Rabbis and the state

In the interests of freedom of religious expression, the state should stop paying local rabbis’ salaries.

November 23, 2011 06:19
3 minute read.
Haredim walk on street

Haredim Walking Away 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein decided Tuesday to investigate Safed’s Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.

The A-G is, apparently, concerned that some comments made by Eliyahu or quoted in his name by the media might constitute incitement to violence against Arabs.

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The alleged statements include “Arab culture is very cruel.” Another is “Arabs have different [social] codes altogether, norms of violence that have become ideology.”

Yet another is: “It’s like how thefts from Jewish farms have become an ideology. It’s like extracting extortion and protection money from farms in the Negev has become an ideology.”

Eliyahu was also quoted as saying that “Arabs treat their women according to cultural norms supported in the Koran that permit the beating of women. And we are not talking about gentle hitting. We are talking about chairs, abuse that causes the woman to be hospitalized after undergoing the nightmare of her life.”

Many of Eliyahu’s reported generalizations against Arabs were made in connection with a contentious public debate surrounding a letter signed by about 300 rabbis – including Eliyahu – in which it was declared that Jewish law forbids renting or selling property to “foreigners” – a codeword for non-Jews, which in this context meant Arabs.

In his decision to investigate Eliyahu, Weinstein also announced that he would not be probing Eliyahu or the other rabbis in connection with the letter, though he did not say why. Perhaps Weinstein was making a distinction between the letter, which was a Jewish legal opinion and Eliyahu’s private comments. Perhaps Weinstein refrained from investigating rabbis connected with the letter because they chose to use the term “foreigner” instead of “Arab” and therefore could not be technically accused of singling out one particular racial or ethnic group for discrimination.

But all of this legal hairsplitting is beside the point. It seems that Eliyahu has been singled out not primarily because of the statements that he made, but because he serves in a public office.

As rabbi of Safed, he receives a monthly salary from the State of Israel that is funded by tax payers’ money. (Depending on the size of the city, a rabbi can earn over NIS 20,000 a month.) Any controversial comment made by Eliyahu is more likely to arouse the rancor of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who resent having to pay his salary. And the state is more likely to justify intervening with the free speech of a rabbi who holds a public office because his statements are seen as a reflection of official state opinion.

In the interests of freedom of religious expression, the state should stop paying local rabbis’ salaries. Like all citizens of Israel, rabbis are entitled to full intellectual freedom and should be allowed to interpret Judaism however they wish, so long as they do not break the law by, say, inciting followers to perform violent acts.

To facilitate full religious freedom, the practice of keeping rabbis on the state payroll must end.

This is particularly true considering the fact that city and neighborhood rabbis are elected to office in a highly undemocratic way. The minister of religious affairs, a position often held by a member of an ultra-Orthodox political party, enjoys inordinate control. Secular Israelis and women barely have a say. Deals are made behind closed doors.

Practically speaking, there is no need for state-funded rabbis. Jerusalem has gone without a chief rabbi since 2002 and the only ones who seem to care are the religious political parties who see the appointment as an opportunity to enhance their influence. Meanwhile, privately funded organizations such as Tzohar, Chabad, the Masorti Movement, the Reform Movement, ITIM – The Jewish Life Information Center and many others provide the same services supposed to be provided by the chief rabbinate’s state-funded rabbis, but without all of the bureaucracy and lack of enthusiasm and incentive characteristic of state-run operations.

The A-G’s decision to investigate Eliyahu illustrates the irreconcilable tensions that result from tying religion to state and the infinite wisdom of separating the two, at least with regard to such issues as rabbis’ salaries. In order to protect religious freedom as well as Israeli democracy, city rabbis should no longer be paid from state’s coffers. If rabbis wish to express their opinions, let them do so as individuals, not as representatives of the State of Israel.

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