My Response to being placed on the Chief Rabbis Blacklist

July 11, 2017 | 17 Tamuz 5777

Dear Friends:

Today is 17th Day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz. It is a minor fast day which commemorates the first breach of the walls of Jerusalem that quickly led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Our commemoration of the day has an experiential quality. During the course of the fast we are called upon to imagine what it was like for the people of Jerusalem to experience the sense of impending doom as the Jewish world shattered around them. Sadly, Shiva Asar B'Tamuz has far too much of a contemporary feel this year. Instead of an enemy army breaching the walls of Jerusalem, today it is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and a dysfunctional Israeli political system. Their callous and cynical actions threaten the wall of unity for the Jewish people by challenging the religious legitimacy of the majority of American Jewry. 

On Sunday, I learned that I was chosen to be included on a blacklist, with the names of 160 Rabbis from around the world, promulgated by the office of the Chief Rabbis of Israel. While the blacklist will have no actual impact on my Rabbinate, its ugly resonance is profound. Chief Rabbi Lau claims to have not known about the formation of the list or its distribution. Unfortunately, the fact is that these detestable acts are fully consistent with the approach of his office. In the past few weeks, Jews around the world have been shocked to see Israel's Prime Minister renege on promises made in regard to the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, as well as a the development of a conversion program that included the participation of Rabbis from all streams of Judaism. The dangers of the mixing of synagogue and state are fully revealed as we watch the Prime Minister buckle to the pressure of small religious parties in his coalition. At the heart of these insensitive acts is an increasingly brazen Ultra Orthodox community whose contempt for world Jewry is protected and encouraged by the Chief Rabbinate.

Some people have told me that having one's name on such a list is a badge of honor, considering the corruption of the Israeli Rabbinate. Others understand the blacklist as part of Israel's theatre of the absurd and have encouraged me to just laugh about it. As attractive as it is to find the humor in the moment, there are hard questions that need to be addressed:  

  • Shall we simply choose to smile as the Israeli government supports the Chief Rabbinate's acts of demeaning the Conservative and Reform movements?
  • Where is the humor in seeing our young people being offered another reason to distance themselves from Israel?
  • How can we make light of decisions which treat Jews by Choice as pawns in a bizarre and immoral power struggle?
  • What is funny about casting aspersions onto someone's status as a Jew when they want to move to Israel because of the synagogue they attended, or the validity of a parent's Jewish marriage due to the affiliation of the Rabbi who performed the ceremony?

No, there is little to laugh about when the walls of the unity of the Jewish people are being breached. 

The relevance of Shiva Asar B'Tamuz should not be lost on any of us today.

There is another reason for our people to commemorate tragic moments in Our history. They serve as a warning for us to ensure that such catastrophes not repeat themselves. Our Rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hiram: Causeless hatred between Jews. Here is the response to those who say that the State of Israel has more important things to concern itself with than the religious sensitivities of world Jewry; Our history teaches us that our people's greatest strength has always been our faith and unity. Without them, we are lost.

The establishment of the State of Israel was one of the great miracles of Jewish history.  It is vital that we remember that Jewish miracles only fully occur when we take part in their fruition, when we are willing to be participants in our own destiny. We have the power to change the trajectory of this moment. There is nothing to be gained by sinking to the level of the Chief Rabbinate and their minions by engaging in vitriol. Rather, let us support those who stand for our values in Israel and do everything possible to fight against the religious monopoly called the Chief Rabbinate. We should be supporting the important work of the members of the Masorti Movement (the Conservative Movement in Israel): . They have been fighting for our rights against all odds and have succeeded in a remarkable way. I am proud to say that Dr. Steven Nasatir of the JUF has been a leader in fighting for the religious rights of all Jews in Israel, as have the leaders of AIPAC and AJC.  However, this is not a crisis that will end with one well-publicized trip to visit with the Prime Minister. Unless we and the leaders of our Jewish organizations are willing to commit to seeing this struggle to the end, we will not succeed. So let us ask Jewish leaders serious questions in exchange for our support:

  • What is your organization doing to ensure that the religious rights of all Jews are protected in Israel?
  • How are you making our your voices heard in the highest levels of government?

I will be visiting Israel this August with a group of Rabbis and Pastors and have every intention of making my sense of outrage known about the Rabbinic Blacklist and the government that countenances it.

We do have the power to create profound changes that will benefit the entirety of the Jewish people for generations to come. The only question is whether we have the will to use that strength to fulfill the miracle of modern day Israel. Today is the 17th of Tamuz, the day on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached nearly 2000 years ago.  It is a good day to reflect on the challenges and the opportunities before us.

Rabbi Michael S. Siegel

I am including the reflections of my friend and colleague Rabbis Morris Allen and a statement that was published by the Rabbinical Assembly.  Rabbi Morris Allen's words appeared in the Jewish Forward: