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A group of religious Zionist rabbis fed up with the haredi stranglehold on the Chief Rabbinate announced last week they will set up an alternative kashrut supervision apparatus during the shmita [Sabbatical] year that began on Rosh Hashana.
This significant step, the first in Israel's history, toward opening up religious services to competition should be welcomed as long overdue. And it should be expanded.
The same competitive model that will provide consumers with reasonably priced kosher fruits and vegetables and help Jewish farmers sell their produce during the shmita year can be used to improve other religious services. Creating an alternative kashrut supervision body for the shmita year could serve as a test-run for a revolution in a wide range of state-sponsored religious services.
The catalyst for change is the Chief Rabbinate itself. This institution, which has had a monopoly over religious services since the founding of the state, has become its own worst enemy. Increasingly dominated by haredi interests, the Rabbinate has created an absurd and insufferable situation this shmita year: predominantly secular towns such as Herzliya and Bat Yam will be governed by the strictest kosher standards. Restaurants and other food venues operating in these cities will be forced to pay more, perhaps two or three times more, for fruits and vegetables.
Many restaurateurs and other food venue owners have said they would prefer abandoning kashrut supervision to caving in to haredi coercion. Meanwhile, Jewish farmers will be unable to sell their produce under kosher supervision in these communities. That's because the rabbis of these towns and others such as Afula, Petah Tikva, Rehovot, Rishon Lezion, Kfar Saba, Hadera and Jerusalem refuse to recognize a halachic loophole used since the 19th century by Jewish farmers whereby they "sell" their land to non-Jews. This "sale" (known as heter mechira), like the "sale" of hametz before Pessah, annuls many of the halachic restrictions on plowing, sowing and other field chores in the Land of Israel and allows Jewish farmers to work during the shmita year like in a regular year.
It is indeed essential that rabbis be allowed the intellectual freedom to decide halacha in accordance with their consciences. However, entire cities should not be held captive to these rabbis' stringent decisions. Rather, citizens should be free to choose a rabbi with different, more lenient, opinions, a rabbi who takes into consideration factors such as the welfare of Jewish farmers or the importance of keeping as many restaurants as possible under some kind of kashrut supervision.
The same holds true in other areas where rabbis make decisions that affect the lives of others. For instance, religious court judges (dayanim) who sit on conversion courts have the right to rule stringently. But the prospective convert should also have the right to choose an alternative rabbinic court that is less stringent.
The state-run Conversion Authority, plagued by bureaucratic bottlenecks and under fire for being too stringent, should be exposed to competition from different streams of Judaism - modern Orthodox, haredi, Reform or Conservative. This would of course necessitate separate marriage lists, identifying non-halakhic converts. Alternative rabbinic divorce courts should be set up that are willing to use halachic innovations, such a prenuptial agreements or retroactive annulments of marriages, to help agunot - women who cannot remarry because they are "chained" to an intransigent husband.
Reform and Conservative rabbis should be allowed to compete for state-funded positions. Tel Aviv residents, for instance, would probably feel more comfortable with a Reform chief rabbi of their city than an Orthodox one.
It can be argued that even a liberal, democratic state can justify giving Orthodoxy, even haredi Orthodoxy, a monopoly over religious services. Ireland, Britain, Italy and Greece are all examples of Western democracies with official state religions. But for the sake of Judaism, haredi Orthodoxy should give up its monopoly. As evidenced in the US, the most religious country in the Western world, diversity of choice among religious denominations fosters religiosity. The same argument that Adam Smith made for free economic competition holds true for religion. Americans attend church more than Europeans because Americans enjoy a diversity of religious possibilities while Europeans suffer from centrally-controlled state religions that block competition and stifle choice.
Competition among streams of Judaism would be a boon not just for Reform and Conservative Judaism but for Orthodoxy as well. But the real winner would be the State of Israel. After all, a little more Jewish identity here would not hurt anybody.