The Return to Religion: A State-funded Fashion

It's impossible to name the exact figure of the national budget that is earmarked for religious revival organizations.

Last week we were again witness to regular prisoners escorted to court wearing scullcaps, their ritual fringes peeking out from under their shirts and their entire appearance radiating righteousness and devotion. Men who arrive in court from jail or prison because they have committed crimes, violating the laws of the state and the moral dictates of religious law, undergo a wondrous transformation behind bars: They turn into observant Jews who kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost of the courtroom, recite psalms while swaying in fervor and grow bears. There's no doubt about it: Turning to religion is a growing trend that has not skipped over the criminal world.

Israel Prison Service (IPS) officials explain that they provide religious services to all inmates, in keeping with each one's religion, and that these activities are free of proselytizing. Prisoners attend religious lessons solely out of free will, IPS Spokesman Yaron Zamir stresses, noting the reparative aspect of the spiritual care invested by the IPS rabbinate in the prisoners entrusted to them: It exposes them to Jewish moral values. It is difficult, of course, to argue with these explanations, but their innocent - or innocent-seeming - appearance does not obviate the following observation: The return to religion is not a process that is undergone solely for the sake of heaven; it is not only what it purports to be: spiritual purification, supreme spiritual redemption. It often entails utilitarian, even truly criminal, motivations. The obvious conclusion: The time has come to stop the state's financial support for this movement.

It's impossible to name the exact figure of the national budget that is earmarked for religious revival organizations. The money is spread throughout hundreds of individual budget items under various and sundry names. In a series of exacting articles that appeared in Haaretz in 2001, Shahar Ilan arrived at the sum of NIS 100 million a year allocated by the state for these purposes. Since then, the annual state budget has increased by 23 percent. Up-to-date, but incomplete, figures for 2007 indicate allocations of at least NIS 54 million to organizations that are recognized as engaging in returning Jews to the fold of religious observance (but which certainly do not include all organizations that declare their activities in this area). In addition, institutions such as Shas' Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani schools, which target children from secular or traditional homes with the aim of inculcating an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, received state support of about NIS 250 million last year. It can thus be said with complete confidence that the state hands out substantial sums to the hazara be'teshuva industry.

When one realizes that MK Shlomo Benizri of Shas, the chief representative of the religious revivalism movement, was convicted of serious bribery and that his spiritual patron, Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, was found guilty of similar crimes, one finds reasons to question the state's decision to underwrite this enterprise. The true face of the proselytizing movement has been exposed: In addition to providing for many genuine, honest spiritual seekers, it also provides a cover for criminals, a city of refuge for eccentrics and the mentally unbalanced and an umbrella for realizing the twisted fantasies and the sick aggressions of perverts (to which the recent incidences of child abuse attest).

One may ask: What is the state's interest in cultivating and supporting such things? The patrons of religious revivalism will say that the irregular behavior of individuals should not be ascribed to this grand (in their eyes) enterprise. In their eyes, religious repentance is a positive and effective spiritual and social process and the filth spread by a minority at the margins of the camp should not be allowed to pollute the entirety. But that is not the case: The fact that hazara be'teshuva serves as a flak jacket for criminals and people whose behavior is abnormal is sufficient evidence to warrant a reexamination of the state's involvement in cultivating this movement.

While we should accept the argument that we should not make conclusions about the entire enterprise based on the criminal behavior of a minority, the state nevertheless has no interest in promoting the movement as a whole; the state is supposed to operate according to different priorities. Every person is free to choose his own way of life, but it isn't the state's job to fund the private whims of its citizens. The Haredi sector receives generous budget allocations that fund its spiritual needs; those who decide to found and operate institutions for religious proselytizing should raise the funds for them on their own.