By Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz
Wikipedia says the following about the Rabanut Ha-Rashit Li-Yisra’el:
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is recognized by law as the supreme rabbinic and spiritual authority for Judaism in Israel. Its jurisdiction includes personal status issues, such as Jewish marriages and Jewish divorce, as well as Jewish burials, conversion to Judaism, kosher laws and kosher certification, Jewish immigrants to Israel (olim), etc.
The fact that liberal Jewish movements view these laws as discriminatory is well publicized, but it is becoming more and more clear that the moderate Orthodox community is being excluded as well. The control that the Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) community has over the Rabanut is ironic in that they themselves do not rely on the Chief Rabbinate services. Haredi kashrut is supervised by a private and competitive market, Haredi marriages are registered through their own private and community based batei din, and the same is true regarding divorce and burial.
The extremist and separatist rabanut has assumed dogmatic policies that reflect their sectarian agenda. Many Orthodox rabbis would seek to build civil trust and solidarity by applying more lenient standards where halacha and public policy collide. The Rabanut on the other hand seems more concerned with forcing more severe stringencies upon the Israeli public. Some examples of this would be setting severe standards for conversion, discouraging halachic prenuptial agreements intended to protect against get refusal, and discriminating against women in religious courts. A long list could be made of publicly controversial positions taken by the rabanut that would be disputed by more lenient Orthodox Rabbis. We are at the mercy of a fundamentalist worldview which believes in “my way or the highway.”
As a result of this narrow minded conduct there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis whose needs are not being met by the legally mandated rabbinate. Kosher restaurants that can not get certification, potential converts who are being refused, halachic converts who are not being recognized, even to the point that they can not be legally married in the Jewish State.
Repeated attempts to change this state of affairs from the Knesset continue to fail. The political system has accepted the Haredi hegemony on Judaism and it continues to dominate the legislative arena. Elections in Israel revolve around security and economics, and only the Haredi parties are willing to pay a significant price to preserve their agenda and protect their monopoly. Governments continue to prefer stability and the status quo, avoiding any legislative initiative that could create significant change. It is for this reason that many activists, including myself, have decided to focus our efforts in civil society.
It has become clear that the Israeli public is not willing to give up on Judaism because of the rabanut. Public surveys consistently indicate that the numbers of Israelis who seek out kosher food, who prefer a traditional wedding, who are committed to a halachically valid divorce, are stable or even on the rise. In order to meet that need and leverage its potential to create change, I have been involved in a movement to build private services that provide a viable and effective alternative to the rabanut.
Private alternatives are a significant threat to the monopoly which is why significant resources are being invested to stop this development in its tracks. For example Hashgacha Pratit, the private kosher supervision we built, was harassed for years by baseless inspections, citations, and regulatory motions. Despite the best efforts on the part of the Rabanut and their cohorts, our model was cleared by the Supreme Court and as of today their monopoly is no longer relevant. We have moved on to marriage, and others are providing similar services in the areas of conversion and burial. The community is taking back what was once theirs.
The rationale for the monopoly is created by the illusion that the rabanut represents the religious community. The clearer it becomes that they represent a narrow minded interest group, the harder it will become to justify their power. This is why vocal criticism of the monopoly from within the Orthodox community is so important for creating change. It is notable that for years whatever changes have occured in this arena have come from within the Modern Orthodox community. The commitment to traditional religion that we bring creates a stark contrast highlighting the true agenda behind the monopoly, which is political and financial by nature, and not halachik.
It is my belief that private Orthodox alternatives are the most effective challenge to the Rabanut monopoly at this time. Our success will benefit all those who seek more freedom of religious expression in Israel. The facts that we are creating on the ground can not be reversed, and it is only a matter of time until that becomes clear in the Court and in the Knesset as well.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is the founder of ‘Hashgacha Pratit,’ a nonprofit fighting the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services and personal-status matters in Israel.