On Hierarchies of Rabbis — not as a human pyramid

The following essay was written in response to the article I Have No Chief Rabbi at www.hartman.org.il. I’ve made some edits so it makes more sense out of the context of a facebook stream.
Reb Yonah is one of my elementary school rabbis: Rabbi Yonah Fuld, now living in Israel. As tough as my struggles with religion have been, loving, thoughtful and caring rabbis such as Rabbi Fuld and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg reinforced my view that Judaism is many things, but lovingkindness is at its core.

Thanks, Reb Yonah, for sharing that article against the obscene bureaucracy called the Rabbinate with its chief rabbis. While having standards for rabbinical status (i.e., Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary) make perfect sense, and provide each stream of Judaism with a level set of education and experience, my experience with the rabbinate was noxious and toxic, amid all the happiness of the occasion; it spoiled a friendship with a cousin and rankled throughout my marriage.

In Israel, in the 90s, one had to be married by the rabbi/priest/immam paired with one’s religion or background. There was no civil marriage in Israel back then, so tough noogies if you were an atheist. Because my (now) ex and I were both of European extraction, it was decreed that we be married by him.

He was a stupid prat resembling an egotistical orthopedic surgeon on a bad hair day. My grilling for proving my Judaism was a matter of dropping the right rabbi names (my religious grade school had no meaning to him, but the name of my high school head rabbi — Sorry, “spiritual proctor (משגיח רוחני)” — apparently carried some weight). My ex, on the other hand, had to bring proof that both her parents were Jewish. {blink} Fortunately for her, the Orthodox rabbi who’d married her parents was still alive, so he shot off a letter. If they’d been married conservative, even if they were both Jewish and could trace their Jewish roots back to Europe, they’d have required who knows what: maybe a full conversion.

We wanted a tiny modification to the wedding ceremony: two rings. Motion denied. Having gone through probably more useful years of learning than the government-issued rabbi, I pointed out that the halachic (legal) requirement for marriage was a man giving a woman something of value and saying a certain phrase, in front of two legit (i.e., Jewish, Orthodox, male, 13+ year old) witnesses, and that everything else was optional. (N.B., Orthodox rabbis have to annul dozens of inadvertent marriages world-wide each year, when 14-year-olds say the phrase and give something (a cheap pen is enough) to a Jewish girl in front of their schoolmates.)

Any and all explanation of what we were trying to do was ignored. I’d wanted to have our own K’tuba — marriage license. My mother in law was an artist, and was eager to illustrate and write (even though she’d need to treat Hebrew characters as Egyptian runes — she didn’t know Hebrew) a document my ex and I felt was an important symbol of our life. Nope: there was one standard for Ashkenazi (European) Jews, and another for the Sepharadi (Middle Eastern) Jews. No changes allowed. Ditto for the “bill of sale” document (since the father of the bride and the groom sign off the latter’s receipt of the bride, including her virginal condition). No, no, don’t get me started.

I turned to a cousin, and asked him to consider doing the ceremony in his capacity as a rabbi in a Northern Israeli town. He’d been a wonderful, gentle resource for my ex and me. He agreed to try and get the Rabbinate in his city to talk to the Rabbinate in Karmiel to get him to do the ceremony. But it quickly turned out that he was no more willing to make any changes whatsoever than our local boy wonder.

Eventually, we made it our own way. My ex’s mom created an AMAZING document, fully illuminated and beautifully written. The Rabbinate laws didn’t state where the marriage had to take place, other than it had to be after sunrise. So we told the “European” flavor rabbi to appear in his counterpart’s synagogue at dawn. Oh, the two didn’t like each other one bit. We had a ceremony before the congregants, with some family on both sides attending. Then, having received and promptly tossed the “official” papers into a binder and from there into a drawer, we had a really great wedding celebration, complete with Reconstructionist rabbi, two ring ceremony, and a reading of the K’tuba of our making before family (happy on her side, bemused and disoriented on mine) and friends. A gorgeous day with a few of the Lower Galilee and the Med.

The Rabbinate made the most important and joyous ceremony of our marriage an event that strained us and our families. May those institutions wither and rot, as an overwatered grapevine whose grapes were Blake-ly poisoned.

As an apparently pigeonholed ‘ritual atheist,’ the god-belief part of Judaism holds nothing for me. But the rituals, and the care the Jewish community takes of its own, dictates the future of my clan, my children, and their children (sometime in the future, please!).

P.S. When my ex and I got our official divorce (‘get’), I wanted a religious one. I called up one who did it for a living (wow!), and he said it would cost $900, and not to call him until I had the money; he didn’t have time for any price wrangling or discussions. Way to go. We finally got one to do the deed for less, and he was respectful, honest and diligently and with sensitivity executed the task of burying a marriage long since expired. I got more out of the divorce ritual than our marriage. Which is truly sad.