The rabbinate must be reformed to be more welcoming - editorial

The rabbinate has become a restricted club of only one sector of Israeli society, and attempts to diversify it are met with strong opposition.

Chief rabbis gathered to discuss reforms to the conversion and kashrut system  (photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
Chief rabbis gathered to discuss reforms to the conversion and kashrut system
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)

We have recently witnessed a harsh attack coming from the rabbinate aimed at blocking the reforms that Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana is trying to promote. The plan is now being discussed at the governmental level. 

The most recent one emerged from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who on Thursday said the outline of the conversion reform is a “spiritual disaster” and causes “severe damage to the Jewish characteristics of the State of Israel.” Lau added that they (the rabbinate) will “fight it with every mean that stands at our disposal.”

The goal of the legislation is to make conversion to Judaism more accessible and welcoming. It would also give municipal chief rabbis the ability to use leniency in Jewish law to convert greater numbers of the large population of Israeli citizens who are of Jewish descent but not Jewish according to Jewish law, mostly from the former Soviet Union, so as to avert increasing assimilation.

As part of the campaign against the reforms, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef led a conference of dayanim (judges of Jewish law), denouncing government legislation.

State Ombudsman for Judges Justice (ret.) Uri Shoham said after the conference that Kahana should consider dismissing Yosef from the senior position, stating that public officials – the dayanim who are employed by the state – are not allowed to take part in and publicly voice their opinion on a matter that is currently under controversial political debate. He also ordered the minister to summon Yosef to his office and reprimand him. 

 Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana attends a plenary session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, July 26, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana attends a plenary session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, July 26, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In the past, there were multiple incidents in which members of the rabbinate used their power to express controversial and political opinions.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Safed’s municipal rabbi, is currently facing a legal procedure for his remarks against Arabs and the LGBT community. Eliyahu in the past has called for the expulsion of all Arab students from a college in his city. He also called on Jews to not rent apartments to Arabs.

In 2019, Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern called on Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion to prevent the hanging of pride flags prior to a Pride Parade.

The rabbi described the parade as a disgrace and the flags as ugly.

Another example is Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who has denounced non-Orthodox Jews as worse than Holocaust-deniers and described homosexuals as “a cult of abomination.”

Despite the campaign against him, Kahana is now advancing a bill that would grant members of the rabbinate even more freedom. The bill would give the Religious Affairs minister the authority to prosecute members of the rabbinate. 

“[The motion is advanced] out of the belief that municipal rabbis deserve an upgraded freedom of speech, which stems from their halachic decisions,” it is explained in the bill.

Kahana himself said, “Freedom of speech and the comments of rabbis and spiritual leaders, even if they have a government position, goes to the heart of the trust which those who adhere to the teachings of their moral and spiritual leaders have in them. The day that rabbis are silenced will be the day they lose this trust of their adherents.”

The question at this point is why would Minister Kahana want to allow more freedom of speech of state employees who are using that freedom to influence the political debate, and sometimes even incite?

Kahana, who is now walking around with bodyguards due to threats against his life resulting from the reforms he’s trying to promote, wants to give them more power.

Would we accept a reality in which judges initiated a campaign against the justice minister? Would we allow a situation in which a Supreme Court justice would openly voice his or her opinion on controversial political issues?

The rabbinate has become a restricted club that employs people from only one sector of Israeli society. Every attempt to make it more diverse is met with strong opposition – and sometimes, as in this case, in threats against the minister behind the reforms. 

The chief rabbis and municipal rabbis are there to provide services. Their job is to make these services accessible to the public and to offer assistance with Jewish law to those who seek it. Allowing them to take part in the political debate is corrupting government service and could lead to serious problems.

Kahana should stay strong and determined in implementing his reforms and making the rabbinate more diverse and welcoming.

This is the change this country needs.