Flag of Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
You win some, you lose some.
In February, the High Court curtailed the Chief Rabbinate’s powers by ruling it had no business preventing Reform and Conservative Israelis from using mikvaot ritual baths to conduct conversions. This was a major victory for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
But on Monday, the High Court consolidated the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly by ruling that it had the sole authority to determine what is kosher. This was a major setback for Orthodox groups fed up with a politicized Chief Rabbinate that provides substandard religious services.
In both decisions, the High Court justices were simply interpreting the law, which in Israel intertwines religion with state institutions. We cannot expect the judicial branch to bring about the changes necessary to free Judaism from the Chief Rabbinate.
But the time has come for our lawmakers to unshackle Judaism so it can grow and flourish in a way that befits a Jewish State.
The Chief Rabbinate was empowered by the country’s founding fathers with a complete monopoly over a wide range of religious matters, from marriage, divorce, conversions and kosher supervision, to the building of synagogues and mikvaot.
This arrangement is a throwback to the Ottoman-era millet system. But empowering the Chief Rabbinate of Israel with a state-sanctioned monopoly is not only anachronistic, it is bad for Judaism and bad for democracy.
It is bad for Judaism because the hegemony of one group inevitably stifles the creativity and innovation of other groups. By mandating solely the Chief Rabbinate to define what is kosher, for instance, it prevents alternative kosher supervisory bodies from providing competing services.
Some rabbis are willing to provide restaurants with kosher supervision free of charge, or at a significantly lower fee than that charged by the Chief Rabbinate. Other rabbis add elements such as environmental sustainability, fair labor practices, and a high regard for animal well-being to the kosher certification. Still other rabbis think that in order to be called “kosher,” a restaurant or an event hall should be accessible to the physically challenged.
At the very least, an atmosphere of free-market Judaism in which all parties are committed to the Orthodox definition of what constitutes kosher would likely lower prices and improve service.
A similar reasoning can be used for other religious services presently monopolized by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, such as marriage and divorce, burials and synagogue construction. Sociologists of religion have found that in Western countries where one official state religion enjoys a monopoly, people tend to be less religious and religious expression tends to stagnate. In contrast, in America, where religious diversity is encouraged to flourish freely, religiosity grows. Like supermarkets, when consumers are offered more choices, demand increases.
Granting monopolistic powers – particularly over the highly lucrative business of kosher supervision – inevitably corrupts Judaism, with vying religious groups using politics to gain control over the Chief Rabbinate. At the beginning of the state, religious Zionists maintained control over the Chief Rabbinate by forming a coalition with the ruling Mapai Party. After the rise of Likud, the tide began to turn.
The haredi parties – Shas, Agudah and Degel Hatorah – succeeded in forming coalitions with the Likud and gradually took over the Chief Rabbinate.
Connecting religion and state inevitably tempts religious leaders to exploit their political ties, and to put narrow interests and cronyism ahead of nobler goals such as encouraging moral behavior, strengthening Jewish identity, and making the ancient Jewish faith relevant to our times. Rabbis of towns, cities and neighborhoods are too often chosen not because of their Torah knowledge, ability to communicate Judaism’s teachings or their compatibility to the local population, but to their political connections.
The Jews of Israel should be given the freedom to choose among different expressions of Judaism. They should be allowed to practice Judaism in a way that feels right for them. Free-market forces – which Netanyahu so adeptly utilized as finance minister to strengthen the nation’s economy – should be used to invigorate religiosity.
Israel is a Jewish state, and so it should remain. But the means of Jewish expression are many and varied. These diverse means of expression should be encouraged and fostered, not restricted and legislated