Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate Must be Overhauled

Removing distributor certification. A case of rabbinic abuse of power? (TOI)
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to defend the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Once again it seems they have used their authority to harm the public good without any real justification. This time it is a matter of Kashrus certification.  From the Times of Israel
The Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem revoked the kosher certification of one Israeli importer of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, while leaving in place the license for the drink’s official importer to the country, even though the whiskey sold by both importers apparently comes from the same factory.
Uri Zror, the owner of Paneco Group, appealed to the High Court of Justice over the revocation of his company’s kosher certification, according to a Channel 10 report. He argued that there was no religious ground for its removal, as “the product is kosher, it is the exact same product as the official importer’s.” He said that even “religious Jews drink it.”

Zror told Channel 10 that his company sells Jack Daniel’s for an average price of NIS 119 shekels (approx. $30), while the official importer sells a bottle for an average price of NIS 149...
I have no clue why the Rabbinate did this. To the best of my knowledge they have not offered any explanation. But if what Uri Zror says is true, then not only does he suffer financially, so too  does the Israeli consumer. Such action on the part of an authoritative government agency cries out for an explanation. 

I can only guess that since  has no explanation has been forthcoming - it means that there isn’t one. Why else would the rabbinate subject themselves to the perception of being anti consumer. Do they have some sort of financial interest in one importer over another? Is there some other legitimate reason?  If there is a legitimate reason for what they did, why not release that information to the public so they will understand there was no bias involved?

This is yet another example of what seems to be precipitous behavior on the part of Rabbinate officials. Which serves to discredit their authority. The last time this happened was when Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz - one of the most respected Poskim in the United States was dishonored by them. The Rabbinate denied the legitimacy of conversions to Judaism of people that Rav Schwartz’s certified were authentic.

Which makes me sympathetic to an article Jewish Ideas jointly written by Rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss. They made the point that conversions that took place outside of the agreement made between the RCA and the Rabbinate should not be automatically rejected. They accused the RCA of rejecting converts that were legitimately converted prior to the establishment of their new guidelines for conversions known as Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS). These new standards were devised in conjunction with the Chief Rabbinate. Who agreed to accept all future RCA conversions under those standards. 

While I am sympathetic to their concerns about not accepting converts prior to GPS, I do not agree with them on accepting all of those done even by Orthodox by rabbis in the past.

Many years ago, I personally witnessed a sham conversion done by an otherwise respected Orthodox rabbi. It was done to please the parent of the Jewish groom who did not want to see his son marry out. I was told by the bride  that she only did it to please her future father in law and had no intention of following Halacha any more than her husband would. There has been too much abuse of the conversion process in ways like this to automatically consider all or even most of conversions of the past to be legitimate in the past to allow that to happen. 

The establishment of the GPS was therefore a necessity. But so too is the need to grandfather in legitimate conversions of the past when rabbis of stature certify them.

In any case clearly the rabbinate is not anywhere near that standard. They are currently on a power trip – free and clear of any oversight!

I guess 19th century English historian, Lord Acton was right. Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This adage seems to be alive and well in the Israel Chief Rabbinate. Either that or incompetence rules the day in that office. I’m not sure which is worse.

And yet, in spite of all that. I still believe that a Jewish State needs an authoritative body that can determine what is and isn’t Jewish. And as I have always said, Halacha is the primary (albeit not only) determinant of that. Only a knowledgeable and honest rabbinate can determine what the Halacha is on any given issue.

So what are we to do? Do we disband the current rabbinate and reconstruct a more honest one from scratch? I don’t believe that is a good idea as it would create chaos. But I do believe a major overhaul is in order. If I were the Prime Minister I would ask the Ministry of Religion to assemble and empower a blue ribbon panel consisting of rabbinic leaders from all Orthodox factions in Israel to review every facet of the rabbinate and report in detail what is right - and what is wrong with it. And then I would ask for recommendations about how to improve it and then implement as many of them as possible

A restructured Chief Rabbinate that is guided by ethics and not politics would be my goal. And I would make sure that the power it wields would be subject to review by an outside rabbinic sources (also consisting of representatives of all Orthodox factions) to determine if politics or any other biases played a role in their decisions.

I doubt if any of this will ever happen. Politics as usual tends to be the case in most government scenarios. It’s hard to break old habits. But it sure would be an improvement if the concentration of power in the hands of the few were replaced by a broader based consensus with oversight by an independent rabbinical board. It might not be as efficient. But it would sure be more ethical.