me a Kohen. And I've thought about it, and I'm willing to up my donation to a fifty thousand dollars, straight to the synagogue's general fund. Will you do it?"
This time, the rabbi took a moment. He thought about it, but decided that he couldn't go through with it.
"Sorry," he told the man, "But I just can't help you."
A week later, the man returned once again.
"Rabbi," he said. "I truly need to be a Kohen. I'm willing to up my offer to a hundred thousand, straight to your discretionary fund, no questions asked. Please, I'm begging you."
A hundred thousand dollars. The rabbi lost himself in thought for a few moments, and then said softly, "I think I can help you."
"Terrific!" the man said excitedly, as he begun scribbling out the check. "Wonderful!"
"But there's one thing I need to ask you." the rabbi interrupted. "I don't understand. Why is it so important for you to be a Kohen?"
"Simple," the man explained. "My grandfather was a Kohen. My father was a Kohen..."

Throughout my years in Detroit, I appreciated the fact that I never felt the need to troll for members. On one hand, I certainly felt a responsibility and obligation to increase membership. My salary and livelihood depended upon it. At the same time, our shul occupied a unique space in our community. In contrast to the other shuls in the neighborhood, the Young Israel of Oak Park really is the only Modern Orthodox large shul in the Oak Park community. If you were looking for that kind of shul, we were there for you. My job, as I saw it, was to make the shul the most welcoming, inviting shul that it could be - which would hopefully drive membership.
Most of my friends, I think, were in the same position.
Others, though, found themselves in neighborhoods with multiple shuls competing for the same members. Sometimes this would result in a "cold war", with shuls subtly competing for members by offering attractive programming and even financial discounts. At times though, this process degenerated into outright pilfering, as rabbis openly courted members of other shuls. (They would, of course, deny it, claiming a prior "relationship" that they wished to nurture. But pilfering happens, and it isn't pretty.)
What I have never heard of, at least in recent decades, is a case where an Orthodox rabbi relaxed his halachic standards in order to increase his membership. Perhaps I'm naive, but we're really not in it for the money. Most rabbis I know could have gone into other careers which pay far better, but entered the rabbinate out of a sense of idealism and devotion to Klal Yisrael. So the suggestion that rabbis would relax their standards for their own financial gain rings hollow to me.
I mention this in light of the recent Tzohar Law which gained final passage in the Knesset this week. The Tzohar Law says simply that instead of having to register to marry in the municipality in which one lives, a couple can register to marry in any rabbinate of their choice.
Before the law was passed, standard regulations from the Chief Rabbinate require a couple to register for their marriage license in the local rabbinate in which they reside. These rabbinates are essentially deregulated and determine their own procedures and halachic guidelines. Certain rabbinates refuse to register converts of any kind; others will not permit most Zionist rabbis to conduct weddings. No less important is the quality of the service and hours of operation.
Over the past decade, this reality has been a significant and major factor prompting many halachically Jewish Israeli couples to choose civil marriage in Cyprus or Prague over navigating the challenging bureaucratic maze of their local rabbinate. Moreover, many couples simply forgo formal marriage, preferring to live together without bothering with the hassle of Chuppah and Kiddushin. Without the benefit of Chuppah and Kiddushin and a kosher Ketubah, the children of these couples will face great challenges in proving their Jewish status in the future. This reality, combined with hundreds of thousands of halachically Jewish Russian immigrants who cannot prove their Jewish status, has created a wave of assimilation that threatens the Jewish nature of the State of Israel.
In a meeting in late August, the new Chief Rabbinate decided to publicly oppose the proposed law, citing unspecified halachic concerns associated with the law. Last year, then Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger came out strongly against the law, claiming that it would "dramatically increase the number of mamzerim in the Jewish people."
Chareidim have long argued that the law would encourage people to seek out the most lenient rabbinate, and encourage rabbis to permit inappropriate kulot. I find the entire argument troubling. Essentially, this argument stipulates that rabbis can't be trusted, and will race to the "bottom" chasing after the most possible marriage registrations.
Really? Do we suspect the local rabbinates to such a great degree that we fear that they'll compromise halachah for financial gain? Why then do we trust them to perform the weddings in the first place? I truly never fully understood the Chareidi opposition to the law, especially since Chareidim never registered themselves with local rabbinates, and have no use for them. My suspicion is that they fear that people will shy away from utilizing them for weddings, preferring to hire rabbis that more fit their "style" or outlook. Essentially, the law will cause rabbis to lose wedding fees (which they were not legally allowed to charge) to competing, more accessible rabbis.
That's a legitimate fear.
While I don't believe that rabbis should or would compete in the area of halachah, they most certainly should compete in the areas of service. I hope that this new law will encourage local rabbinates to compete to be more accessible, more open, friendly and positive. I hope that they'll attract couples based on accessibility and ease of use. I hope that they'll begin to think about ways to make the marriage ceremony more spiritually meaningful, so that they're friends attending the wedding will ask them, "Who was that rabbi? We want him to marry us as well."
That happens at Tzohar weddings all the time.
Rather than harm Judaism, this law will go a long way towards making traditional marriage friendlier and more engaging.
And that's a good thing for the Jewish people.