Analysis: Unyielding religious establishment threatens to be its own undoing

Slowly but surely, the conflict between democratic rights, and the legally enshrined monopoly of one Jewish denomination over religious life in Israel is being chipped away.

Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Of all the blows to the religious establishment in recent months, the ruling of the High Court of Justice on Thursday recognizing private Orthodox conversions is certainly the most severe.
But it is unlikely to be the last such assault on the ramparts of the state’s established synagogue either.
Decisions of the High Court are pending for a petition against the chief rabbinate’s legal monopoly over kashrut certification, and on a suit demanding that, similar to Thursday’s ruling, non-Orthodox converts who convert in Israel be afforded the right to citizenship under the Law of Return.
Slowly but surely, the severe conflict between democratic rights, particularly equality before the law, and the legally enshrined monopoly of one Jewish denomination over religious life in Israel is being chipped away by the High Court.
If one considers for a moment the central functions of the chief rabbinate, marriage and divorce, conversion, and kashrut, it becomes clear that its primary duty as the sole provider of religious services is badly fraying at the edges.
Marriage and divorce remains under its exclusive jurisdiction by virtue of the Ottoman-era laws granting religious courts control over these personal status issues, although this control was diversified through the abolition of marriage registration districts in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Hashgacha Pratit independent kashrut licensing authority has begun to compete with the chief rabbinate for the custom of restaurants and food businesses. Additionally, an appeal to the High Court challenging the exclusive use of the word “kosher” granted to the chief rabbinate by the Law against Kashrut Fraud is awaiting a verdict.
And Thursday’s ruling put a dent in the chief rabbinate’s power over conversion, since until now, no conversions performed in Israel of non-Israeli nationals granted the convert the right to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, a situation the court’s decision overturned.
This may even lead to challenges to the chief rabbinate’s refusal to marry a convert from an Orthodox private conversion court, since it could now be asked for the criteria by which it refuses to marry an Orthodox convert.
In February, a decision in February by the Supreme Court delivered another blow when it ruled that local religious councils cannot bar non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies in public mikvas.
This ruling, as well as the agreement by the state in 2012 to fund some non-Orthodox rabbis, brought about by the pressure of a High Court petition, demonstrates the rabbinate’s waning control over the provision of religious services in general.
The situation the chief rabbinate finds itself in is also entirely of its own making. The non-Orthodox parties to the petition on mikvas presented pragmatic solutions to the issue before the decision was made, such as having the state fund three or four mikvas for their use. The state rejected this proposal and the court therefore ruled that local religious councils have to share publicly funded mikvas with the Reform and Conservative movements.
The chief rabbinate and the haredi political parties fought tooth and nail against reforms to the conversion system which would have merely loosened, not broken their control over the process. Now it is threatened by the significantly increased legitimacy of independent Orthodox conversions.
Thursday’s decision itself was a direct result of the rigidity and tone deaf attitude of the chief rabbinate to converts, since one of the converts named in the petition had been repeatedly rejected by a notoriously obstructive panel within the state conversion authority.
Finally despairing of the state system, she eventually converted in the independent, haredi rabbinical court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in Bnei Brak, and subsequently petitioned the state for the right to citizenship as a Jew, which she received on Thursday.
And the systemic bad practices within the kashrut licensing system, where the chief rabbinate has a monopoly and serves as both the service provider and the service regulator, have given rise to the challenge it faces on kashrut.
What these challenges to the Orthodox monopoly of the religious establishment show is that when patience with the ossified system currently in place runs out, citizens and activists will seek redress in the courts.
And the courts are bound to apply the principle of equality before the law to anyone availaing themselves of its justice. Despite this, the chief rabbinate and others wishing to preserve the power of Orthodox control over religious life refuse to see the danger inherent in their unyielding position.
It seems almost too late for the religious establishment to save itself, so entrenched is its determination to cling on to power at all costs.
But it is this very inflexibility which is the cause of its undoing.