Free-market Judaism

We must foster religious expression and provide a positive alternative to the Chief Rabbinate’s counterproductive monopoly.

Alternative wedding, Tel Aviv_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Alternative wedding, Tel Aviv_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
For some time now Tzohar, a group of modern-minded Zionist Orthodox rabbis, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have been engaged in a power struggle. Broadly speaking, while the Chief Rabbinate has tended to defend the autonomy of city rabbis and rabbinical judges, especially their right to issue stringent rulings wherever they see fit, Tzohar has sought to find leniency while remaining within the boundaries of Orthodox practice.
Perhaps the single most contentious issue splitting the two sides, which reached crisis proportions in the last week, has been Tzohar’s marriage initiative. For nearly a decade, the group has made available a cadre of motivated and enthusiastic Orthodox rabbis willing to officiate at weddings on a pro bono basis. And in recent years, it opened up an office in Lod where couples can register for marriage instead of going to their local Chief Rabbinate-appointed rabbi.
Until about a week ago, both the Chief Rabbinate and Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi turned a blind eye to the Lod office – technically a violation of the directives of the Chief Rabbinate, which has a monopoly over marriage registrations. But internal pressure to close down Tzohar’s marriage initiative grew. Eventually, a compromise was reached, however this undoubtedly will not be the last clash between the two sides.
Apparently, Chief Rabbinate-appointed rabbis were disgruntled by the fact that Tzohar was encroaching on their sources of income, which are augmented by payment received for officiating at weddings.
The guiding principle behind the Tzohar initiative is to make the marriage ceremony inviting and relevant for non-Orthodox Israelis without deviating from normative Orthodox practice. Tzohar rabbis understand that unless Orthodoxy is user-friendly, more and more Israelis will either opt out of Jewish practice altogether or choose non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism.
Many Israelis have traveled abroad and been exposed to more liberal forms of Jewish expression. Others have been influenced by Israel’s transition in recent decades from centrally planned socialism to a free market economy that encourages individual choice.
Meanwhile, the Chief Rabbinate has been undergoing a haredization process. Haredi political clout, buoyed by Shas’s ascendancy and a dramatic haredi population growth, has been translated into influence within the Chief Rabbinate. The national-religious sector, which once controlled the Chief Rabbinate, has lost influence due in part to a shift in focus from the rabbinate to the settling of Judea and Samaria. Under haredi influence, the chief rabbinate has become increasingly supportive of the strictest interpretations of Halacha: Conversions performed by non-haredi rabbinical courts are not recognized; women seeking divorces encounter reluctant rabbinical divorce courts; kosher supervisors are unwilling to find solutions in Jewish law for Jewish farmers during the the shmita sabbatical year. And because the Chief Rabbinate is a state-funded body, it suffers from all the ills that afflict big government: mind-numbing bureaucracy; advancement based on seniority, not merit; and a total lack of a service ethos.
Under the circumstance, steps need to be taken to ensure that the state-recognized monopoly over marriage registration is not relegated to any single group or body, especially one that represents a particularly stringent version of Judaism. Instead, Orthodox rabbis representing a diverse range of opinions should all be allowed to perform weddings. (A bill to that affect will be presented by MK Tzipi Hotovely.) Couples should be allowed to choose freely among a variety of choices.
Ideally, recognized non-Orthodox streams – Reform and Conservative – should also be allowed to conduct weddings as long as they adhere to basic consensus tenets such as matrilineal descent.
Competition will push rabbis to find innovative ways to reach out. And Israelis will no longer feel coerced into celebrating a wedding in a way that feels uncomfortable.
What we are advocating is, in effect, “free-market Judaism,” which, we believe, will foster religious expression and provide a positive alternative to the Chief Rabbinate’s counterproductive monopoly.