Grumpy Old Man: Rabbis gone wild

As a secular Jew living here, I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed the experience of rubbing up against a representative of the Chief Rabbinate.

Lawrence Rifkin 150 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lawrence Rifkin 150
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As a secular Jew living here, I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed the experience of rubbing up against a representative of the Chief Rabbinate.
Like the time that I, a blue-eyed immigrant, wanted to get married. In order to bypass the reams of paperwork and rabbinic sleuthing that might take ages, I was reduced to asking a nice man with a kippa, tzitzit and luxuriant beard to undertake a multi-hour trip through the desert. He had known me since I was a little boy and could attest that, yes, my mother was Jewish by birth and that she and my father had raised me in a good Jewish home.
And the time an impressive ritual circumciser we had seen in action passed out business cards that identified him as an “expert” mohel. Expert was the rank officially conferred by the Chief Rabbinate on circumcisers who had demonstrated a higher level of professional expertise than those who were merely “certified.”
It was like the difference between a family practitioner and a brain surgeon. It also allowed them to charge substantially more.
It took until the day of the ceremony, but I eventually found out that Rabbi Expert Mohel was really just Rabbi Certified Mohel, and that he had been using the term “expert” because… well, that’s what he considered himself, Chief Rabbinate or no Chief Rabbinate. Blushing only slightly, he quietly pushed back into my hand the difference in fees, which I donated to charity.
I can’t say it was these two episodes alone that turned me off to the form of official religion that is practiced in Israel. Instead, it has been something deeper, something more intuitive that blossoms and grows thanks to years of hearing about the sordid and often secretive goings-on among the black-suited army of men who decide what is and what isn’t Judaism in this country, and generally have their way.
But it’s something we can finally mull over thanks to an organization dedicated to tackling a hitherto murky worldwide phenomenon with startlingly clear facts and figures.
IN COMPILING its latest Global Corruption Barometer index, Transparency International, a Berlin-based NGO that uses independent surveys to rate nations for perceived corruption among public officials, asked over 114,000 people in 107 countries (about 1,000 in those with a population of one million or more, and 500 in smaller countries) for their opinions. The data were compiled using face-to-face, telephone or online interviews between September 2012 and March 2013.
One of the questions was posed as follows: To what extent do you see the following categories to be affected by corruption in [your] country? Please answer on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means “not at all corrupt” and 5 means “extremely corrupt.”
The 12 categories were provided in the following order: Political parties, parliament/legislature, military, NGOs, media, religious bodies, business/private sector, education system, judiciary, medical and health services, police, and public officials/civil servants.
For Israel, where 1,004 people were interviewed in online surveys, religious bodies were viewed as the country’s second most corrupt sector. The most corrupt sector was political parties (a “duh” fact if there ever was one). What might be surprising, though, is that while political parties garnered a horrific 4.2 rating, it was almost a tie, with religious bodies being given an almost equally horrific 4.1.
By way of comparison, the global score for corruption in religious bodies was a (relatively) mere 2.6. And if it makes anyone feel better, the global perception for corruption in political parties was much closer to that in Israel, at 3.8. (For further reference purposes, the rest of the Israeli results, by most to least corrupt, were: 3.7 – public officials/civil servants; 3.5 – parliament/legislature, media, business/ private sector and police; 3.3 – NGOs; 3.1 – medical and health; 2.9 – judiciary; 2.7 – education system; and 2.6 – military.) Of course, it must be emphasized that these results reflect perceptions only, although the 12 questions posed to respondents also included: “In your dealings with the public sector, how important are personal contacts and/ or relationships to get things done?” and “Have you ever been asked to pay a bribe?” (In Israel, the response regarding bribes was 12 percent, just as it was for respondents from “Palestine,” compared to just 1% for Australia, Denmark, Finland and Japan – no country registered 0% – 7% for the United States, 27% globally, 34% for Pakistan, 37% for Ukraine, 54% for India, 62% for Cameroon, 70% for Kenya and a whopping 84% for Sierra Leone.) But what we increasingly hear is that perceptions are reality. And that’s my point.
ELECTIONS FOR the country’s two chief rabbis will take place soon. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve known about them ahead of time. In the past it was always, “Oh, there are two new chief rabbis? Great.” Not this time, though.
It could be solely because of our shady perceptions about the officially recognized religious establishment and its deeply entrenched powers, ranging from a stranglehold on life-cycle events such as birth, marriage and death to Moshe’s 12 kashrut supervisor sons who, one and all, require gainful employment. But this time around, there’s more – a display of backstabbing, infighting, nepotism and even racism, qualities that are more suited to crooked, hard-drinking and cynical backroom pols than to what should be highly revered, decent men of the cloth.
I’m sorry, but how can you respect rabbis who slyly play their candidates like a closely held hand of cards, badmouth rivals with language and gestures you’d expect around a crap table, and denigrate entire sectors of fellow Jews like a bad imitation of Don Rickles in the casino lounge? It’s simply, as my beloved paternal grandmother used to say, not what you’d expect from nice people.
And when you have a gang of rabbis gone wild, it doesn’t reflect well on the institution of Judaism, which, let’s face it, should indeed be accorded a central place in a state for the Jews – because whether we adhere to it or not, it’s the only thing we Jews really have in common. Instead, to many people here it’s been given a bad name. It’s become the uncle with bad breath and even worse social habits that you do your best to avoid at weddings. He’s family all right, but seat him on the other side of the hall, please.
The saddest thing, though, is that all this led me to virtually discard the Judaism I once knew – a beautiful fusion of faith, spirituality, equality and community – perhaps as a form of rebellion against the way a narrow-minded, petty and vindictive clique of men stuck in the 17th century have sought to shove down my throat what I can only describe as a dark, foreboding version of something that was meant to be inviting and uniting in its beckoning light.
And if anyone thinks this has something to do with army service or self-imposed poverty, he’d be wrong. Those are matters of a political nature, and like similar issues they can be resolved, although not necessarily to everyone’s liking.
What we have here is something that, like faith itself, is far less tangible. We should all admit that, unlike the hard scientific “facts” that too many of us take religion to be, it is based only on belief, and therefore should be open to fair, reasoned and friendly debate.
But why should the rabbis care? They don’t think very much of us to begin with.
And they’ve got us by the you-know-what’s anyway. ■