A tactical setback or a strategic defeat?

Last week’s Chief Rabbinate elections could be either, depending on what religious Zionists do next.

Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi David Stav
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The sweeping haredi victory in last week’s Chief Rabbinate elections is being portrayed as a devastating defeat for the religious Zionist community in general, and for Naftali Bennett in particular as head of the Bayit Yehudi party, which represents this community. In one sense, that’s true: In the races for both Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, the winning candidate received only a plurality of the electoral panel’s votes – 68 out of 147. Thus had the religious Zionist community been able to unite behind a single Ashkenazi candidate instead of splitting its votes between two, that candidate might have won. Similarly, had it chosen a Sephardi candidate with broad appeal rather than one who repelled moderate electors because of his history of anti-Arab remarks, such a candidate might have won the votes that went instead to the moderate haredi rabbi who placed third. And since the chief rabbis serve 10-year terms, religious Zionists have squandered a once-in-a-decade opportunity.
Nevertheless, Bennett still holds cards that enable him to make this loss a tactical setback rather than a strategic defeat. The question is whether he’s willing to play them – and whether he can mobilize the requisite support from his own party and his coalition partners.
What particularly disappointed many religious Zionists was Rabbi David Stav’s loss in the Ashkenazi race. But the excitement over Stav – the chairman of Tzohar, an organization of moderate religious Zionist rabbis – stemmed mainly from the fact that he proposed a detailed platform of reforms to improve the rabbinate. And most of those reforms depend less on the identity of the chief rabbi than on the Knesset’s willingness to pass the requisite legislation: Some actually necessitate changing the law, and even those that don’t would be more effective if enacted as legislation, as that would prevent subsequent chief rabbis from overturning them.
Bennett, as religious services minister, is ideally placed to promote such legislation. Moreover, he and his deputy, Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, have already shown interest in enacting such reforms. What remains uncertain is whether they are willing to persist in this effort even in the face of opposition from the new chief rabbis, rather than the support they could have expected had Stav won – and whether they have the political skills to actually get their proposals passed.
Even before last week’s election, Bennett and Ben-Dahan had proposed two important legislative reforms of the rabbinate, though neither has yet passed. One would allow couples to register their marriage anywhere they please, rather than only in their hometowns, thereby allowing them to “shop around” for better service. This would spur municipal rabbis to improve service by forcing them to compete for couples’ registration fees. The other would abolish the position of state-appointed neighborhood rabbi and instead let communities obtain government funding for rabbis of their own choice. This would force community rabbis to provide good service to get and keep their jobs.
Many of Stav’s proposals are equally amenable to legislation. For instance, to reduce the problem of women denied a Jewish divorce by their husbands, Stav wanted to encourage the use of prenuptial agreements. But it would be equally easy, and even more effective, to enact legislation requiring couples to sign either a standard prenuptial agreement or an explicit opt-out in order to register their marriage.
Some couples obviously would opt out, either because they don’t want a prenuptial agreement at all or because they prefer a customized agreement. Moreover, some rabbis disapprove of prenuptials and might therefore pressure couples to opt out – though if the law allowing couples to choose their registration venue passes, couples could solve that problem by switching venues. But the default would be for everyone to sign the standard version. And since experience teaches that most people choose default options for anything, this would certainly increase the number of couples signing such agreements.
Or take another key plank of Stav’s platform: privatizing the kashrut supervision business and reducing the rabbinate’s role to supervising the private kashrut organizations that would arise. This requires legislation in any case, since with a few exceptions, private kashrut organizations are currently illegal.
Any such law should leave the rabbinate in charge of kashrut at government institutions, since government institutions must be places where all Israelis feel comfortable eating. But for the legions of private businesses that seek kashrut certification, the existence of competing kashrut organizations would certainly lead to lower prices and better service. It would also save the government money, by enabling it to slash the number of kashrut supervisors on the rabbinate’s payroll.
In fact, the haredi victory actually gives Bennett more freedom to legislate reforms that a religious Zionist victory would have. Had the new chief rabbis been religious Zionists, he would likely have felt constrained to avoid any legislation to which they objected. But he has no such obligation to last week’s winners, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau; the haredi parties that sponsored them, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have openly declared war on Bayit Yehudi.
Thus, for instance, he could propose long-overdue legislation mandating the dismissal of any rabbi on the government payroll who refuses to recognize conversions performed by the state-sponsored conversion administration. There’s no justification for the state to employ rabbis who don’t recognize the state’s own conversion courts. Rabbis are obviously entitled to follow the dictates of their conscience by not recognizing such conversions, but they shouldn’t be entitled to do so on the government’s dime.
Under decades of haredi domination, the rabbinate has steadily made itself more and more abhorrent to the majority of Israelis. That’s precisely why proponents of abolishing it altogether are celebrating the results of last week’s elections: They hope that 10 more years of haredi domination will suffice to bring about the institution’s demise.
Thus if Bennett and his party want to salvage the rabbinate, it’s vital that they use their political power to legislate necessary reforms now, rather than sitting on their hands and hoping for better luck in the next elections, in 2023. By then, it’s liable to be far too late.