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The worst possible way to appoint local rabbis

A contemptible new bill would create a patronage system for appointing rabbinic functionaries with no religious authority
Illustrative: Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system, on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)
Illustrative: Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system, on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation recently voted in favor of a Jewish religious services bill that would determine how city, locality, and neighborhood rabbis are appointed and subordinates Israel’s local rabbis to the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate and the local rabbis constitute a system already rife with appointments of dubious necessity. 

The proposed legislation, apart from creating an endless stream of jobs under the control of the Ministry of Religious Services (which has been mostly dominated by the Shas party in recent years), restricts the authority of local rabbis and distances them even further from any connection with their communities. As the prophet Amos lamented: “they sell the righteous for silver.”

The majority of Israelis aren’t interested in rabbis at all. A survey conducted by Ariel Finkelstein a year ago found that 55% of Israelis don’t even know if their locality has an official rabbi, or who that rabbi is. For secular Israelis, the figures are more extreme. Only 6% of secular Israelis were able to answer the question correctly. A large majority of respondents (61%) believe that if city rabbis are elected at all, municipal representatives should constitute the bulk of the electing body. A similar majority also supports term limits for city rabbis, but that seems to be a pipe dream at the moment.

A local rabbi, whose livelihood depends on local-authority and state budgets, has limited statutory duties. The law does not define what his duties are. He is meant, first and foremost, to be the spiritual leader of his community. That is why logic, and long-established Jewish tradition, dictate that the selection of a local rabbi should be entrusted to the members of that community. The bill recently approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation goes in the exact opposite direction.  

The previous Minister of Religious Services had corrected the rabbinical appointment system and granted, appropriately, greater power to residents of the communities the rabbis would serve. The proposed law, however, greatly reduces their say and shifts the center of electoral gravity to national politics – rabbinical politics, through the Chief Rabbinate, and ministerial politics through the appointment of representatives of the Minister of Religious Services. The inevitable result will be the “parachuting” of municipal rabbis into dozens of Israeli cities, based on political interests. Rabbis the community members did not choose, and perhaps did not even want. The disconnect between rabbi and community will grow larger.

The politicians promoting this bill are well aware of these problems. But that’s exactly why they promote it. They are not motivated by an interest in the rabbi-community relationship, or because they see an opportunity to improve the public standing of rabbis or the Rabbinate. They want a large-scale enterprise for cronyism. Today, more than 30 Israeli cities lack municipal rabbis; the same is true for over 50 smaller localities. The proposed legislation also aims to resurrect the practice of appointing neighborhood rabbis who, under the bill, could be as numerous as the stars in the sky. It would also make it easier to appoint two rabbis to the same municipality – an anachronistic and wasteful idea in and of itself, according to which two rabbis would hold office simultaneously in Israel’s four largest cities. Shas, which controls the Ministry of Religious Services, and to which the law gives an advantage on this potentially lucrative production line of jobs, would be able to appoint its own people or trade these appointments to advance other interests. So what if it costs the country another few hundred million shekels? Who cares?

And if all this weren’t enough, the proposed legislation completely divests the local rabbis, current and future, of their authority. The basic halachic view is that the mara d’atra, or the local religious authority, knows the members of his community and on that basis makes halachic determinations and sets halachic policy. Rabbis have resolutely insisted on this throughout Jewish history. But the present bill would make the local rabbis subject to halachic policy dictated by the Chief Rabbinate. In other words, not only would the proposed legislation impose dozens, maybe hundreds, of rabbis on Israeli localities, it would also turn these rabbis into functionaries with no real ability to elucidate Halacha (Jewish law) for the members of their communities.

The Chief Rabbinate today isn’t even a pale shadow of the vision of Rabbi Kook, its founder. Most local rabbis are completely anonymous to their residents, who in many cases don’t know who they are and are indifferent to the question of their existence. The only chance to restore some status and respect to this role is the reconnection of the rabbi to his community. The proposed legislation would work in every possible way to eradicate this possibility. Its outcome would be rampant cronyism, and the utter degradation of the local rabbi as an institution – whose standing is already low.

 

Dr. Shuki Friedman is Vice President of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center, and a rabbi ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

 

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center. His book, 'Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and “Synagogue” in Modern Israel' was recently published by Academic Studies Press.