9/26/2007

Will Tzohar Declare War on the Rabbanut?

The Tzohar Rabbinic Organization recently began publicizing an initiative to create a new kashrut organization, motivated by the fact that, in their words, “in the near future, the State of Israel will face a situation in which 2 million of its citizens will be living in cities where there is no Kashrut certification on its food establishments.” This situation developed because a number of municipal rabbis will not certify any establishment which sells ‘heter mechira’ produce as kosher.

There is no consensus within Tzohar about whether this new initiative is simply to restore balance to the Rabbanut’s behavior, or the first (or perhaps second or third) maneuver in Tzohar’s attempt to create an alternative rabbinate. In Tzohar’s eleven years of existence, they have had a problematic but oddly symbiotic relationship with the Rabbanut. They have walked a tightrope between playing by the Rabbanut’s rules and agitating for reform.

Tzohar’s issue with the Chief Rabbinate is in practice, not principle. They fight against particular examples of rabbinic corruption or misbehavior, but have no real interest in pushing for systemic change. Their basic line is that the institution itself is unproblematic, but the people who currently populate it are.

Ultimately, they suffer from no small amount of hubris; they feel that they have a better finger on the pulse of ‘the people’ than today’s local official rabbis. Indeed, there are segments of the population – the urban Religious-Zionists and religious kibbutzniks, for example, and perhaps even the pro-Jewish but anti-religious cosmopolitan secular Ashkenazim- that they understand better than today’s empowered rabbis. ‘The people’ also live in Afula, though, not just Ra’anana.

I think that Tzohar rabbis are also naïve if they think that if they ever attain power that they will be immune from the failures of the current system. Power corrupts, and rabbis in this country have power, holding the purse-strings of hundreds of millions of shekels, even when it is not a Shemittah year.

The real problem with the Rabbanut, of which the current ‘heter mechira’ issue is but a symptom (though a big symptom), and which Tzohar seems to be ignorant of, is lack of accountability, and, to a lesser degree, lack of transparency.

The Rabbanut is a government institution and runs like one. At the inception of the state, instead of becoming relevant to all areas of Israeli life and society, the Chief Rabbinate was chucked a few bones, but it became, and remains, the authority in Israel in those areas. The Rabbanut has the sole authority to recognize conversions and determine Jewish status, perform Jewish marriages and divorces in Israel, and recognize Jewish marriages performed abroad. Additionally, other areas of Jewish life – namely, kashrut, mikvaot, and eruvin – fall under the Rabbanut’s jurisdiction as well, and these ‘industries’ are multi-million shekel industries. This means that if an establishment in City A wants to be known as ‘kosher’, it must go under the supervision of the local Rabbanut. Once certified by the local Rabbinate, the establishment is free to become certified by additional certifying agencies.

Money for various religious projects is funneled through various agencies to the Rabbanut. Thus, if the Housing Ministry budgets a certain amount for the construction of an eruv, the Rabbanut will have de facto control over how that money is spent; after all, they are authorized to declare that eruv operational or disqualified. In a neighborhood near mine, an eruv was recently constructed. The cost of the eruv was put at 144,000 NIS. My estimation, having built eruvin before and having scrutinized the borders of the area and seen existing structures (basically, the neighborhood was already fully enclosed on two sides, one by an actual fence, and one by ‘tzurot ha-petach’), was that it should cost about 30,000 NIS. That’s a hefty differential. I have no idea how the money was spent, how the contractor who built the eruv was selected, or anything else. There is another scandal here in Modiin in which a mikvah ‘ran out of money’ during construction. Why did it go so far over budget? Who knows? There is no transparency.

Furthermore, the Rabbanut is not really a centralized organization, rather more like a franchise. A Rabbanut position is a lifetime appointment, and the appointment is not made by the Rabbi’s constituents. As I've written before, there needs to be a balance of power between the rabbi and his community. On one hand, the rabbi should have a degree of independence from his constituency, to be able to make hard decisions without being overly influenced by what the balabatim want to hear. On the other hand, the community must feel that the rabbi is addressing their needs, concerned with their concerns, sharing in their joys and sorrows. If he does not pass muster, he will lose his job.

In Israel, rabbis are not accountable to their constituents. The ramifications are manifold; it can mean that an official rabbi can invalidate a conversion 15 years after the fact, as was recently done, without having to bear any repercussions. Another ramification is that the rabbi serves as a de facto gatekeeper for who can get married, who can get divorced, and who is Jewish in his town. Rabbis can demand payment – on or off the books – for performing a wedding, and if he is refused, he has the power to simply refuse to perform or register the marriage. There are horror stories to this effect. The rabbi simply might just be a jerk, give politically incorrect divrei Torah, or show up two hours late to a wedding he must perform. He might insist on chumrot or deny kulot based on his own ideal version of what the halakha should be, ignoring other precedents and the sensibilities of his community. There are no real consequences.

In order to bring about systemic change and introduce elements of accountability and transparency, an organization would need, before anything else, the ambition and ability to do so. Tzohar may have the ability, but they do not have the ambition. They have not raised the issue of what an accountable, responsible Chief Rabbinate would look like, contenting themselves just to assert the unfalsifiable claim that they could do it better and nicer.

Can the system really change? Should it be fixed or simply annihilated? How would that happen? What can organizations like Tzohar really do?

These are the questions that Tzohar should be asking, and that I hope to address in upcoming posts.
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