In an interview with Yediot Aharonot’s Shimon Shiffer that appeared Friday,
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu) took a stand on a decidedly
“Religious councils alienate young couples [who come to
register for marriage] from religion,” Lieberman said. “They [the councils] have
also become incubators for the transfer of funds to haredi
“Therefore,” he declared, “I am taking steps to do away
Lieberman’s comments have yet to be followed up by a detailed
plan on precisely how he envisions Israeli society without the councils, the
most salient aspect of religious bureaucracy in Israel. However, by
acknowledging the existence of a chronic problem, Lieberman has taken an
important first step towards doing away with state-funded body that has proven
itself obsolete and counterproductive to its stated goal – facilitating the
practice of religion by the general public.
There are undoubtedly many
devoted, well-meaning people working in about 130 religious councils across the
country. Unfortunately, the system suffers from all the built-in ills
that afflict state-run endeavors: mind-numbing bureaucracy; advancement based on
seniority, not merit; and a total lack of a service ethos.
services being provided by the state are mundane – welfare payments, automobile
licensing or passport renewal – expectation levels are low, and so is the
potential for disappointment. But when the state bureaucracy, with all its
fundamental disadvantages, starts meddling in the highly charged matters of
religion, a crisis of faith can result.
More problematic is the extreme
politicization of religion resulting from the present system. The religious
services minister, currently Ya’acov Margi of Shas, has a tremendous amount of
influence over the appointment of religious council members.
He gets to
choose 45 percent of the council members. True, Margi was democratically
elected to the Knesset, but he represents only one form of religious expression,
a particularly illiberal, ultra-Orthodox version that is antagonistic towards
non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Further exacerbating the situation is
the fact that in about one-third of the cities, towns or regions where there is
supposed to be a religious council, there is none. That’s because haredim and
some Orthodox representatives refuse to sit on the same religious council with
Reform or Conservative members. This problem has been going on for decades. In
places where there is no functioning religious council, such as in Jerusalem,
the religious services minister has the power to appoint a “temporary” manager.
In Jerusalem it is Yehoshua Yishai – who decides single-handedly how to spend
the religious services budget, which amounts to several hundred million shekels
A radical rethinking of the way religious services
are provided is essential. While we agree with Lieberman that the councils
should be dismantled, we also believe that an alternative model should be found
to replace the old one so that the state will continue to provide the citizens
of the Jewish state with basic religious services.
One proposal was put
forward in 2006 by a committee headed by Dr. Hadar Lipshitz of Ne’emanei Torah
Ve’Avodah, a liberal-minded group of modern-Orthodox young men and women. It
calls to transfer state funds and responsibility for religious services directly
to local organized communities – whether haredi, modern Orthodox, Conservative
These small communities, built around individual synagogues,
would choose their own rabbis and decide on their own how to spend state funds
raised from a voluntary “religious services tax.”
communities would in turn form several larger organizations that would compete
with one another to provide kashrut supervision, marriage registration and
Though the details need to be hammered out,
Lipshitz’s proposal has a number of apparent benefits. Local communities would
be empowered, religion would be de-politicized, those uninterested in religious
services would not be forced to pay, rabbis would be chosen in accordance with
their suitability to the communities they serve, and a type of “free market
Judaism” would be introduced in which vying religious organizations would
compete to provide services.
Lieberman was right to call for an end to
religious councils in their current form. Now the hard job of formulating an
alternative must begin.