The Long Road to Firing a Rabbi

Last week, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein prevented Shas's Religious Affairs Minister Asher Ohana from using a ministerial directive to restore elections for two chief rabbis in a township.

Last week, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein prevented Shas's Religious Affairs Minister Asher Ohana from using a ministerial directive to restore elections for two chief rabbis in a township. Rubinstein believes that the status quo created by an earlier directive from former religious affairs minister Yossi Beilin should remain in place. That directive put the authority to decide whether a town should have two chief rabbis into the hands of the city council, meaning the representatives of the town's residents. It's the residents, after all, who have to pay for the astronomic salaries of the second rabbi, his staff, and for his government car.

The Religious Affairs Ministry believes that the attorney general doesn't have the authority to cancel a ministerial directive, but it's doubtful that they will go into outright battle with him. As things appear now, Beilin's directive will remain in place and a city that wants to have only one rabbi will be able to do so. Beilin and Rubinstein can therefore chalk up an important achievement on the way to getting rid of the disgraceful system of appointing rabbis according to an ethnic formula.

Beilin did not do very much in the ministry. After he failed to dismantle it, he lost interest. His major achievement however was issuing three directives that made important reforms in the religious establishment. When Shas entered the ministry, its leaders made clear they planned to erase everything Beilin had accomplished. But Ohana has actually been much more moderate, and examined each issue on its merits.

Indeed, the only directive he tried to erase, by order of Shas's spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was the one that allowed a town to make do with only one chief rabbi. And Ohana only acted after controversy erupted when Tel Aviv decided it only needed one chief rabbi.

Another Beilin directive actually found favor with Rabbi Yosef. It determined that the religious affairs minister must fire any rabbi who does not live in the township in which he serves. The directive leaves no latitude for the minister. Shas explained that Rabbi Yosef also believes that a rabbi who doesn't live in his congregation's town is not worthy of the job.

But it turns out the road to firing a rabbi is a long one. Beilin fired 11, but Ohana decided to give them all a hearing. The director-general of his ministry, Moshe Shimoni, held those hearings and it appears that he'll reinstate all the rabbis.

It seems the minister and director-general may not be able to exercise discretion in the case of a rabbi who doesn't live in the town where he serves - but they can make a judgment about where the rabbi lives. Shimon says the rabbis proved they live in the cities where they worked. How did they prove it? They brought authorizations from the religious council, city hall and Interior Ministry about their places of residence. It would make more sense to ask the rabbis to bring authorizations about where their children go to school and where their wives work.

The ministry has a structural problem. A religious minister or director-general, even if he has the best intentions, can't fire a rabbi. It's more proof of the justice in Beilin's demand to dismantle the ministry and distribute its various functions among other, relevant ministries.

Another Beilin directive was particularly broad. It said that religious council heads and their deputies would not be salaried. That revolutionized a system in which the salaries of the chairmen and their deputies were linked to ministers' salaries, and they were paid huge amounts. But while one can argue about the amount they should be paid, it's difficult to expect the chairman of a religious council to work as a volunteer.

About a month ago, new directives from Ohana were published and went into effect. From now on, religious council chairmen and their deputies would be paid the same as a municipal department head, and the salaries will be linked to the salaries of the town's director-general. But the directive also states that in towns of up to 30,000 residents, the religious council chairman will be a part-time job. Huge savings can be expected. But in all the major cities, the salaries won't change - they're apparently too powerful to touch.

More problematic is the fact that the new directives allow a limited number of deputies to be appointed for the chairmen of religious councils in the major cities and large towns. If there's an unnecessary job in the civil service (almost as unnecessary as a second chief rabbi) it's the deputy chairman of the religious council. Beilin wanted to eliminate the job and it's a shame that Ohana wants to resurrect it.