A call for drastic reform of the Chief Rabbinate

Earlier this year Rabbi Yona Metzger pled guilty to fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes.

Live Knesset Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Live Knesset Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s been a rough period for Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, a corrupt institution that has outlived its usefulness and become a liability to both religion and state.
Last month brought the second criminal conviction this year of a former chief rabbi. Rabbis Yona Metzger and Eliyahu Bakshi- Doron, once colleagues who shared the supreme rabbinic and spiritual authority for Judaism in Israel, now might be able to share a jail cell.
Rabbi Bakshi-Doron was found guilty of multiple fraud offenses including fraud in aggravated circumstances, falsifying documents and breach of trust. His scam involved providing false rabbinic credentials to government employees, which entitled them to salary increases that bled hundreds of millions of shekels from the government.
Earlier this year Rabbi Yona Metzger pled guilty to fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes.
The stench of their corruption lingers.
We are not naïve; we are not surprised to find crooked public officials. Power and money are temptations to which many have succumbed. “Bent” officials have been found in every institution that concentrates money and power. And we are grateful that the public’s interests are defended by our robust legal system that persistently investigates, prosecutes and punishes corrupt individuals.
But last month’s events reveal a problem that goes far beyond a few individuals.
Last month’s events demonstrate systemic criminal activity, ingrained and fostered by an institutional culture of corruption.
The opening chapter of Israel’s annual state comptroller report says it all.
Published last month, the 39-chapter report opened with a harsh judgment of the government-controlled kosher certification process, which is riddled with corruption.
It cited the local religious councils as well as the Chief Rabbinate for their failure to reform the kashrut supervisory system. The report cites conflict of interest, nepotism and blatant cheating – such as a supervisor who was reportedly paid for working 27 hours a day.
The comptroller’s report surprised no one who knows the absurd state of government kashrut, a system so corrupt that those who manage and profit from the system refuse to eat the food they are responsible for certifying.
When you reach into a barrel of apples and pick one that turns out to be rotten... well, it’s just one rotten apple. When the second one you pick is rotten, too – and a closer inspection reveals dozens more, you must consider the possibility that the problem is not “a few bad apples,” but rather a rotten barrel.
The evidence is indisputable: Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and many of its regional councils – in other words, our government religious establishment – is a dismal, rotten barrel that continually corrodes its contents.
Even when there may not be malfeasance, the incompetence of the Chief Rabbinate creates a distortion of Jewish practice that has important adverse effects on people’s lives. Religious conversion is one such area.
Anticipating Ivanka Trump’s forthcoming visit, we are reminded of the kerfuffle over whether her conversion to Judaism – like those of other, less prominent converts – could be subject to “further checking,” and her status challenged. Just last month the Supreme Court held a hearing on one of the absurdities of the conversion situation. It seems that certain conversions, if performed abroad, entitle the convert to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The identical conversion, if performed in Israel, does not.
Religion’s primary role in society is to represent the sacred, to infuse quotidian life with a sense of the spiritual. When political power meets religious authority, at a nexus involving a great deal of money, religion is the loser. Citizens become cynical about the religious message itself. Spirituality is injured, Judaism is devalued... desecration of God’s Name is the result.
It is vital to remedy the current situation.
Here are some first steps: • Kashrut certification should be privatized.
• Conversion should be privatized.
• Personal-status issues should be determined by transparent laws and procedures which resist manipulation and which recognize the range of Jewish belief and practice.
Those who love Jews and Judaism, in Israel and abroad, need to act to restore the honor and integrity tarnished by the Chief Rabbinate and the religious councils. We must demand radical change in the religion/ government relationship, beginning with breaking up its monopoly over key religious activities.
The author is a psychologist and radio host.
She writes a weekly column in the Washington Times, co-hosts “The Armstrong Williams Show” on Sirius XM Radio and blogs for Psychology Today.