There are times when there are too many Jews in the Jewish country.
Or maybe just too many rabbis.
Currently we are approaching the culmination of a messy election to the Chief Rabbinate that reveals--along with a couple of other issues simultaneously bothering us--that Judaism would profit from a clean sweep. Perhaps a Jewish Martin Luther, or someone like the public prosecutors in America and Europe going after priests who exploit their positions for personal advantage.
The public rhetoric of the candidates for the big jobs emphasizes their concern to bring all Jews together, foster accommodation with non-Jews, and honor the principles of Judaism. It is not likely that any of that should be interpreted as an endorsement of non-Orthodox Judaisms. While the candidates themselves have sought to stay above the dirty stuff, their supporters have provided no end of scurrilous allegations about opponents that compete well with the style of any Chicago ward boss. One of the candidates, presently the City Rabbi of Tsfat (Safed), has had to explain away earlier comments that ordered residents of his city not to rent apartments to Arabs.
A cartoon in Tuesday''s Ha''aretz captures the spirit of the competition. It shows a minyan of bearded and black hatted rabbis racing to be first to feed at the bloated milk sack of a nearby cow.
It is not hard to understand the cartoonist''s point. The candidates has been competing for positions whose principal attractions includes lots of patronage. The men at the top of the Rabbinical pyramids select key personnel who aid them in influencing the selection of numerous others. The list includes individuals who will control the designations of food, markets, restaurants, and food factories as kosher or not. That means payments of fees and perhaps other goodies from the owners of those establishments, as well as the appointment of a small army of inspectors who visit markets, restaurants, and factories to check that everything is kosher, and along the way collect free food or other goodies from managers who want to stay on the good side of the inspectors. Other positions within the religious establishment include individuals who will be designated as the head rabbis of cities and towns, neighborhood rabbis, rabbis named to head individual synagogues, mikvah attendants, slaughterers of fowl and animals for food, scribes who prepare Torah scrolls and the contents of mezuzot, personnel of printing houses that publish religious books, teachers and other personnel of religious schools and higher academies, the various functionaries who prepare the dead for burial and maintain cemeteries, the rabbis sent by local rabbinical offices to perform weddings and the mohelim sent to perform circumcisions.
Some of the plums are juicier than others. Close to the top are the judges (dyanim) of Rabbinical Courts who hold in their hands the fate of couples wanting to end their marriages, as well as their own influence on appointments associated with each local Rabbinical Court and Rabbinical Office, who can make life easy or miserable for couples wanting to establish that both are Jewish and thus enabled to marry in Israel.
Involved in the patronage are the limited number of individuals who will participate in the secret voting for the Chief Rabbis. They include senior rabbis, some city mayors and Members of Knesset. In other words, individuals who came to office and continue in office in part by playing the patronage game. This maximizes the likelihood that their votes will go to individuals most likely to keep them in the loop of having a say in all the appointments noted above.
Nepotism is part of the process. There are Jewish traditions of communal leadership passing from father to son. Among the candidates in this election are--on the Ashkenazi side--the son of former Chief Rabbi and current City Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau, and--on the Sephardi side--the son of former Chief Rabbi and the spiritual leader of the SHAS political party Ovadia Yosef. According to the stories being circulated by less than friendly rivals of those families, we can expect that the sons of famous fathers will--if successful--leave their mark on the appointment of cousins, in-laws, and cousins of in-laws to as many of the appointments as can be touched by a good word from on high. The family of Ovadia Yosef also has its own institution--along with its cadre of clerks and inspectors--to designate food, markets, restaurants, and factories as kosher. Managers of those places are pressured to choose the Yosef family''s certificate of kashrut, perhaps along with or instead of others, if they want the rabbi''s family to advise the faithful that it is appropriate to patronize their establishments.
At the roots of this comic opera are the yeshivot that spew out a surplus of rabbis, many of whom have studied under a claim of seeking to learn and advance the way of Torah, but at least some of whom may have pursued the religious life in order to avoid military service and qualify for a lifetime of financial support.
Among the missions of the religious establishment is not only to maintain the yeshivot and to keep the young people within the religious fold, but also to find jobs for all the boys who pass through the system and are well connected, and thereby deserving of a bit more than the meager payments paid to those who continue studying.
This week the Knesset took a small step that might shake up the Rabbinical establishment. It approved an initial reading of a reform meant to move in stages to end the military and economic incentives for ultra-Orthodox men remaining in the yeshivot. The Knesset debate and vote were not without loud protests and promises to promote a lack of compliance by the rabbis who sit in the Knesset as the representatives of ultra-Orthodox parties. Insofar as the creators of the reform included substantial delays in order to soften the blow against the ultra-Orthodox, will take years to see if the reforms actually induce the mass of the ultra-Orthodox to live like their counterparts overseas. That is, to study secular as well as religious subjects, obtain work in a variety of occupations and professions, then support themselves and their children in the manner of other Jews,
The selection of Chief Rabbis exists in an awkward relationship with the ultra-Orthodox communities. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis are heavily involved in the politicking for one or another candidate, seemingly to assure jobs for their people and to push the Rabbinical Courts and other establishments ever closer to ultra-Orthodox ideals. Yet the rabbis who lead ultra-Orthodox communities generally overlook those institutions. They have their own, cleaving to their own norms and personnel, claiming their closer adherence to religious law and separation from the flawed institutions of the secular Zionist state.
Lest any Reform or Conservative activists see the above as elevating their own moral or religious status, think again. Secular Israeli Jews do not need another cadre of rabbis (male or female) seeking their own share of attention and other goodies. If getting along with the center of the Israeli Jewish spectrum is prominent in the goals of religious but non-Orthodox Jews from overseas and Israel, the way is not by clamoring for equality or a larger share of the Western Wall, rabbinical rights to wed or divorce the faithful, and along way accusing us of being undemocratic and other nasty things.
It is likely that many of those seeking to acquire and to hold onto jobs are also motivated by the highest of values associated with Judaism.
None of the above is a sign of Jewish self-hatred or any other kind of anti-Semitism.
Outside of the religious establishment are elements of Jewish culture that are moderate, flexible, pragmatic, concerned to advance the various fields of culture and science, and more attendant to changes in problems and opportunities than to any ideological or theological claims of enduring truth.
Prominent in Israel''s attractions is the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of Jewish culture, including a study of its various secular and religious manifestations, without having to sit for hours through the rituals of one or another variety of Judaism. Being Jewish without going to synagogue (Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform), along with a few other goodies, makes for a decent conception of the good life.