The Rabbinical Racket

Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 4, 1999

What is it about the Ministry of Religious Affairs that is worth clawing and slashing about? Why is control over the Ministry worth holding up agreement on formation of a new government, with Shas and the NRP locked in bitter battle over this relatively small ministry?


Answer: Because the Ministry is the key to all the political patronage in the world of rabbis and rabbinical judges. One hundred key appointments are expected over the next year alone.


In my opinion, that alone is reason enough to abolish the Ministry. At the very least, a drastic overhaul is called for. The politicization and nepotism embedded in the Ministry is a recipe for *hillul hashem*, the desecration of G-d’s name.


Now, I’m all in favor of rabbis: democratically-elected, on the local level, serving as pastors and spiritual guides and educators, chosen freely by their flock.


My brother, for an example, is a democratically-elected local rabbi in a modest, mixed religious-secular town. He is dynamic, very knowledgeable in Torah, a good teacher, moderate and modern in his approach to life. He holds a BA in computer science and an MA in history. A good shepherd for his community, which willingly pays his humble, part-time salary.


But of course, he and other admirable grass-roots rabbis like him, stand little chance of ever getting a ‘teken’ — the officially-sanctioned, Ministry of Religious Affairs-granted, “rabbi position”. These are reserved for the politically-connected. Usually haredi connections.


Like Rabbi David Lau, son the Chief Rabbi. Just starting out, he was catapulted by ministry machers to ‘chief rabbi’ of Shoham, and now he rules in Modiin. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron’s son-in-law, Rabbi Aryeh Smadga, is now the rabbi of Reches Shlomo (Shuafat) in northern Jerusalem. Local residents had no role in selection of these rabbis.


Then there is the Yosef/Deri clan. Rabbi David Yosef, son of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia, is chief rabbi of Har Nof, a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem where his father lives. A terribly-needed position! There are only about 60 rabbis per square centimeter in Har Nof. How could they possibly have managed without a ‘chief rabbi’ holding a teken?


Rabbi Amram Deri, Aryeh’s youngest brother, is rabbi of ‘Meduragei Bayit Vegan’. Ever heard of it? It’s a three-block quadrant, carved out of Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan area so that a job could be handed out.


Pisgat Zeev on the other hand, with 50,000 residents, doesn’t have a formally-appointed rabbi – because residents have continually blocked Ministry attempts to foist upon them a haredi, Shas-sponsored appointee. There are no haredim in Pisgat Zeev. And the ministry, of course, “can’t find” — i.e., doesn’t want to give the position to — a modern, Zionist rabbi. And certainly not to someone who might be close to the NRP or who already serves in the neighborhood.


Rabbi Yehuda Deri, another “brother of”, has done real well. He started out as rabbi of the gigantic Ramot neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. I lived there for seven years, went to shul every day, and never saw him once. Last year, he was “elected” chief rabbi of Beersheba in a hotly contested race.


Elected, of course, not by the residents, but by the Religious Council, appointed by party affiliation and representatives of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Rabbi Kaddouri personally lobbied council members for Yehuda Deri. Real estate magnate David Appel, a great *tzaddik* known for his skills in picking chief rabbis, reportedly set up an election headquarters for Yehuda Deri in the Beersheba Hilton!


I don’t question the Torah scholarship nor the personal qualities of the above-mentioned rabbis. But it can’t be mere coincidence that close relatives of the most prominent political rabbis are getting the plum appointments, and most of the other rabbinical jobs too.


As Abba Shaul warned in the Talmud (Pesachim 57a): “Woe to us from the house of Yishmael ben Piachi, for they are the High Priests, their sons are the treasurers, their son-in-laws are officers, and their servants lord over the people”.


Nepotism is only half the problem. Abuse of the system by rabbis and politicians also has blocked the advancement of modern, liberal Orthodox rabbis. The type of young spiritual leaders who might have a chance of connecting with secular Israelis; of articulating the beauty and relevance of Judaism in enlightened society – automatically are knocked out of the running by the old guard which runs the system.


Appointments to Rabbinical Court bench are even more politicized. You can count on one hand the number rabbinical judges trained in Zionist-oriented hesder yeshivas and modern kollels that have been elected to the bench over the past fifteen years. And we all know how much reform and new halachic thinking is needed in these courts.


Democracy and transparency in appointing rabbis is the only solution. If a city rabbi, a Religious Council chairmen, and his deputy chairmen can get salaries equal to that of a mayor or government minister – why shouldn’t they be elected by the public too?


Politics in religion is inevitable, just as politics pervades everything else in this country, from soccer to the theatre. But institutionalized political corruption has its limits. And in this case, more is at stake. Those who purport to represent God’s law on earth have higher standards to live up to.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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