Religious councils

The system suffers from all the built-in ills that afflict state-run endeavors: bureaucracy, lack of service ethos.

Margi 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Margi 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In an interview with Yediot Aharonot’s Shimon Shiffer that appeared Friday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu) took a stand on a decidedly domestic issue.
“Religious councils alienate young couples [who come to register for marriage] from religion,” Lieberman said. “They [the councils] have also become incubators for the transfer of funds to haredi functionaries.
“Therefore,” he declared, “I am taking steps to do away with them.”
Lieberman’s comments have yet to be followed up by a detailed plan on precisely how he envisions Israeli society without the councils, the most salient aspect of religious bureaucracy in Israel. However, by acknowledging the existence of a chronic problem, Lieberman has taken an important first step towards doing away with state-funded body that has proven itself obsolete and counterproductive to its stated goal – facilitating the practice of religion by the general public.
There are undoubtedly many devoted, well-meaning people working in about 130 religious councils across the country. Unfortunately, the system suffers from all the built-in ills that afflict state-run endeavors: mind-numbing bureaucracy; advancement based on seniority, not merit; and a total lack of a service ethos.
When the services being provided by the state are mundane – welfare payments, automobile licensing or passport renewal – expectation levels are low, and so is the potential for disappointment. But when the state bureaucracy, with all its fundamental disadvantages, starts meddling in the highly charged matters of religion, a crisis of faith can result.
More problematic is the extreme politicization of religion resulting from the present system. The religious services minister, currently Ya’acov Margi of Shas, has a tremendous amount of influence over the appointment of religious council members.
He gets to choose 45 percent of the council members. True, Margi was democratically elected to the Knesset, but he represents only one form of religious expression, a particularly illiberal, ultra-Orthodox version that is antagonistic towards non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that in about one-third of the cities, towns or regions where there is supposed to be a religious council, there is none. That’s because haredim and some Orthodox representatives refuse to sit on the same religious council with Reform or Conservative members. This problem has been going on for decades. In places where there is no functioning religious council, such as in Jerusalem, the religious services minister has the power to appoint a “temporary” manager. In Jerusalem it is Yehoshua Yishai – who decides single-handedly how to spend the religious services budget, which amounts to several hundred million shekels nationwide annually.
A radical rethinking of the way religious services are provided is essential. While we agree with Lieberman that the councils should be dismantled, we also believe that an alternative model should be found to replace the old one so that the state will continue to provide the citizens of the Jewish state with basic religious services.
One proposal was put forward in 2006 by a committee headed by Dr. Hadar Lipshitz of Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah, a liberal-minded group of modern-Orthodox young men and women. It calls to transfer state funds and responsibility for religious services directly to local organized communities – whether haredi, modern Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.
These small communities, built around individual synagogues, would choose their own rabbis and decide on their own how to spend state funds raised from a voluntary “religious services tax.”
These smaller communities would in turn form several larger organizations that would compete with one another to provide kashrut supervision, marriage registration and conversions nationwide.
Though the details need to be hammered out, Lipshitz’s proposal has a number of apparent benefits. Local communities would be empowered, religion would be de-politicized, those uninterested in religious services would not be forced to pay, rabbis would be chosen in accordance with their suitability to the communities they serve, and a type of “free market Judaism” would be introduced in which vying religious organizations would compete to provide services.
Lieberman was right to call for an end to religious councils in their current form. Now the hard job of formulating an alternative must begin.