Silencing of the Rabbis: Is the Israeli Rabbinate owned by the State?

Although it happened over a week ago, it is an incident worth remembering, long after the news cycle has moved on.

I’m referring to the row that occurred between Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and the Chief Rabbinate over remarks made by certain rabbis deemed offensive by the defense establishment.

These rabbis simply spoke their conscience and protested what they felt was an anti-religious policy being pursued by the IDF– via integration of female soldiers into army units.

No-one argues that the presence of female soldiers presents a serious spiritual challenge to a devout religious soldier serving in the same unit.

Last November, ex-military chief rabbi Brig. Gen. (res.) Yisrael Weiss warned that after a man and a woman served nine months together in a tank, “a little tank soldier would be born.” The same week, Col. (res.) Yonatan Branski, claimed that whenever members of a mixed-gender unit report for duty, “all the birth control sells out at the base canteen.”

And as the Times of Israel reported, the IDF has even admitted that the integration of female soldiers into army units is more of a social engineering feature than one which is absolutely necessary for proper defense of the country.

An intelligence officer for the Caracal battalion, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, said the army’s integration of women was motivated initially by changing social values. However, she said, the army quickly saw strategic benefits as well.

“The IDF is not just about security issues. It is also a social institution, and there was a lot of demand to integrate women,” she said. “But once girls were allowed to join these units, we saw it was a huge success. The public pressure proved itself.”

So, the rabbis are simply speaking the truth. And they have a religious duty to their congregants and followers to guide them away from unjustified spiritual pitfalls.

If that’s the case, what’s the Defense establishment’s problem with these rabbis?

The problem is, that by criticizing the army’s policies, these rabbis are discouraging enlistment into the IDF by religious recruits into certain units. And they are not allowed to do that, even if, as we’ve shown, that discouragement is wholly justified.

So we have to ask another question: Why aren’t religious figures free to voice their honest objections against army policies in a free country such as Israel?

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was refreshingly, crystal clear about his aswer.

He said,

This radicalization now is completely unreasonable, it has no place. Both the Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Rabbi of Safed, who are state employees, must represent the state’s positions and not go against them”…

One historian has argued that this is precisely why David Ben Gurion established a state-sponsored chief rabbinate in the first place. Ben Gurion very well knew that he could not eradicate the Jewish religion from the public square in Israel. He knew that Judaism is too powerful in the Jewish state to be suppressed or driven underground like it could in other Communist countries. So he had to accommodate it.

But he accommodated it in a way that he could control it.

Making as many rabbis as possible into employees of the State was a sure way to put the rabbinic establishment into the pocket of the government. As Avigdor Liberman asserted, we can make it very difficult for rabbis to protest the government’s policies, if they are employed by the government to carry out those policies.

So the answer to the title’s question is yes. In the view of the government, the Israeli Rabbinate is owned by the State.

And G-d help you if you defy it.

About the Author
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying and teaching talmud and Jewish thought in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
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