Analysis: Rabbis will continue to upset the public

Just this month, Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri strengthened the religious establishment’s hold over rabbinical appointments in 32 regional authorities.

November 22, 2016 09:00
4 minute read.
Mayor Nir Barkat

Mayor Nir Barkat shares a toast with chief rabbis Arye Stern and Shlomo Amar.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Sometimes weeks and even months can go by in this country without a rabbi who holds public office making a comment that is deemed offensive by large sectors of the population.

These comments are invariably followed by a bitter and rancorous exchange of insults between those who were offended and those who back the rabbi and his sentiments, while the press features the traded barbs across front pages and at the top of newscasts.

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The bad news is that if the general public is tired of both the rabbis who make the comments and the media storm that follows, it should nevertheless get used to the situation.

Citizens and the press will continue to seek the opinions and positions in Jewish law of the Orthodox rabbis who dominate all public religious offices, and those rabbis will continue to give answers and rulings in line with the conservative religious doctrines of the Torah.

Of late, we have witnessed rabbis expressing themselves on homosexuality, women in the army and in public life in general, on the progressive Jewish denominations, and other issues.

In most cases where outrage has ensued following the publication of these opinions, the rabbi in question has simply cited the Torah or Jewish law as the basis of his opinion.

Critically, both the previous attorney- general, Yehudah Weinstein, and the High Court of Justice ruled in one of the most extreme cases of reactionary rabbinic positions that rabbis cannot be prosecuted for such opinions.

This was the infamous case of the book Torat Hamelech, written by two far-right rabbis from the Yitzhar settlement, which discussed the laws of warfare according to Jewish law.

They stated, among other rulings, that it is permitted to kill non-Jewish infants, because they might grow up to endanger Jews.

Weinstein refused to prosecute the authors in 2012, saying the book was written in a general manner and that rulings on religious law or publications of religious sources should not be dealt with in criminal proceedings, in order to preserve freedom of religion. The High Court upheld this decision in 2015.

So although several complaints were filed to the police against Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar last week for incitement after he said in an interview that the Torah mandates the death penalty for homosexuality, he is unlikely to face prosecution since he was merely citing a religious text.

Nor is there any likelihood of removing him from his post, since there is neither the political will or legal basis to do so, based on such comments.

Additionally, since appointments to religious public offices require a rabbi to have ordination through the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and involve a political process with large input from the Orthodox establishment, it is unlikely that progressive rabbis will be elected to such positions in the near future.

The one realm where an Orthodox rabbi’s opinions and rulings may endanger his public position is in the military rabbinate.

The IDF chief rabbi is not only a position of practical importance to religious soldiers, but also one of symbolic importance to the entire army.

Moreover, it is a religious institution within a secular and broadly egalitarian institution, which includes people of different religions, races, lifestyles and sexual orientations.

Critically, the High Court of Justice is empowered to intervene in appointments of the executive branches of government if it believes the appointment might harm the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or will harm public trust in the institution in question.

In the case of Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim, the High Court justices have reacted to a petition highlighting some of his previous comments and rulings that may indeed undermine the trust of some sectors of the public in him as a senior and influential officer, and the broader institution of the IDF.

Should the High Court decide to annul Karim’s appointment, it is possible that other rabbis may become more circumspect in answering questions of a sensitive nature in the future, and it would certainly behoove the IDF not to ask candidates for the job of IDF chief rabbi any tricky questions.

But it is unlikely that such a step will have much impact on the regular rabbinic outbursts from those who hold civilian public offices up and down the country and in the Chief Rabbinate.

If the public is truly upset and bothered by the failure of its religious leaders to reflect Israel’s social diversity, then the only way change can be affected would be to alter the way in which public rabbis are elected.

There seems little chance, however, of such a step in the near future. Just this month, Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri strengthened the religious establishment’s hold over rabbinical appointments in 32 regional authorities to nary a whimper from the general public.

The low priority such issues are given by the public and its political representatives means that despite all the indignation and righteous fury frequently heard against the country’s religious leaders little will change in the near future.

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