Haredi political rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The appointment of city rabbis in Israel has always been a racket. Though ostensibly a spiritual position, the election process is mired in politics. To get elected, a rabbi must be aligned with the right political forces and once a rabbi is hired he cannot be fired. He does not even have to retire.
Take for instance Rabbi Yaakov Edelstein, who was appointed as chief rabbi of Ramat Hasharon in 1950. In February he died at the age of 93. Unlike all other public servants, who must retire to make room for new personnel, Edelstein remained in his position until his last breath.
Attempts have been made over the years to change this situation. In 2007, a conscientious civil servant by the name of Meir Spiegler tried to implement with rabbis the same retirement requirements that apply to all other public sector employees. He did not know what he was getting himself into.
Spiegler served at the time as the director-general of religious services in the Prime Minister’s Office. This was at a time when the Religious Services Ministry had been dismantled and transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office in the hope that the nepotism and politicization of the rabbinate could be controlled. By applying the law equally, around 40 rabbis over the age of 65 faced imminent retirement; but because the government coalition included religious parties, the move was blocked.
The special status enjoyed by rabbis dates back to the days when the religious Zionist Mizrahi Party was a fixture in every Mapai government. In 1988, the Histadrut labor federation, religious councils and municipalities signed a collective agreement that guaranteed maintaining the status quo regarding the way rabbis were employed. Since until 1988 no rabbi had been forced into retirement due to old age, the agreement effectively prohibited doing so in the future.
The city rabbi’s status is unique. He is a politician in the sense that he is voted into office by a combination of local and national government officials, but he is also a life-long bureaucrat who remains in office until retirement or death.
As an elected official he has, at least in principle, an obligation to represent his city as a spiritual leader who has gained the trust of those that voted him into office. Ideally, he should serve as something of an emissary officiating at municipal ceremonies and providing a unique religious dimension to these events. In practice, however, he is often completely out of touch with the citizens of the city in which he serves.
Edelstein’s time and energy were focused more on his activities in Bnei Brak, where he served more as the head of a yeshiva and the rabbi of a neighborhood than on serving the predominantly secular populace of Ramat Hasharon.
Politicians have questioned the wisdom of keeping the city rabbinical position an irrevocable lifetime fiefdom no matter how poorly the rabbi performs his job. Taxpayers’ shekels can be put to better use.
In February 2014, then-Religious Affairs minister Naftali Bennett and his deputy, Eli Ben-Dahan, advanced a bill that, if it had been ratified in the Knesset, would have given the minister the power to fire municipal rabbis who aren’t fulfilling their obligations to the city in which they serve.
Apparently, there are quite a few municipal rabbis who do little in return for the monthly salary they receive from the state coffers. Often these rabbis have no qualms about receiving this money, because they see themselves as elite Torah scholars who deserve to have their studies subsidized by the state, even if they barely devote time to serving their respective cities. Many hold additional jobs as heads of educational institutions or conduct religious ceremonies such as marriages for pay.
Though the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted in favor of the bill, it never became law. The government was dissolved at the end of 2014 and when the new government came to power, the initiative was never revived.
The heady nexus of religion and politics is so destructive to both religion and politics that we believe it would be better to save millions of shekels in taxpayers’ money and end the practice of payrolling rabbis altogether. But as long as the practice continues, the least the government should do is ratify the 2014 Bennett-Ben-Dahan bill.
It is absolutely essential that there be oversight for city rabbis who receive state salaries, but provide little or nothing in return