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The students at the renowned Jerusalem yeshiva were puzzled by their rosh yeshiva's prolonged absences.
He was seldom seen in the study hall and most of his lessons and lectures had been canceled. Those seeking spiritual guidance and advice were told by his secretary that he had no time to see them. It was rumored that he was about to take a leave of absence.
Then the real reason got out: After over a decade at the head of the yeshiva - with hundreds of students, thousands of alumni and many more admirers around the country and abroad - the rabbi was finally taking the time to study for his official ordination exams.
That he was a spiritual leader of a large community and had been regarded as a rabbi for 20 years didn't change the fact that to get the official certificate from the Chief Rabbinate, he still had to take four examinations on main areas of Halacha. Only then would he be eligible for an appointment as a neighborhood rabbi and afterwards perhaps as a city chief rabbi.
Rabbinical ordination, historically the chain of smicha reaching back from pupil to rabbi all the way to Moses, has for many years been one of the most abused of titles. Anyone can call himself a rabbi, and there are many who are inclined to address any black-coated long-bearded gentleman in this way.
Many senior rabbis routinely ordain their prized disciples and the title carries as much weight as the rabbi who bestowed it. In the ultra-Orthodox community, any man who teaches holy studies, or is involved in some way with religious services, is usually called a rabbi, no matter what his qualification. Certainly, if a man is the spiritual leader of a community, then he is worthy of the title. None of this has any connection with the official ordination certificates that the Chief Rabbinate hands out to any high-yeshiva student who successfully passes the examinations; he gets the title, whatever his personality and beliefs.
Occasionally, there is demand from the Rabbinate to discipline a rabbi, even take away his title, usually when criminal charges are brought and embarrassment caused. But the Rabbinate is totally powerless to decide who will be called rabbi.
So why get an official Rabbinate ordination if most rabbis don't even need it? The only real reasons are to be eligible for official government rabbinical appointments, and because teachers and other civil servants get a significant pay raise if they own a rabbinical certificate. It's the equivalent to having a master's degree. This has given a small group of officials in the Rabbinate powers similar to those of the Council of Higher Education, which by law is supposed to be the sole arbiter of academic degrees.
Over the years the Chief Rabbinate's examination department has become a useful outlet for many yeshiva graduates to pad their salaries, and despite needing at least six years in a high yeshiva and passing grades in four examinations, shortcuts abound. One of these shortcuts was the "High Torah Learning" certificate for which anyone with five years of yeshiva study was eligible. For salary purposes, this was equivalent to a bachelor's degree.
And this is the title that, according to the state attorneys investigating the scandal in the Chief Rabbinate's examination process, was given fraudulently to 1,500 Israel Police and Prisons Service personnel. The team, headed by attorney Uri Korb, has allegedly found that a number of officials and rabbis set up a chain of evening-class academies, where after two years of part-time study at most, the "graduates" received the coveted certificates. The investigators have calculated that the state budget has paid out more than NIS 200 million for these false degrees.
But according to sources in the State Attorney's Office, this might be only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the rabbis whose names are expected to appear on the indictment as having set up the academies and awarded the false degrees, and the rabbis who authorized the higher salaries despite allegedly knowing that the certificates were gained by false means, there are said to be more senior rabbis involved. Apparently the names of a number of prominent religious figures, including a city chief rabbi, appear on some certificates attesting to the fact that the "degree-holders" were personally examined and ordained by them.
Allegations of corruption in the Rabbinate's examinations department have long been an open secret within the religious establishment. The question that has to be asked now is why successive chief rabbis did nothing about it; on the contrary, some of their closest aides were allegedly involved.
Since the chief rabbis, when confronted with rabbis accused of serious crimes, always say they have no power over who gets called a rabbi, one recourse now would be to close the examinations department and stop giving out official ordinations. At the very least, they might be wise to allow the secular Council of Higher Education to monitor the goings on, as is the case with every other academic institute.