Chief Rabbi Yosef, right: Jerry Silverman, JFNA President & CEO
Corruption in the name of God:
a never ending saga
In the last couple days, a new chapter was added to the never ending saga of Israeli religious leaders who view the law as merely a suggestion. Whether for personal benefit or political opportunism, they do not hesitate to deviate from law and common norms.
Lord Acton coined the phrase: 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'
While much public attention focuses on political corruption, Hiddush's focus is on the challenges of religion and state in Israel. Human nature is susceptible to deviation from the righteous path, as was recognized in the Bible: 'the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth' (Gen. 8:21). However, evil behavior is more reprehensible when carried out by religious leaders, particularly when done abusing their authority. It is too common for these religious functionaries to to aggrandize the moral essence of their religious teachings and their superiority over secular (let alone religious non-Orthodox) conventions and practices.
Apparently, they (so they say) operate as agents of the divine, which stands above all other human values. The Sages of the Talmud understood the seriousness of the potential impact of deviating rabbinic figures: 'Any Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar) upon whose garment a stain is found is worthy of death' (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 114A).
In the last couple days, a new chapter was added to the never ending saga of Israeli religious officials who view the law as merely a suggestion. Whether for personal benefit or political opportunism, they do not hesitate to deviate from the law. For example, in May 2017, former Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron was convicted of fraud [link] for a bonus-scam that swindled hundreds of millions of shekels from the government in civil servants’ wages. He was actually the second(!) former Chief Rabbi convicted of fraud this year: former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger pleaded guilty to fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes involving 10 million NIS under a plea bargain.
Just this week, Rabbi Avraham Yosef (the former Chief Rabbi of Holon) was sentenced to a five-month suspended sentence and to pay NIS 75,000 in restitution for obligating business owners interested in acquiring a kashrut certificate to only work with certain kashrut inspectors. Yosef, the son of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was convicted of two breach of trust offenses.
Not to be left out, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef (another of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's sons) was secretly recorded illegally manipulating the process of selecting city Chief Rabbis to favor the interests of the Shas party, under coercion from Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri (Chairman of the Shas party). This recording was made public on Israeli radio yesterday.
These and many other examples provide indisputable evidence: Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is a rotten vessel that corrodes its contents. When political power meets religious authority, at a nexus involving a great deal of money, the State, the People and their heritage are the losers. Those who love and support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must act to restore the honor and integrity tarnished by the Chief Rabbinate and its political supporters. We must demand radical change in the religion-state relationship, beginning the dissolution of the Chief Rabbinate's religious monopoly.
'Religion & State' was front and center
at the 2017 JFNA General Assembly
The religion-state stew is clearly boiling. This week, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America convened in Los Angeles, and these challenges were front and center.
The trajectory is clear. Given the intensity of the ultra-Orthodox political parties' pressure and the Knesset's legislative docket (which promises to keep the religion-state debate on high flame week-in and week-out in the coming months), we will, in all likelihood, see a parallel process for Diaspora Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular.
This development is not only important to strengthen the hands of groups (like Hiddush) that work on the ground in Israel to counter these churning theocratic currents and advance the realization of Israel's founding vision of freedom of religion and equality. It is a development that is also welcomed by the overwhelming majority of Israelis, as we have demonstrated in numerous polls that Hiddush has commissioned.
Given the increasing realization of American Jewish leadership of the direct impact of recent political and legislative initiatives launched at them in Israel, there is little surprise that these issues occupied a large portion of the JFNA President & CEO's opening address. “Can Israel truly be the nation-state of the Jewish people when there is not official recognition of non-Orthodox movements in Israel?” he asked. We only wish that the JFNA were more ready to embrace a wider, more principled and more proactive agenda, as put forth in the recent Vision Statement for Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
There is no doubt, though, that the growing, deliberate, insulting blows delivered by Israeli political leaders to American Jewry, particularly its non-Orthodox segments, will ultimately bring about the realization that what is at stake is not just the Kotel and the Conversion Bill. What should be demanded is not merely returning to the status quo and removing these two matters from the political docket. These issues also occupied a significant place in the intensive GA program.