It happened in October 2019 in the Israeli city of Haifa. Not in Tehran and not in the old times. A rabbinical court ruled that two brothers, ages five and eight, be taken from their mother and handed over to the custody of their violent father. The mother was not accused of neglecting or corrupting them. Her “sin” was in signing them up for swimming therapy provided by a woman (not a man) and feeding them non-kosher food. The rabbinical judges ignored the welfare authorities’ recommendation that the children be left with their mother, as well as the children’s objections to moving in with their father.
Rabbinical judges, authorized and paid by a state that is considered modern and enlightened, gave custody of two helpless children to a father accused in the past of threatening his wife and convicted of threatening public servants. Indeed, the woman had violated her commitment to raise the children in accordance with a religious lifestyle. However, had she not made that commitment, she may not have been given custody since rabbinical judges have been known to prefer adherence to the way of the Torah instead of the welfare of the child.
The governmental website of the Chief Rabbinate specifically states that rabbinical courts adjudicate in accordance with the laws of the Torah and specific instructions of state law. Members of the Chief Rabbinical Council pledge allegiance solely to the State of Israel, not to its laws. This, despite the fact that according to Israel’s civil law, the Chief Rabbinate’s task is to “carry out activities to bring the public closer to the values of the Torah and of mitzvahs.” The laws of the State of Israel grant rabbinical courts sole jurisdiction over issues of Jewish marriage and divorce. They also have the same authority that civil district courts have in matters of personal status, alimony, child support, custody, and more.
The world view guiding the rabbinical judges is that of religious law, whereas most of those who come before them are of the secular persuasion. The rabbinical court is authorized to adjudicate on issues of child custody (and property), unless one of the partners files a custody petition with a family court prior to the start of divorce proceedings. In fact, once a couple decides to divorce, the couple could address either the rabbinical court or the civil family court for the issues of child custody and alimonies. Often this turns into a disagreement, as the father/husband would prefer the rabbinical court, while the mother/wife would prefer the civil one. In family court, the opinion of the welfare professionals regarding the child’s well-being generally outweighs any other consideration.
Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to freedom of religion, wrote in 2013 that Israel’s political system perpetuates the existence of the Chief Rabbinate by controlling its appointments and budgets and enforcing religious coercion. Regev cited a comparative study, which found that religious institutions top the rankings of institutional corruption in Israel, whereas elsewhere in the world they are highly valued.
The increasingly negative reputation of the Jewish religious establishment in Israel has led to a decline in demand for its services. For example, a report by the Ministry of Religious Services shows a significant drop in the number of those registering for an official rabbinical wedding ceremony, from 37,675 in 2016 to 35,163 in 2018. Taking into account the population growth in that same period, this is a drop of 6.2%. Thousands of couples opt, instead, for alternative ceremonies or monetary agreements.
In other areas, too, such as the certification of kosher food, the Chief Rabbinate is clearly an anachronistic institution. Private entities operating according to stricter kashrut standards sell certificates to restaurants, caterers, stores, and so on, in addition to the official ones sold by the Chief Rabbinate. This dual system of certification costs the public an estimated 600 million Israeli shekels ($171 million) annually, according to a June 2018 survey by Ariel Finkelshteyn and Dr. Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute.
The inflexibility of the Chief Rabbinate also affects its policies on conversions to Judaism. As a condition of their conversion, non-religious men and women are required to adopt a religious lifestyle until they receive their conversion certificates. In fact, the rabbinical establishment is forcing them to lie in order to integrate into the Jewish nation. As a result, only 7% of the non-Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union over the past quarter century have opted to go through an officially recognized conversion process.
Following the ugly political horse-trading over the election of the country’s two chief rabbis — one Ashkenazi, one Sephardi — Knesset member Merav Michaeli (of the then-Labor party) tabled proposed legislation in 2013 dismantling the Chief Rabbinate. She also initiated a proposed bill that would only authorize civil registration of marriage and divorce. “A Chief Rabbinate and chief rabbis appointed by the regime are a distinctly non-Jewish thing and they were never part of Jewish tradition,” Michaeli told Al-Monitor.
According to Michaeli, the institution is a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, which did not want to deal with the religious aspects of its subjects’ lives. The British rulers of Palestine then “contributed” the sectoral denomination of separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, and the State of Israel adopted this nefarious tradition, said Michaeli. “So the Jewish nation established its state and immediately went about adopting the law of the foreign occupier,” Michaeli added. “Issues of personal status cannot be administered according to the whims of Orthodox men relying on laws made hundreds of years ago.”
The platform of the opposition Blue and White party on issues of religion and state illustrates the deep divide between its views and those of the ultra-Orthodox parties and of the religious Zionism propounded by Knesset members Bezalel Smotrich and Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan. According to its platform, the party commits to advance comprehensive reforms in the state’s religious institutions and the rabbinate, to revoke the law mandating the closure of grocery stores on the Jewish Sabbath and to adapt the prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, to suit Jews of all religious denominations.
Nonetheless, Blue and White party head Benny Gantz, who is trying to form Israel’s next government, repeatedly implores the religious parties, those known as the Likud party’s “natural partners,” to negotiate with his Knesset faction on forming a government coalition. Aryeh Deri, Yaakov Litzman and Ayelet Shaked, leaders of the Likud’s three allied parties — Shas, Yahadut HaTorah and New Right, respectively — are the ones refusing to meet with Gantz and his friends.
The media relations office of the Blue and White party refused to comment on Al-Monitor's question about the party’s position on the status of the Chief Rabbinate. One would have thought that a party aiming for government would have a clear policy on such an important issue. Lack of such a position indicates yet again lack of maturity in the drafting of the party’s ideology and political platform.
At best, it appears that in order to get a government that would remove the rabbis’ authority to take children away from their mother and hand them over to a violent father, Israel will have to go the polls for the third time.
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