Chief Rabbis in name only

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The Chief Rabbinate’s glory is gone. Its legitimacy is shot. Its influence is on the wane. Decentralization of religious services is inevitable, and the only way to force change in the Rabbinate. Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef should be under intense public scrutiny and pressure from day one.

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Published in The Jerusalem Post and in Israel Hayom, July 26, 2013.

The election of yet another set of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Chief Rabbis marks the beginning of the end of the Rabbinate’s monopoly on religious services and religious authenticity in Israel. A move towards decentralization of religious life is inevitable.

Of course, an institution that dispenses hundreds of salaried jobs and has politically-powerful rabbis behind it is not going to just fade away. Nor will the Knesset vote the official Rabbinate out of existence. But in practice, the Rabbinate’s control of all religious services and its sway over public mores are both on a death slide. Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef will be “chiefs” in name only.

Let’s face it: The Chief Rabbinate’s glory is gone. Its legitimacy is shot. Its influence is on the wane.

After all, for the Haredi world, the real “Chief Rabbis” are the ninety-year-old yeshiva sages who put-up Rabbi Lau Jr. and Rabbi Yosef Jr. for the job. In the secular world, the Chief Rabbis have long been considered a nuisance at best. And for the Religious Zionist world, the Chief Rabbinate has been tainted almost-beyond repair. It has been poisoned by Haredi inefficiency, corruption, religious extremism, and antagonism.

The sad state of the “Rabbinocracy” (Rabbinate bureaucracy) is unlikely to improve all-that-fast now, and therefore a move towards privatization of religious services is inevitable. Other agencies will move in to provide alternative, modern Orthodox religious services for the religious and traditional publics, seeking to willy-nilly drag the official Rabbinate along with them.

That has been the case with the re-zoning of the marriage registration system. The Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist “Tzohar” rabbinical alliance forced the Chief Rabbinate to swallow open registration across regional jurisdictional lines – allowing for real competition between rabbis in the provision of honest rabbinical services. Former Chief Rabbis Metzger and Amar were opposed to the Tzohar initiative and fought it in Knesset, and the newly-elected Chief Rabbis may yet try to impede this reform too. Only an energized and aware public can ensure that this advance won’t be rolled back.

Tzohar, for example, can be expected to expand its 18-year-old flagship marriage project. With the right marketing and sufficient philanthropic support, I suspect that more and more non-religious couples will flock to Tzohar rabbis for their rigorously-Orthodox but free and user-friendly marriage services, fleeing from the Haredi Chief Rabbinate. The 4,000 couples who get married every year through Tzohar should grow to 10,000 couples a year!

Rabbi Stav thought there was an opportunity to continue the Tzohar revolution from within the Chief Rabbinate. Now that this option has been voted down, Tzohar must re-double its efforts as an NGO. One thing is for sure: The 9,000 non-religious Israeli couples who run to Cyprus every year to obtain a civil marriage document aren’t going to be lining up to marry in the offices of Chief Rabbis Lau and Yosef!

The same decentralization will inexorably apply to kashrut services, especially in the upcoming sabbatical (“shmita”) year, where reliance on the “heter mechira” leniency is critical to the Israeli economy and to consumers alike. If the Chief Rabbinate of rabbis Lau and Yosef doesn’t uphold this halachic leniency, Tzohar and/or other like-minded organizations can be expected to establish alternative kashrut services that will. Again, an energized and aware public can ensure that this effort succeeds, by voting with their feet and pocketbook. The official Rabbinate might be forced to follow suit.

I suspect that Tzohar will yet have to establish its own burial society and perhaps even conversion courts too, in order to set the bar for a proper synthesis of tradition with modernity, and for religious services that neither compromise halacha nor insolently stonewall secular and religious Zionist Israel. Here too, the purpose will be to challenge the official Rabbinate into making change itself, and prevent its further decay and dismemberment by a disillusioned and angry public.

Rabbi Stav’s valiant campaign for Chief Rabbi had one salutary and very significant impact: He awakened and inspired many secular Israelis to care about the Rabbinate. He aroused the general public from its slumber about the poor quality of Rabbinate services and its apathy regarding insolent Haredi rabbinical leadership. Never before has the Rabbinate’s performance been such a matter of debate, and never before has the election of Chief Rabbis drawn so much interest.

Even after losing the vote, the Israeli media is turning non-stop to Rabbi Stav for comment on what needs to be done next; on how the Rabbinate can still be revamped; on how it can be dragged forward, if necessary screaming against its will, into a new era of public responsibility.

This momentum must not be lost. Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef should be under intense public scrutiny and pressure from day one. They must be cajoled to clean up the Rabbinate and be responsive, within the wide boundaries of halacha, to the needs of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish society.

Otherwise, they will end up as Israel’s very last chief rabbis.

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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