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The End of the Chief Rabbinate?

Published in: Haaretz

About 90 years ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook established the Chief Rabbinate. Now it has died, or at least there is another large and important nail in its coffin. This week, rabbis who are considered central to and accepted in the religious Zionist community converted six children in a private rabbinical court. In doing so they provided legitimacy and support to a growing stream of activities whose objective is to provide religious services that bypass the Chief Rabbinate.

The role of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is to offer religious and halakhic leadership (pertaining to religious law,) and it is responsible for providing religious services and deciding on halakhic policy regarding these services. On the issues of conversion, marriage and divorce, kashrut and burial, it has the last word, as an institution, and occasionally by dint of law.

In both these roles, the Chief Rabbinate has failed. By its actions and its policy it has rendered itself irrelevant.

There is no community in the State of Israel that accepts the discipline and the rulings of its rabbis. The secular community has no interest in the rabbinate and it never interested the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox; they have always had and continue to have their own deciders and leaders. The religious Zionist community, which in the past sanctified the Chief Rabbinate, has abandoned it since the Haredim took over key positions.

The rabbinate has also failed in providing religious services. The inferior service, the corruption, and mainly the stringent halakhic policy and the unwillingness to give expression to halakhic viewpoints that are more suited to the Israeli reality, have turned religious services into something that everyone tries to avoid. The Jews in Israel are not fed up with Judaism, they are fed up with the established rabbinate, its rabbis and the religious services that they provide or organize.

The result of the rabbinate’s ongoing failure is the trend towards privatization of religious services. In all areas, the Chief Rabbinate has new competitors, who provide religious services and give those who seek them the best and most worthy solution. In the present situation, this is a welcome trend, which could restore Judaism to the Jews.

In the area of kashrut, dozens of Haredi Badatzim (ultra-Orthodox bodies granting kashrut certificates) have been operating for years, bypassing the rabbinate with their meticulous and stringent standards. They usually operate alongside the kashrut supervisors from the rabbinate, but recently several organizations have begun to provide kashrut supervision according to Orthodox standards, without turning to the supervisors from the local religious councils. In Jerusalem, and now in Tel Aviv too, those who wish to do so can eat kosher without the involvement of the Chief Rabbinate.

When it comes to marriage, with the granting of equal status to common-law spouses and the creation of alternatives to marriage registration, the demand for marriage through the rabbinate is steadily declining. Even among those who want to marry according to halakha, many prefer to do so privately without registering with the rabbinate. And even divorce, which was an absolutely monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate, is now being granted by private rabbinical courts of rabbis who are moved by the plight of agunot, women who cannot divorce, and who understand that the solution will not be found in the rabbinate’s courts.

And now conversion. The establishment of a network of rabbinical conversion courts led by central religious Zionist rabbis, who were once proud of the official status of the Chief Rabbinate, is a dramatic change. These courts are challenging the last monopoly of the rabbinate, even though at present they are converting only children – conversion that is halakhically more complex. The meaning of this step is that those rabbis are aware of the rabbinate’s inability to provide a halakhic solution to the challenge of conversion. It is clear to everyone that this will be followed by the conversion of adults, and then by the establishment of a system that will enable those converts, whose Jewishness will not be recognized by the rabbinate, to marry.

The rabbinate, the Haredi factions and several members of Habayit Hayehudi are fighting a losing battle against this trend. Out of political interests rather than concern for the Jewish character of the state, they are trying, by means of enforcement and legislation, to change the trend. But these are vain attempts. The horses have fled the stable. Even if the law that mandates turning to the rabbinate is etched in stone, if the public doesn’t go to the rabbinate and doesn’t use its services, it won’t be relevant.

The trend towards privatization of religious services heralds not only the death of the rabbinate – it creates a de-facto separation between religion and the state. The less relevant the rabbinate and the official and established religious services it provides, the more significant the separation between religion and the state. And if that is the actual situation, in the end the legislators will have no choice but to recognize it by means of legislation as well.

At the second floor of Beit Yahav, near the entrance to Jerusalem, sit two people – Israel’s chief rabbis – who are confronting a historic decision. Should they accept the process and dig the grave of the Chief Rabbinate or should they be its saviors? Should they give in, or exploit its last gasps, and in a historic move, which also means turning their backs on the Haredi community from which they came, bring about a revolution that will restore the rabbinate to the lives and the hearts of the Jews in Israel? Time will tell.


Dr. Shuki Friedman is the Director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and is a Professor of Law at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot.

This article was originally published in Haaretz on August 12, 2015.