Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Chief Rabbinate Officials: Only After Army Service

Last week, I discussed how Israel’s majority non-Haredi community should frame the political argument regarding obligatory army service for the Haredim as well. If and when Haredi intransigence proves to be immovable (whether the law is passed or not; right now, the government is at an impasse), the question then becomes: what should Israel do? The answer is to start applying pressure where it really hurts, because this issue has been going on too long – and threatens the long-term viability of the State of Israel, economically and militarily as well.

Indeed, the long-term conflict between non-Haredi Israel (the secular, traditional, and national-religious Jewish sectors) and the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community has been so “stable” that it has its own non-Hebrew, German term: kulturkampf (Culture War). Obligatory IDF service for Haredi men is one of those eternal issues, albeit probably the most important (at this stage, no one is contemplating drafting Haredi women; in any case, many get married between the age of 18-20, that would automatically relieve them from army duty).

As is well known, the public controversy has focused on the obligation to serve in the army. However, the obverse side of the coin is worth broaching as well: what “rights” should be abrogated, or limitations placed on, regarding those who refuse to be drafted? After all, citizenship is a matter of rights and obligations – you shouldn’t have many of the former if you are not willing to fulfill the latter.

The Haredi educational system is one highly vulnerable pressure point. The first blow was struck early this week by the Supreme Court, based on the Knesset’s own legislation: those yeshivas that don’t send a certain quota of their graduates to IDF service, have their government subsidies cut off.

In parallel, the same basic principle underlies another threat to Haredi education: loss of government subsidization for those grade schools that refuse to teach “core” subjects such as English and mathematics. The Knesset has answered that one clearly as well: no! The obligation of any government to finance (quasi-)public education has a counter-obligation of the educators to teach the basics that the state views as critical for the good of the students and the country alike.

In short, the underlying principle of “rights with obligations” has already been decided. The question is whether that can’t be extended to other areas that the Haredim hold dear. My answer is “yes”.

The Chief Rabbinate in Israel is a state institution of the first order, established in parallel with the state itself (actually, a continuation of the institution during the British Mandate). Unlike America’s Constitution (1st Amendment) there is no separation of religion and state in Israel: each religious denomination has its own publicly funded leadership institution, including religious councils that determine religious practice as well as kosher supervisors (mash’gikhim). The system also has religious courts for matters of marriage, divorce, and religious conversion.

This overall structure embodies a windfall of lucrative jobs. In the early years of the state, the vast majority of Chief Rabbinate employees were national-Orthodox Jews who served in the army as (they saw it) a religious duty. Over the years, however, for demographic reasons (huge Haredi birthrate) and sociological ones too (the national-Orthodox became college educated, preferring to enter the regular workforce), the Chief Rabbinate became an increasingly attractive place of work for Haredim who did not have the requisite skills (no English, math, etc.) for “regular” work. The result: by the 21st century, the Chief Rabbinate had become an almost exclusive Haredi enclave.

This, then, constitutes a particularly powerful pressure point. Why should a government institution be manned (another problem: the Haredim have fought tooth and nail to prevent women from serving even on local religious councils, but Israel’s courts nixed that policy some 30 years ago) by individuals who haven’t performed basic army service or received an education that includes core subjects? We are not talking about the government deciding who can be a rabbi (a purely religious matter), but rather who can serve in a government position regarding religious matters.

In a book that I recently published (in Hebrew) with Dr. Tali Friedman – Religious Zionist Rabbis’ Freedom of Speech: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel’s Democracy (2024) – we discuss conditioning rabbinical employment in a government position on receiving a license. We note the difference between professional or commercial employment and being a governmental functionary. Governments have always established different criteria and conditions for working in an official state position e.g., professional education, prior experience etc., legitimately deciding what those conditions should be.
Indeed, the Knesset could kill two birds with one stone by passing legislation that would require two basic things for anyone wishing to serve within a Chief Rabbinate position: 1- army service (or legitimate deferment e.g., severe physical handicap); 2- passing the high school matriculation exam, something only possible in an educational system that teaches English and math (etc.).

The rationale for such a policy is not merely “punitive” against those who refuse to accept basic obligations in a modern state. It is also substantive, because many of the rabbis serving on the religious courts have little inkling of how the vast majority of Israelis live, given the Haredi rabbis’ social and educational self-ghettoization. One example among many: especially when it comes to deciding matters of divorce (and alimony), they have proven again and again to favor the husband’s position. Indeed, on numerous occasions the state’s regular courts have had to intervene in such decisions, given their “unreasonableness” (for modern sensibilities).

In the final analysis, “money talks.” By using the economic levers at its disposal, the State of Israel could force the Haredim to bear the share of the country’s economic and military burden. And if the Haredim wish to continue in their recalcitrance, they can pay their own way – all the way.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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