Israel's Rabbinate Is Winning the Battles for Religious Monopoly, but It's Losing the War

The rabbinate has become increasingly loathed even in its 'home court' – consisting of religious Jews both in Israel and abroad.

Moti Milrod

Just as there was no reason to rejoice in the conversion reform the cabinet approved last November, there’s no real reason to mourn its demise now.

The plan to introduce competition into the state-run conversion system by letting municipal rabbis perform conversions was never implemented, but even if it had been, it’s doubtful that it would have significantly eased the process or increased the number of converts.

What happened Sunday was merely a political victory for the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, one of many that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised them in the coalition agreements.

But the second decision adopted Sunday – transferring responsibility for the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry – could have practical implications.

The Justice Ministry has in recent years tried to impose professional standards on the rabbinical courts and to penalize judges who didn’t meet them. The Shas-controlled Religious Services Ministry sees the rabbinical courts merely as a tool for implementing the rulings of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and appointing rabbis with ties to the party as judges. The ministry will also almost certainly try to expand the rabbinical courts’ authority.

With regard to conversions, as with divorce, the situation in the country was already terrible, and it will simply stay that way. Nevertheless, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay may at least succeed to get some new rabbinical court judges appointed. Former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni didn’t manage to appoint even a single one during her years heading the appointments committee.

So what significance does the decision taken in the cabinet on Sunday actually have? First, it shows the religious Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi continues to be all talk and no action on issues of religion and state, whereas the nonreligious parties, first and foremost Netanyahu’s Likud, are indifferent to these issues. That’s what enables the ultra-Orthodox parties’ sweeping victories. As of Sunday, they have full control over all religious services in Israel.

Second, though the conversion reform wouldn’t have helped many converts, it did reflect the sharp decline in the Chief Rabbinate’s standing in the eyes of many religious Jews. The reform, sponsored by former MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah), was backed by Tzohar – an organization of moderate religious Zionist rabbis – as well as by some members of Habayit Hayehudi and religious MKs from the Yesh Atid party. It showed that the chief rabbinate is no longer all-powerful and that’s not a trivial thing.

It’s hard to blame the ultra-Orthodox for implementing the agenda on which they campaigned. But while the rabbinate seems to be winning battle after battle, in reality, it is losing. It is becoming increasingly loathed even in its "home court" – consisting of religious Jews both in Israel and abroad.

The Chief Rabbinate's failed attempt to oust Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, the plan by Shas to enact legislation to further tighten the rabbinate's monopoly over supervision of kashrut (dietary laws), and its battle against even the most minor administrative reforms were all shows of strength meant to deter opponents – yet in reality, they simply increased popular disgust with the rabbinate. As a result, the rabbinate has fewer and fewer defenders, even among religious Zionists, who used to view it as a sacred institution.

The irony is that the ultra-Orthodox are increasingly the only ones defending the rabbinate and the state conversion system, which only Sunday they reviled as “too Zionist.”

What is ultimately in the balance, however, is the credit the public gives the Chief Rabbinate. And the more battles the ultra-Orthodox win, the more this credit erodes, making the rabbinate ever less relevant.