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God’s Gatekeepers: Signs Of Progress?

God’s Gatekeepers: Signs Of Progress?

Everybody knows the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes

Everybody knows

— Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”

A bitter irony of Israel’s recent election of two new chief rabbis is that the only group that really cared about it lost – again.

While other groups took pragmatic approaches toward the election, viewing at as an opportunity to score patronage jobs or chuck some bones in the direction of the disgruntled opposition, Religious Zionism predictably allowed ideology to dominate its politics, failing to consider which candidates are electable by the 150-member voting body and failing to unite behind a single candidate.

Thus, despite an unprecedented media campaign that even extended to American shores (this paper supported the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav, considered the more open-minded of the Religious Zionist candidates), the candidates supported by the ultra-Orthodox parties won, as they did in the last election 10 years ago.

This turn of events may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, though. While the fanfare surrounding the election focused on the relative merits of the candidate, there has long been a still, small voice arguing that the identity of the chief rabbi is a minor issue compared to systemic and structural flaws of the rabbinate. Even under the most liberal candidate, the rabbinate would have remained an administrative bureaucracy, an arm of government, something that one takes pains to avoid unless absolutely necessary, hardly a source of religious meaning or guidance. In Israel today, religious leaders work to maintain a deeply problematic status quo while heads of secret security services are among the government’s biggest critics; this is so backward that it would be laughable if it were not so painful.

Yet as the noise of the election dies down, the alternative voices can be heard again. In fact, the first concrete steps toward a restructured rabbinate may have begun while attention was diverted to the election. In late May, the Ministry of Religious Affairs unveiled a plan to abolish the politically appointed position of “neighborhood rabbi” and instead to subsidize rabbis of synagogue communities. This is a small step – there are only 157 such neighborhood rabbis currently employed and none have been hired for the past decade – but if implemented, it would be unprecedented in several ways and possibly the harbinger of real structural reform in the provision of religious services in Israel.

In the first place, this plan does not discriminate on the basis of denomination, marking the first time that Reform and Conservative/Masorti congregations would be eligible for funding through the Ministry of Religious Services. For all denominations, it takes the power to appoint rabbis away from politicians and places it directly in the hands of the community, the people most directly impacted by their rabbi. The eventual result is a rabbinate that emerges from the ground up, not one that is imposed from the top down.

More broadly, this program may begin to reverse a process that began at the founding of the state. Throughout Jewish history and around the world, Jews have organized their religious and spiritual lives through communal institutions, yet Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, believed that in the Jewish state such community-consciousness would be a divisive factor. He therefore sought to replace it with state-consciousness (“mamlachtiyut”). Ben Gurion partially succeeded: though his ethos of mamlachtiyut has been eroding steadily for four decades, community-consciousness has been slow to re-enter Israeli society.

The plan proposed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs actually encourages and incentivizes community building, and at the expense of centralization. A group of citizens from the city of Modiin are promoting a similar plan, asking local politicians to subsidize local congregational rabbis through matching funds instead of looking for a new Ashkenazic city rabbi (the old one, Rabbi David Lau, recently left his post when he was elected chief rabbi).

Though perhaps most promising as a practical step, the emphasis on congregational rabbis rather than those serving a whole community or city, is far from the only idea being discussed. A handful of organizations and think tanks have proposed various alternatives to the rabbinate as it is currently structured. Calls for the rabbinate to be dismantled, privatized, opened up to competition by alternative purveyors of religious services, or rendered largely symbolic, abound. But these calls are rarely accompanied by a practical vision for disentangling the fraught relationship between religion and state in Israel.

One cluster of approaches, promoted by the Religious Zionist group Ne’emanei Torah Va-Avodah and, with some variation, by Knesset member Ruth Calderon, shows more promise. It is based on the German model for provision of religious services.

Each citizen chooses to belong to a particular religious community, and each community is then funded based on the number of adherents. Critics point out, however, that this model has already been tried, and the result was austrittgemeinde – the secession of Orthodox communities from broader Jewish communities in the late 19th century and the institutionalization of differences between various Jewish congregations by forcing them to choose denominational allegiances. Nevertheless, the fundamental assumption of this model, that the basic building block of religious society is the local voluntary community, is an important one. Perhaps the drawbacks of austrittgemeinde can be avoided by conditioning funding on participation in a local rabbinical council. In this way, the centrifugal force of denominationalism can be offset by the centripetal force of neighborly cooperation and compromise.

On Rosh Hashana we read about the biblical confrontation between Hannah and Eli. One of the themes of the episode is the perversion that inevitably arises from a priesthood that believes it controls access to the Almighty. Though it is clear that Eli has only the best of intentions in the role of God’s literal and figurative gatekeeper, it is only a matter of time before unscrupulous heirs take advantage of the unsuspecting masses. Hannah’s silent prayer is an act of defiance, but it is not itself the answer to the excesses of priesthood. On the contrary, she dedicates her son’s life to the very priesthood that she criticizes, and her son, the prophet Samuel, indeed makes the priesthood more accessible and empowering.

Perhaps we can take a lesson from Hannah’s actions. She was not content to merely critique a corrupt system or to withdraw from it and do her own thing. Rather, she gave up the thing she treasured most – her first child after a long period of barrenness – so that he could change and repair the broken religious leadership from within.

Elli Fischer, a writer and Hebrew-English translator in Israel, is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week.

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