The Riskin Opportunity for Religious Privatization

Rabbi Riskin has a priceless opportunity to show how communities can provide religious services better than the governmental rabbinate.

In for a penny, in for a pound. Rabbi Riskin and students from Uganda. Photo: Gershon Ellinson, Flash90

Last month, the media reported that the Chief Rabbinical Council almost ousted Efrat’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, from his position, ultimately arranging a hearing to determine whether or not to postpone his retirement for five years—a hearing scheduled for June 29. Allies of Rabbi Riskin claim that the Chief Rabbinical Council is exploiting an allegedly barely-followed regulation to oust a long-time ideological opponent and critic who represents a liberal brand of Orthodoxy. The Chief Rabbinate claims that it is acting in full compliance with the law and is not making any exceptions for Rabbi Riskin.

At first glance, there is little reason for the average Israeli to care. One may have sympathies for one side or the other, but the default is to tune out rabbinic bickering, especially about whether Rabbi Riskin will have to cede control of his city’s religious institutions now or in five years.

Moreover, it is baffling that Rabbi Riskin and his allies, mainly those in the Tzohar rabbinic organization, still wish to remain part of an official Rabbinate that has repeatedly shunned them and ignored their interpretations of Jewish law. Worse, they believe deeply in the Chief Rabbinate as an institution and have even run several well-funded but ultimately futile campaigns for the office of Chief Rabbi on the basis of a dual delusion: that the Chief Rabbinate is a sacred institution destined to play a key role in the unfolding messianic drama of the State of Israel, and that its current problems are the result of bad personnel—i.e., the ultra-Orthodoxy of most of its officials—and not systemic failure. “If only the good guys were in charge…” they and their fellow travelers lament.

So when Tzohar-affiliated Rabbi Yuval Cherlow reversed his lifelong support for the Chief Rabbinate and tweeted, “If the Chief Rabbinate abuses its authority (presently in the Riskin affair, and in other public issues) I will join those who are acting to abolish this institution entirely, contrary to my actions up to now,” many were left wondering:

If the Chief Rabbinate climbs down that particular tree and extends Rabbi Riskin’s tenure, then the institution remains salvageable? Of all the sordid episodes of the Chief Rabbinate’s history, this is what leads you to the conclusion that it is beyond repair?

Thus, despite the Rabbi Riskin affair of 2015, despite the failed election campaigns of 2003 and 2013, despite the marriage registration controversy of 2011, and despite the kosher-certification controversy of 2007, religious-Zionists with a liberalizing Orthodox agenda, with Tzohar at the forefront, hold on to their pipe dreams about the Chief Rabbinate and doom themselves to remain its whipping boy.

לא נתגעגע; בניין הרבנות הראשית לישראל (למצולם אין קשר לכתבה). צילום: פלאש90
Time to leave the Rabbinate behind and not look back. (Person unconnected w/article) Photo: Flash90

Return the community to the forefront

There is something that Rabbi Riskin can do, though, that would completely alter the dynamics of religion-state issues for the better: go rogue. Announce the withdrawal of Efrat from the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate.

Part of the larger religion-state issue in Israel is that most citizens, even those calling for the “abolition” of the Chief Rabbinate, have a hard time envisioning what life would look like without it. The centralization of religious services in Israel was a key part of David Ben-Gurion’s particular brand of statism and his desire to replace community-consciousness with state-consciousness. Though his state-consciousness, known in Hebrew as “mamlakhtiyut,” has begun to fail, Israelis have not yet re-learned how to build religious communities. They have become dependent on the state to allocate land and funds for synagogues, to build eruvin and mikva’ot, to fund and staff burial societies, and to dictate what foods are and are not kosher. Abolishing the Chief Rabbinate would create a vacuum of instability, temporarily at least. It is hard to predict the long-term ramifications of such instability.

Enter Efrat, a city that combines wealth, religious homogeneity, and a relatively large proportion of immigrants from countries where religious institution-building is a communal, not national, endeavor. This is a perfect storm for demonstrating how a small town can organize its population to take care of its own religious needs and cultivate its own volunteer and professional religious leaders and service-providers. It will not even have to start from scratch; there is no need to demolish the state-funded mikva’ot and synagogues. The town will merely need to say to the Chief Rabbinate: “Thanks, but we can take care of ourselves.”

The Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Services are obviously well-funded, but they draw their real authority from the people. If people stopped caring whether the Chief Rabbinate thinks they are Jewish or married, or whether it deems this particular product kosher, it would become a paper tiger.

For a variety of historical reasons, Israelis have grown accustomed to outsourcing their religious lives and decisions to the Chief Rabbinate, and it is admittedly difficult for a large population to overcome that dependency.

The city of Efrat is uniquely positioned to model, for the rest of Israel, how a locality, and not a central council, can decide upon the hiring and termination of religious leaders. It can show how he (or she) can be an autonomous actor and not a local representative of a national body, and how religious institutions can be built from the bottom up, from the congregational level through the local level and perhaps even all the way to the national level.

So, dear Rabbi Riskin, will you give the Chief Rabbinate the opportunity to climb down from its precarious position and extend your tenure? Will you return triumphantly to Efrat to ride off into the sunset while the rest of the state remains subject to the politicized, bureaucratic, and nepotistic nightmare that the Chief Rabbinate has become?

Or will you show us all that there is another way, that we can take responsibility for our religious lives and form our own communities, on our own terms?

The choice is yours.

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