Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Some Good News about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate

Chief Rabbis David Lau and YiItzhak Yosef - Photo credit; Ha'artez
I’m happy to announce that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has done something right. Something which actually argues in favor of retaining the Israeli Rabbinate as the authority over religious matters in the State of Israel.

There has been a lot of criticism leveled at this institution as of late, much of it deserved. The corruption alone that the last Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi has been arrested for (and all the evidence that supports those allegations) is enough in my view to justify that criticism. And as if that weren’t enough, the politics that now permeates this high office makes its judgments suspect.

Even the way these rabbis are selected is less than equitable since it is done secretly by a panel of 150 electors (chosen by the Ministry or Religion) that are subjected to heavy lobbying by special interests. Which may sway one or more of these electors to vote against their own better judgment.

As it happens the current ‘power behind the throne’ are the Charedi rabbinic leaders. Their favored candidates have won the last two elections. That’s 20 years worth of influence!

The loudest call for abolishing the Rabbinate comes from Heterodox movements that complain they are treated unfairly – and prevented from having any power over religious matters even over their own constituencies.

Nevertheless, it would be a bad idea for the Rabbinate to completely relinquish all control over religious life in Israel. As much as Israel is a Democratic State, it is also a Jewish State. And despite all the definitions floating around as to what constitutes a Jew, I am of the firm belief that Halacha is the prime determinant. 

As such people who are the most knowledgeable about Halacha should be the ones determining religious matters in a Jewish State. That said, I do not think it should be in the hands of one religious faction either. Halacha should be the only thing that matters. Hashkafa should never play into decisions by the Rabbinate. Unfortunately it now does. Big time!

For example there is something called the Heter Michira. This allows farmers to work their fields and sell its produce during the Shmitta year (that occurs every 7 years) via a the sale of their land to a non Jew (similar to the way we sell our Chametz to a non Jew every year before Pesach). The Charedi influence over the Rabbinate has caused them to remove its Hechsher (religious sanction) over any produce that is the result of the Heter Mechira.

The Charedi establishment does not consider the Heter Mechira a sale valid. They consider it a sham sale leaving the land in Jewish hands. Thus making its produce remains forbidden from use.

I am not here to Paskin on this issue. But I am here to say that the Rabbinate should not adopt Chumros (strictures). They should only be concerned with the letter of the law. Those who do not trust the Heter Michra, don’t have to use it. But for those who do, it is wrong for the Rabbinate to impose this stricture on them... making it harder for them to be observant.

This is just one example, there are others that are of even greater import. Like the whole conversion controversy. Here too, the rabbinate has acceded to the Halachicly stricter Charedi position rather than the more Halachicly permissible lenient position. The Charedi view is that the lenient position is invalid and the conversions made via these leniencies are invalid. And they have even ostracized those rabbis who utilized it casting a pall on all of their conversions – past and present. Even those that did not employ any leniencies.

I am therefore not too enamored of the Rabbinate as it now stands. To say the least. But I am fully opposed to abolishing it. Because even as I am opposed to the undue influence of the Charedi rabbis, I still believe that the Rabbinate is necessary to determine base Halacha and to eliminate abuses of it by people under their charge that work in religious institutions.

Which brings me to the following good news. The Rabbiante has just righted a wrong. One may recall the post I did about the outrageous phenomenon of some Mikvah ladies abusing their positions and causing many problems for those women use the Mikvah. They have been insisting on Chumros and interrogating users about private matters that have nothing to do with their Tevilah (the religious immersion into the Mikvah).  In some cases they have been forbidding Mikvah usage entirely for some women based on the results of those interrogations!

One may remember that Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie was about to sponsor a bill that would bar these Mikvah ladies from doing any of that. But the Chief Rabbinate has risen to the occasion and has come up with a clear mandate for all Mikvah ladies. From the Jewish Press
“The attendant is meant to help the immersing women fulfill the commandment of immersion according to Jewish law, and the attendant must be available for that purpose, and to offer her assistance,” the letter read. “In addition, the attendant is not permitted to coerce customs, investigations or checks on the women against their will.” Separate letters from Israeli Chief Rabbis Yitzchak Yosef and David Lau, and from Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, endorsed the new restrictions. 
Now this is something we can all cheer. And it is one reason why the Chief Rabbinate is necessary. One might argue that legislation in the Knesset could have served the same function. But the State does not have the religious standing to make such laws. It is far more significant when the Rabbinate does it. They have the power of Halacha behind them. What legislators can do is to back up those decisions up with legal sanctions for violations. Like huge fines.

There is of course a lot that needs to be corrected in how the Rabbinate operates. Starting with the way the Chief Rabbis are chosen. But in my view at least we can see why it is important for the Rabbinate to retain its control of religious matters in a Jewish State.