Analysis: Religious choice at threat as haredi parties reassert control over Jewish life

On Sunday, the struggle of the haredi parties to reconsolidate power over religious life under one authority began in earnest.

Religious affairs reporter Jeremy Sharon discusses Issues of religion and state
The ongoing frustration and disillusionment of many Israeli citizens with the haredi- controlled religious establishment created a phenomenon in recent years that has seen various organizations and political actors attempting to decentralize its control over some of the most important aspects of religious life in the country.
So, for instance, a marriage registration service was established by the national-religious rabbinical association Tzohar to help people avoid the bureaucracy and obstructionism of many local rabbinates. Additionally, a law was passed last year to decentralize the Chief Rabbinate’s control over conversions by allowing municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts, allowing a more lenient, but still Orthodox, approach to conversion.
Women, who face severe difficulties when coming before rabbinical courts, received greater representation in the state’s process for appointing rabbinical judges when they were guaranteed four spots on the 11-member appointments committee under legislation passed in 2013. And an independent licensing association began providing kashrut supervision to restaurants fed up with the poor practices and corruption inherent in the Chief Rabbinate’s system.
But on Sunday, the struggle of the haredi parties to reconsolidate power over religious life under one authority began in earnest.
The Conversion Law, passed after a fierce struggle by the haredi parties in November 2014, was repealed at the behest of United Torah Judaism and Shas, thus defeating one of the central goals of mainstream national-religious leaders of recent times – that of converting large numbers of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in order to prevent inter-faith marriages in the future between this population and Jewish Israelis.
Additionally, the power to appoint one of the four positions reserved for women on the rabbinical judges appointments committee was given over to Shas, along with the transfer of authority over the rabbinical courts to the Shas-controlled Ministry of Religious Services.
A law to ban independent kashrut licensing authorities is in the works, although a vote on a proposed bill was delayed for a second time on Sunday. And although Tzohar’s marriage registration program has the backing of legislation that was passed at the beginning of the last government, the Chief Rabbinate has severely hindered implementation of that law by creating various bureaucratic and technical obstacles.
This struggle by the haredi political parties is motivated by both ideology and their desire to protect their powers of patronage.
In ideological terms, the position adopted by haredi rabbinic leaders is that no non-haredi authority can be trusted to deal with matters that affect the entire Jewish people. Issues such as marriage, divorce and conversion, if handled in a way that contravenes Jewish law, can create severe problems for the personal Jewish status of individuals, problems that are also transferred to their children.
Because of this threat, haredi leaders wish to unify control over all such issues under one haredi authority, the Chief Rabbinate, since they do not trust any other rabbinic authorities or leaders, Orthodox or otherwise, on such matters.
Control of the Chief Rabbinate even extends outside of Israel, as it has imposed its own standards for conversions and other issues of personal status on Orthodox religious authorities in the Diaspora – a process that developed as the Chief Rabbinate increasingly challenged the personal status of Jewish immigrants.
In Israel, individual rabbis ordained by the Chief Rabbinate have also been the target of its zeal for centralization, as witnessed in the recent saga in which the Chief Rabbinate sought to end Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s tenure as municipal chief rabbi of Efrat due to its opposition to his stance on various aspects of Jewish law, conversion in particular.
The power of patronage also holds tremendous weight for the haredi political leadership. Kashrut licensing is a multi-million- shekel industry employing thousands of people, many from the haredi sector. The encroachment of independent kashrut licensing authorities into the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly entails a severe threat to this source of income, especially when there is such great dissatisfaction with the service it provides.
The same is true for Tzohar’s marriage registration service. The Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Services tried to shut down Tzohar’s program in 2011, largely because it threatened the income of state-employed rabbis who took payment for conducting marriages, as well as the income of local rabbinates, which receive hefty fees to register couples for marriage.
Thus far, no party in the current coalition has ascribed much importance to these issues or evinced much evidence that they intend to oppose the haredi centralization drive. The die was cast when the Likud signed coalition agreements with UTJ and Shas, guaranteeing those parties support for their demands in the realm of legislation and bureaucracy in religious life.
Coalition partners Bayit Yehudi and Kulanu joined the government knowing they would have to acquiesce to many of the haredi legislative initiatives. Bayit Yehudi, which helped pass the conversion law in the last government, voted against its repeal on Sunday but did not consider taking more vigorous steps to oppose Shas and UTJ.
Bayit Yehudi also helped pass the law reserving four spots for women on the rabbinical judges appointments committee, but failed to prevent the power of appointing one of those positions to revert to Shas.
And Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria is firmly in favor of independent kashrut authorities, as well as the general liberalization of Jewish life in Israel, but it remains doubtful that the party will endanger its current political strength for issues of religion and state.
While the conversion law was, in effect, stillborn, and many of the decentralization efforts are still only in their infancy, the haredi attempts to turn back the clock in the face of growing public dissatisfaction with the religious status quo will likely further delegitimize the Chief Rabbinate and the established synagogue in the eyes of the average Israeli citizen.
Such a process will inevitably lead to greater calls for a total separation of religion and state, and to an even greater social schism over the Jewish identity of the country.