Ministerial panel passes bill to abolish twin chief rabbi posts

Bayit Yehudi says it will stymie passage of legislation seeking establish single chief rabbi in cities, municipalities.

Inauguration of new chief rabbis 370 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Inauguration of new chief rabbis 370
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
A bill to abolish twin Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbi posts in cities and other municipal districts, and to establish a 10-year term for the single remaining municipal chief rabbi, was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday.
The legislation, proposed by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern, would also stipulate that a municipal chief rabbi must be at least 40 years of age and not yet 70 when seeking election, and that anyone who has been in the post of chief rabbi for more than 10 years must stand for reelection within two years of the law taking effect.
Bayit Yehudi opposed the bill in the committee, however, and a party official said that it will prevent further passage of the proposed law through the Knesset.
A spokeswoman for Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Bayit Yehudi) said that it was important that all legislation on matters of religion and state be coordinated with the ministry, and that this had not been done with Stern’s bill.
Sources in Hatnua claimed, however, that there had been a process of consultation with Ben-Dahan and the ministry, and that Stern had not been requested to withdraw the bill.
Currently, there are 34 cities and regional jurisdictions in which both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi chief rabbi serve.
These positions are state-funded, with the salaries of the rabbis paid for by the local religious council out of the budget allocated to it by the local municipal authority and the Religious Services Ministry.
The job of municipal rabbi is currently a lifetime appointment until age 80, with some rabbis able to continue serving in their position until they die, due to a quirk in the law currently governing the status of municipal rabbis.
Stern argues that having two chief rabbis on an ethnic basis is anachronistic as well as being an unnecessary financial burden on the local religious council which pays the salaries of the municipal chief rabbis.
Some rabbis in these positions earn very high salaries, sometimes NIS 500,000 a year and higher, which create a huge drain on the financial resources of the local religious council and negatively impact the provision of religious services in the area, such as for burial, kashrut, mikvaot, marriage registration and the like.
Stern described the current situation as “a desecration of God’s name” and a “humiliation for Judaism.”
The MK said that by creating a 10-year term for municipal rabbis, those currently on extremely high salaries will not be reelected by the electoral committees of the regional jurisdiction because of the impediment they cause to the provision of religious services.
Additionally, he stated that by creating a 10-year term for municipal rabbis, with the possibility of being reelected, the public-service nature of the role will become more apparent and will help prevent rabbis’ activities from becoming stale and routine.
“Sticking to ethnic separation is another factor that distances Judaism from the masses of Jews who need religious services,” said Stern ahead of the vote on the bill in the Ministerial Committee.
“Additionally, [the legislation] will save tens of millions of shekels every year, money that could be used for the many societal challenges which could be helped with these funds.”
Should the bill be passed into law, twin chief municipal rabbis would gradually disappear as their 10-year terms expired.
The proposed law stipulates that in any jurisdiction where there are both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi chief rabbi, once the 10-year term of either of them expires the position will not be renewed.
Should the terms of both rabbis expire at the same time, just one new chief rabbi will be elected.
The vote passed in the Ministerial Committee with only Bayit Yehudi’s representative voting against it.
In explaining the reason for the party’s opposition, Ben- Dahan’s spokeswoman labeled the bill “unprofessional” and said it had not been thought out properly.
She argued that the election process every 10 years for municipal rabbis would cost a considerable amount of money, offsetting any savings, and that the rabbis would be forced into taking care of political concerns in order to get reelected instead of dealing with the public’s needs.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On also expressed opposition to the bill and reiterated her party’s position that the state rabbinate should be totally abolished, “to enable freedom of religion for all citizens and to save huge amounts of public money which finances the nepotistic institution that is the rabbinate.”
Gal-On said that Stern’s bill “discriminates against large groups of Israeli citizens, such as those belonging to the Reform and Conservative communities, LGBTs, women and couples who are not interested or permitted to marry and divorce in the rabbinate, and people who aren’t Jewish at all.
“All theses groups are forced to remain on the outside, and they don’t care if there will be one or two rabbis to force them to marry, divorce, be buried, according to Jewish law or advance homophobia and discrimination against women under the cover of the state.”