I’m an Amer­i­can rabbi. Is­rael re­jects my re­li­gious author­ity.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com Gil Stein­lauf is the se­nior rab­binic ad­viser at Adas Is­rael in Wash­ing­ton, where he served as se­nior rabbi from 2008 to 2017.

When I dis­cov­ered this past week that I was one of the 160 rab­bis of­fi­cially not to be trusted by the Is­raeli Ortho­dox rab­binate, I had an un­canny flash­back to an ear­lier sen­sa­tion. I was 19, and I had al­lowed my­self to be “kid­napped” at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It was a well-known thing to do at the time: If you were an Amer­i­can kid ex­plor­ing your Ju­daism and you wanted to get an in­vite to an ul­tra-Ortho­dox home for a Sab­bath meal, you sim­ply hung around the Western Wall on a Satur­day af­ter­noon un­til an Ortho­dox man well-known for his outreach ap­proached and asked if you wanted to join a fam­ily for lunch. Like so many young Amer­i­can Jews who grew up in largely sec­u­lar homes, I was in Is­rael to delve into my Jewish iden­tity. I had never per­son­ally known Jews who wore black hats and head­scarves. When I saw them walk­ing the Jerusalem streets, speak­ing Yid­dish to one another with large broods of kids in tow, I was re­minded of sto­ries my Yid­dish-speak­ing grand­par­ents told me of their van­ished child­hood worlds in Europe. That Sab­bath, I wanted to be kid­napped. I wanted ac­cess to that sweet, haimish world of my an­ces­tors.

The man led me through the mag­i­cal wind­ing streets of the Old City un­til we fi­nally came to a tiny apart­ment. There was a large, beau­ti­fully set Sab­bath ta­ble. We ar­rived late: There were al­ready at least seven other Amer­i­cans there, and they had fin­ished eat­ing. The apart­ment be­longed to a young cou­ple. The wife, a stout woman mod­estly dressed in Ortho­dox garb, led me to my place at the ta­ble and put a bowl of cholent in front of me. Her hus­band, a thin man with a long black beard, white shirt and black pants with rit­ual fringes hang­ing in front, was al­ready speak­ing an­i­mat­edly to the group.

“And so ev­ery­thing in this world de­pends on the mitzvos we do,” he was say­ing, us­ing the Yid­dish pro­nun­ci­a­tion of “mitzvot,” the He­brew

Rabbi Gil Stein­lauf says ul­tra-Ortho­dox fun­da­men­tal­ists are spurn­ing all Jews who be­lieve in plu­ral­ism

word for “re­li­gious com­mand­ments.” “There are no ex­cep­tions. You do the mitzvos, and your life will be well and the world will have peace, and we will bring on — God will­ing — the mes­siah. But if the Jewish peo­ple aren’t do­ing their mitzvos, this brings on calamity upon our peo­ple.”

“Wait a minute,” another kid chimed in. “What about the Holo­caust? Are you say­ing the Holo­caust . . .”

“I am ab­so­lutely say­ing the Holo­caust!” the bearded man in­ter­rupted. “Ev­ery­thing you learned about the Holo­caust is wrong. The Nazis were noth­ing but an in­stru­ment of Hashem [God]! Hashem brought the Holo­caust on the Jewish peo­ple, and do you know why? It’s be­cause the Jews of Europe fell away from a life of piety. They were aban­don­ing their kashrus, they were des­e­crat­ing the Sab­bath!” We sat for a mo­ment in si­lence, stunned. He con­tin­ued: “And don’t think it was just the big things. Ev­ery mitz­vah counts. The Holo­caust very well may have been brought on be­cause too many Jews weren’t reg­u­larly check­ing the mezuzahs on their doors to make sure they were still kosher!”

I couldn’t be­lieve my ears, and I couldn’t even process my out­rage. I re­mained si­lent for the rest of that lunch, in a daze. The con­ver­sa­tion shifted to talk of a lo­cal yeshiva our hosts hoped we might at­tend to be­come more like them. I just wanted to leave. I felt an ocean of dif­fer­ence be­tween who I was and who this ul­tra-Ortho­dox man was. This wasn’t the haimish world I had heard about from my grand­par­ents. This was a world of mag­i­cal think­ing, pred­i­cated on a fear­ful world­view that treated ev­ery­thing — even our fel­low Jewish peo­ple — with the deep­est mis­trust. I left my bowl of stew un­eaten.

That feel­ing came back to me this past week when I read about the lat­est ma­neu­ver by the Rab­banut, the of­fi­cial re­li­gious author­ity in the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment. The author­ity has col­lected the names of di­as­pora rab­bis — Ortho­dox and non-Ortho­dox — whose let­ters at­test­ing to the Jewish­ness of any im­mi­grant seek­ing to prove their Jewish iden­tity in Is­rael will be re­jected out­right. The rea­son? We can only guess. The Rab­banut has of­fered no ex­pla­na­tion for how it de­cided which rab­bis it trusts and which it doesn’t. All of us on the black­list have signed let­ters at­test­ing to the Jewish­ness of peo­ple that the rab­binate re­fused to ac­cept. But a spokesman for the Rab­banut told Jewish Week that there is “no clear cri­te­ria” for whose rec­om­men­da­tions they take.

Still, many of the rab­bis on the list prac­tice a more open, plu­ral­is­tic Ju­daism than our ul­tra-Ortho­dox col­leagues who run the Rab­banut do. And any num­ber of things could have put me on the list: I am a Con­ser­va­tive rabbi who is out­spo­ken on so­cial jus­tice is­sues; I call for a pro­gres­sive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of an­cient Jewish laws; I am openly gay; when I be­lieve that Is­rael’s poli­cies are im­moral, I say so pub­licly.

So when I saw my name there, I wasn’t sur­prised. I re­mem­bered that lunch in Jerusalem all those years ago, and I felt noth­ing but sad­ness. I’m sad that within my beloved Jewish peo­ple, there are views so rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent that the gulf be­tween us of­ten feels un­bridge­able.

And I know that the rab­bis on the list with me aren’t the only rab­bis blacklisted. The black­list re­ally en­com­passes all rab­bis who don’t sub­scribe to the nar­row world­view of the Rab­banut, which holds that the only valid form of Ju­daism is one that ad­heres solely to the strictest in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Jewish law and the most tra­di­tion­al­ist so­cial val­ues. Most of all, I feel sad be­cause it is not just rab­bis: All pro­gres­sive­minded Jews have been re­jected. The Rab­banut has shunned all of us who wel­come open ques­tion­ing, diver­sity, plu­ral­ism, and many paths to God and to ho­li­ness within our peo­ple and in the world.

I mourn for all the Jewish peo­ple, for the Rab­banut’s con­tempt to­ward Jews who aren’t like them. I grieve for the way those author­i­ties un­der­mine Jewish unity in the in­ter­est of their po­lit­i­cal power. Is­rael has no sepa­ra­tion of syn­a­gogue and state, and since 1948, ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jews have had the sole author­ity over per­sonal-sta­tus is­sues in Is­raeli law. More­over, ul­tra-Ortho­dox groups wield con­sid­er­able power in the Is­raeli par­lia­ment and ex­ert great in­flu­ence over leg­is­la­tion. That lethal mix­ture of pol­i­tics and re­li­gion is tear­ing apart the Jewish world through this list and sim­i­lar ex­clu­sion­ary tac­tics — most no­tably, the re­cent agree­ment be­tween ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jews and Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu to re­voke a deal that would have of­fi­cially sanc­tioned plu­ral­is­tic prayer ser­vices at the Western Wall.

Fi­nally, my heart breaks for all the Jewish kids like I once was, who want noth­ing more than to en­ter into the tra­di­tional world, to feel its depth and its warmth. Years ago, I found mis­trust, re­jec­tion and twisted logic in­stead. And now the rest of the world is finding those things, too, with this de­spi­ca­ble list and the Rab­banut’s closed-mind­ed­ness.

I still think about that un­eaten bowl of cholent. I pray that the grow­ing rifts be­tween Jews, be­tween Is­rael and the di­as­pora, be­tween all rapidly po­lar­iz­ing groups in this world, will heal. Un­til then, I must speak out against the mis­trust­ful and ex­clu­sion­ary vise-grip that the Rab­banut has over the home­land of all the Jewish peo­ple. May those of us who do not sub­scribe to fun­da­men­tal­ism join our voices to­gether and de­mand that Is­rael re­lease us from that stran­gle­hold. Mean­while, I will put out a bowl of my own cholent on my Sab­bath ta­ble, and pray that all my Jewish broth­ers and sis­ters will join me there, to be em­braced for who they are. May that day come soon, be­fore the cholent gets cold.

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