Jewish Journal


November 5, 2013

The State and Synagogue Exchange, Part 2: Why Does Israel Need a Chief Rabbinate?



Professor Guy Ben-Porat

Professor Guy Ben-Porat is a member of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is a co-author of Israel Since 1980 (2008) and co-editor of The Contradictions of Israeli Citizenship: Land, Religion and State (2011). Ben-Porat is an assistant editor of Citizenship Studies. His current research engages with police-minority relations in Israel and elsewhere.

The current exchange will focus on Ben-Porat's recently published book, Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(Part 1 of the exchange can be found right here)

Dear Guy,

In the first round you wrote that in Israel "religion and religious institutions have played a vital role in marking boundaries, establishing territorial claims and providing national symbols", but you also mentioned the Israeli public's resentment toward the chief Rabbinate, which is generally perceived to be "rigid and even corrupt".

For my next question I'd like you to ask you to separate between religion in Israel and religious institutions in Israel (namely, state-funded religious institutions in Israel). While there's no denying that religion is a huge part of Israel's national identity, the same can't really be said about institutions such as the chief Rabbinate, which is usually seen an outdated nuisance by the vast majority of the population ((it ranks second to last in the recent Israel Democracy Institute Trust in institutions index).

Can you perhaps explain to our American readers, who come from a country with no state controlled religious institutions, what positive role such institutions serve as far as the country's non-orthodox public is concerned? You mention that you believe that the state should fund religious services in a more pluralistic way, but why should it fund them at all? After all, American Jewry gets by just fine without such funding…

Looking forward to reading your response,



Dear Shmuel,

Religious institutions such as the Chief Rabbinate are indeed unpopular among many Israelis, not only secular and non-religious ones. But, in spite of this resentment, the struggle against these institutions is minimal and is usually reserved to those directly hurt by them. For the majority of Israelis these institutions are perceived as a given, namely something not desirable yet not worth fighting for.

One explanation for this passivity may be the fact that these institutions, in spite of their problems, provide a comfort zone or a fallback option in several respects. First, creating an alternative is not always simple. For example, when a loved one dies, organizing a service requires resources and energies that are not always available. Using the familiar service and relying on the Hevra Kadisha is often easier. Or, to take another example, marrying outside the rabbinate involves bureaucratic procedures, expenditures and maybe even facing family members suspicious of the alternatives.

However, when there is an alternative that does not stray too far from the familiar, like the Tzohar rabbis, it becomes quite popular. Tzohar was formed by young Orthodox rabbis of the religious Zionist camp. They offer an Orthodox marriage service with some flexibility but, most importantly, they pride themselves on providing a friendly and honest service many non-religious Israelis find attractive. So, to a large extent, it could be argued that the low popularity of the chief rabbinate is not because of its monopoly that stifles pluralism but because of its image as inefficient, insensitive and even corrupt. Interestingly, challenged by competition from non-Orthodox and Orthodox groups, the rabbinate has become more attentive to public opinion and religious institutions have made attempts to improve their services

Regarding the funding of religious institutions- Indeed, in the US religious institutions and individuals get by fine without funding. However, there is a history that explains the reasons and outcomes of church-state separation. In Israel, I believe, pluralism should not be left to market forces but rather promoted and protected by the state. Unlike Jews in the US for whom Jewish identity was a fundamental concern that created a dialogue and debate, for Israelis things were quite different. Non-religious Israelis had little concern about their Jewish identity, something that, on the one hand, left them ignorant or shallow and, on the other hand, allowed them to rely on religious institutions in times of need. Consequently, a pluralistic and lively public sphere will not emerge from scratch. And, finally, I believe that people have a right to enjoy religious (and non-religious) services regardless of their income- it is another service the state should provide its citizens.

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