Is there a Jewish Vatican?

English: Western wall in Jerusalem at night

Western Wall in Jerusalem, administered by an office of the Orthodox Rabbinate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judaism has no central office.

We have national and international organizations which address various aspects of Jewish life, and in some countries there is a “head rabbi” who represents the Jews to the larger community, but there is no central office that sets policy and makes decisions.  There is nothing analogous to the Vatican for Catholics or Salt Lake City for the Mormons.

Sometimes when people hear that there is such a thing as “Jewish Law” they imagine that there is an authority that administers and defines it, and in fact there is no such entity. There are groups of Jews who are more or less in agreement on an approach to Jewish Law and traditions (“movements”), but there is variation even within those groups.

Within the State of Israel, there is the Orthodox Rabbinate, which has been established by Israeli law as the chief halakhic (Jewish legal) authority inside the State of Israel. It has authority over marriages, divorces, kashrut, burials, and overseeing the religious courts that administer those functions. However, even in Israel, there are many Jews who differ with the Orthodox Rabbinate on religious questions and which have their own institutions and synagogues. There are also a large number of secular Jews in Israel who choose to have little to do with the Orthodox Rabbinate.

So the next time you hear someone make a blanket statement about Jews (“All Jews believe such-and-such”)  be cautious. Even if you limit it to “All religious Jews believe …” it’s a very broad statement. Jewish tradition puts a very high value on minhag (local custom) and Jewish beliefs vary widely.

 

So, is there no such thing as normative Judaism? In the fine details, no. But in broader strokes, I can make a few statements with confidence:

  • Jews share a narrative that begins with Abraham.
  • Jews look to the Torah for that narrative and revelation of the best way to live. We differ on how to interpret Torah.
  • Jews affirm the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, The Eternal  is our God, The Eternal is One.” “The Eternal” is a stand-in for the four letter Name of God which we do not pronounce; and yes, we argue about what words are an acceptable substitution for the Name.
  • When Jews say “The Eternal is One,” we mean that there is only One God, without Persons or any other divinity. Jews do not believe Jesus was, much less is, divine.
  • Jews look forward to a better world. We disagree whether that world comes with a particular Messiah, or in a Messianic Age, or whether the “better world” is an ideal towards which we are striving.

So no, there is no Jewish Vatican, and there are no Jewish enforcers. “Enforcement” happens by peer pressure, if it happens at all outside the State of Israel.  This has up-sides and down-sides, but it is important to know when you are getting to know us: that’s the reason that sometimes the best answer to many questions about Judaism is “It depends.”

3 Responses to Is there a Jewish Vatican?

  1. Debbie says:

    Rabbi I just want to make sure that you know that shiva for Rabbi Graetz’s mother of blessed memory will be Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights in their home. I know you are a friend of Deborah’ s. Deborah will be attending by Internet. Debbie Frank

    Like

  2. […] swoop down and arrest you for working on Shavuot. There are no mitzvah minders to report you to the Jewish Central Control if you choose not to say the bedtime Shema. Individual Jewish communities may employ peer […]

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