The Incompetence of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate Makes It Seem More Malicious Than It Is

July 26, 2017 | Elli Fischer
About the author: Elli Fischer, a rabbi, writer, and translator, is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University.

Israel’s chief rabbinate has been criticized from many quarters for its recent action delegitimizing conversions to Judaism performed by rabbis it deems too moderate. The problem, Elli Fischer writes, is not—or not just—malice against other Jews, it’s the rabbinate’s organizational dysfunction and incompetence, rooted in a vast bureaucracy never before seen in the Jewish world:

The chief rabbinate, the Ministry of Religious Services, and other expressions of religion-state entanglement, are responsible for providing religious services—certify food as kosher, build synagogues and eruvin [ritual enclosures], marry, divorce, construct and staff ritual baths, bury the dead, administer holy sites, and more—for over six million people. This entails a rabbinic bureaucracy whose scope outstrips, by several orders of magnitude, any historical precedent.

It is here, in the middle and lower levels of the bureaucracy, where jobs are given out to nephews (Latin: nepos) and as political favors. It is here where real pain can be inflicted before the matter arrives at the desk of someone with a moral pulse. The monster lives in the cellar; it hardly matters who occupies the upper stories, or what sort of hat they wear. The problem with the rabbinate is not that it is too Orthodox or insufficiently Orthodox, but that through it the government confers power on those unfit to wield it.

As long as religious services remain an arm of government, control of them will remain the spoils of coalition politics. As long as Israel remains in a precarious geopolitical situation, Israelis will continue to consider control of religious service an acceptable price to pay for a few years of domestic stability. And so, the average encounter with the official arms of the Jewish religion will remain impersonal and alienating, and sometimes downright nightmarish.

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