Privatize the Chief Rabbinate

The activities of the Chief Rabbinate are on their face quite important, but it is clear they could be accomplished far better by private initiative.

Rabbi Metzger (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi Metzger
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
When we came to Israel, some 33 years ago, we rented an apartment that had just been built. As the first residents, we dutifully went to the local telephone company office and applied for a phone. Like most applicants living in a new development, we were told that the wait until phone lines were installed would be approximately three years. Indeed, nearly three years later, the necessary infrastructure as completed and phones were installed.
This phenomenon passed when the telephone system was taken out of the hands of the Communication Ministry and ultimately converted into a private company whose goal was profit for its shareholders. Similar results were achieved by the privatization of other services that had previously been provided either by the state or the local authorities.
Even the handling of North American aliya was transferred to a private organization. This experience should be applied to the Chief Rabbinate as well.
What exactly does the Chief Rabbinate do? I wasn’t entirely sure, so I took a look at its website. According to the website, the rabbinate provides services in the areas of kashrut, certifying rabbis and religious court judges, and supervising circumcisions.
In addition, mention is made of attracting people to the values of the Torah and serving as a spiritual authority for Jewish communities.
Finally, particular attention is given to the need to promote the image of the rabbinate through public relations and similar functions.
These activities are on their face quite important, but it seems quite clear all of the above could be (and actually are being) accomplished far better by private initiative.
Let us look at the kashrut services.
A significant portion of the Israeli population does not abide by the kashrut laws, so they certainly have no or little interest in the government supplying kashrut certifications.
Another significant portion of the population does not rely on the rabbinate, and will only consume products that have a more strict certification – the so-called “Badatz” certificates. A minority of the populace relies on the rabbinate or the Badatz certifications.
Thus, one might argue, there is indeed a certain measure of privatization and even competition – namely, the rabbinate versus the Badatz organizations. However, under the Law Prohibiting Deceptive Practices in Kashrut, a food item or a business serving food may not call itself “kosher” unless its has a kashrut certificate issued by the Chief Rabbinate, a local rabbinate or a rabbi authorized by the rabbinate – even if they are certified by the Badatz.
Rather than promoting competition, the law has granted the rabbinate a semi-monopoly. Compete you may, but only after we have affixed our seal – says the rabbinate. It is for this reason that one frequently sees two and even more kashrut certifications on food products.
If the Chief Rabbinate were privatized and had to compete with other kashrut organizations, there would be many producers who would opt to obtain only a Badatz certification.
There would be competition as to price and service – the two mainstays of a free economy. The cost of kashrut certification would go down, because no longer would a supplier have to have two certifications.
If the rabbinate did not prevail in the contest of the free economy, it would disappear, as it should.
Private kashrut organizations would also be free of the overriding authority of the Supreme Court – the well known “Bagatz” process. When during the most recent Shemita (Sabbatical Year) the Chief Rabbinate sought to take a more strict halachic stance in interpreting religious law, the Supreme Court intervened and struck down this position. This situation underlines the absurdity of a government rabbinate. How can a religious rabbinate be part of a secular government? Privatized kashrut certifications would be immune from such intervention.
The same issues that surround kashrut also apply with regard to certification of rabbis and judges. Here too the law has granted the rabbinate a monopoly. If a rabbi does not pass the test administered by the Chief Rabbinate, he cannot serve as a municipal rabbi, regardless of whether he has been certified by the greatest yeshivot or the greatest sages of the time. The process is also highly politicized.
In his autobiography, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin describes how the rabbinate sought to avoid granting him authority to act as a municipal rabbi because he was too modern, and did not have a beard. Each community should have the right to choose its own rabbi, in accordance with its needs.
With regard to the rabbinical courts, I have previously, in these pages, described the hilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) which is caused by the rabbinical courts in general and the nomination process in particular. In any case, the rabbinical court is an entity separate from the Chief Rabbinate, and should operate on the basis of substantive criteria. Rabbinical court pleaders should administer and license their professions much in the same way that the Bar Association and Chamber of Accountants perform these tasks and finance their activities through dues and other activities.
With regard to the other functions of the Chief Rabbinate, not only would these be better served if they were left to private industry (so to speak), but in fact one questions whether such services actually exist.
The circumcision department is a good example. While this department provides testing and guidance, it lacks the most important authority – licensure. A mohel does not require rabbinate certification to practice his trade. Despite advertisements to the contrary, the rabbinate does not grant a “license” to be a mohel. Thus, in one area where the rabbinate could and should exercise authority, it does not and cannot.
Similarly, one questions whether the rabbinate actually “attracts people to the values of the Torah” or whether it serves as a “spiritual authority for Jewish communities.”
Many would claim that the opposite is true. Does anyone really and realistically look to the Chief Rabbinate for guidance on essential questions of the day? Is there a Chief Rabbi who has served as the spiritual advisor of the prime minister, as former chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits served Margaret Thatcher in the UK? In some cases – e.g. Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s so-called psak halacha (Jewish law decision) concerning “tycoons” and financial “haircuts,” at least as reported in the press, it was quite clear that the rabbi had little understanding of the commercial or legal aspects of the matter. (Since rabbis and rabbinical court judges are not required to have any secular education, this is not surprising. Indeed, over the years, I have been asked such basic questions about legal/financial matters by sitting senior rabbinical judges that I was confused as to how they could decide serious commercial/personal issues without such basic knowledge.) The political machinations in preparation for the forthcoming election of a chief rabbi, the campaigns being waged by the various political parties and rabbis, the attacks on the chief rabbinate on the backs of city buses, and the intervention of American rabbis who publicly support one candidate in large ads in the Israeli process, make it absolutely clear that the rabbinate is far from a spiritual authority or an attraction to Torah values.
The above may seem to be a sharp criticism of the Chief Rabbinate.
Indeed, it is. But even more so, it is a criticism of a system and situation that is illogical: a Chief Rabbinate in a secular (if not anti-religious) state.
Privatizing the Chief Rabbinate (yes, I realize this may be a euphemism for separation of church and state in Israel), will not only benefit the public, but it will give the rabbinate its last chance to become a beacon of spirit in a hostile environment.The author is an advocate and attorney at law for the firm of Weksler, Bregman & Co.