When the Government Provides Religious Services

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Full separation of religion and state isn't possible, but why is the Chief Rabbinate in the kashrut business?

Illustration | Flash 90

Israel is almost the only Western country that formally and institutionally provides its citizens with a long series of religious services, including kashrut supervision, ritual baths, burial, subsidies for Torah-based culture, spiritual counseling by local rabbis, religious marriage and divorce, conversion, and more. In all these domains, the State provides the funding and at the same time sets the standards to which the services must adhere. In other words, public servants, including rabbis, religious council functionaries, wedding registrars, and religious court personnel set the halakhic standard – stringent or lenient, ultra-Orthodox or Religious Zionist, more Orthodox or less so – for the services they themselves provide.

A direct result of the state’s massive involvement in the provision of religious services is the politicization of religion in a way that is not always to the state’s advantage and that does not always enhance Judaism’s image as perceived by Israeli Jews – both the observant and, even more so, the non-observant. While there are many individuals in the various agencies and institutions who work only “for the sake of heaven,” for others, their jobs are essentially a way to line their pockets. The damage they wreak is immense. According to the Israel Democracy Index, only 20% of Israelis Jews have confidence in the Chief Rabbinate; while 66% see as it riddled with corruption.

The state’s control of the character and quality of religious services has additional ramifications. Because of the total Orthodox monopoly (usually ultra-Orthodox) on these services, very few among the non-Orthodox or even among the more liberal Orthodox are given any kind of a foothold in the system. This has profound implications for the perception of Israel among Jews abroad. The feeling that their interpretation and practice of Judaism receives no recognition in the way religious services are provided in Israel affects their overall attitude towards the country and alienates many important Diaspora communities from Israel.

What can be done to change this situation? Two avenues for action suggest themselves, which, although they would not solve all the problems, would undoubtedly reduce the friction between Judaism and politics, enhance the image of the Chief Rabbinate, and ease the tension between the religious establishment providing the services and many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. The first – and what seems to be the obvious – direction for action, is to improve and streamline the system. Here there has been great progress recently, as revealed by a special Israel Democracy Institute survey of religious services, which found that a majority of the public (albeit largely the religious sector) are satisfied with the religious services they receive.

Another avenue for action would be to get the state out of the business of providing some specific religious services, thereby opening the door to greater pluralism. According to the above survey, a majority of the public believes that the non-Orthodox streams should be allowed to provide services to their membership in Israel. To accomplish this, while overcoming the political hurdle of recognition of the non-Orthodox streams, the State must not be the body setting halakhic standards for those services, which ultimately affects only an individual’s relationship with God, with no broader implications. For example, the question of whether the standard of kashrut should be more or less stringent is relevant only to the relationship of an individual diner with his/her Creator. Applying one or another standard has no additional or broader implications. By contrast, it is clear that the rules on conversion affect not only the individual who wishes to join the Jewish people but also the Jewish people as a whole and the State of Israel.

Israel is a Jewish state. As such, full separation of religion and state is not an option. However, after 70 years, the time has come to consider whether the religious establishment’s massive involvement in the provision of religious services, through a state-sponsored apparatus, fosters the country’s Jewish identity and does it a service, or whether it does it harm; and, accordingly, to take the necessary steps to diminish religion’s involvement in the state in areas where the damage done to both Judaism and the state is far greater than the benefit.

The article was published in the Times of Israel