The Rabbinate is divided into two parts: a service provider (kashrut, burial, marriage) and a legal system of enforcement (conversion, divorce) composed of courts, or batei din.
These batei din are the target for much criticism in the religious and wider public. The wholesale abolition of the R. Drukman conversions by R. Avraham Sherman and the constant reluctance to punish sarvanei get has done little for the image of these batei din. This is to say nothing of the many ethics violations among dayanim, their refusal to keep a written protocol and other matters.
“Reform the Batei Din”
Those who wish to retain the current system of government batei din argue that all we need to do is put in “the right people”. This means either Religious Zionist or at least like minded black hat dayanim who will rule in the interests of the nation and the oppressed, even if it means taking heat for being a “mekel” or for relying on minority halachic views.
In my opinion, this is a hopeless endeavor for two reasons:
First of all, Charedi legislators from Shas and the Agudah vastly outnumber Religious-Zionist ones. The former are also far more willing to go to war over the present black hat control of batei din and assorted jobs in the Rabbinate. Religious Zionist political power is small and will only get smaller as time goes on and more Religious Zionist Jews vote for the large parties such as Likud. Even those Religious Zionist parties that are in the Knesset spend much more effort on the Land of Israel or social issues than ensuring the appointment of “their people” into positions in the Rabbinate.
Second, even if by some miracle Religious Zionist parties gain more power and influence over the appointment of dayanim and assorted functionaries, there is still the question of the manpower supply. Simply put, there are far, far more “black hat” Jews with semicha and the halachic training necessary to serve as a dayan than religious Zionist ones. This is the reason that Charedim succeeded in “taking over the Rabbinate” – it was always black hat territory.
The primary source of manpower for the Chief Rabbinate and the Army Rabbinate was always mostly from the black hat yeshivot. The largest employers of Charedim in government are these Rabbinates. The only difference between the early decades of the State and now is that the black hats of the earlier generation were generally more moderate. They often saw themselves more as servants of am yisra’el, not just neturei karta. The generation that started penetrating from the 1970s until now was the generation of cultural austritt, of exclusive devotion to the Charedi community and contempt for the idea that anything other than the dry text should decide halacha.
The religious Zionist community simply cannot supply Rabbis that will or even can replace this juggernaut. The chardals, the section of the community most devoted to yeshiva study and halacha, is just as likely to be in sympathy with hard-line Charedi positions as the most strident black hat. The bourgeois community that makes up much of the Religious Zionist community does not value the Rabbinate as a profession as much as engineering or academia. They will not encourage their children to go into this line of work.
People from the liberal section of Religious Zionism – academia, Neemanei Torah Ve’Avodah – are even less likely to contribute Rabbis who can replace the black hats. Alongside the fact that many of them emphasize personal autonomy over that of halachic instruction from Rabbis, few see Rabbis as role models, as people worth becoming. If anything, they value academics – professors from the humanities or from Jewish studies. The language of their articles, rich in western concepts and very poor in Jewish ones, demonstrates as much.
Alternate Batei Din
Another idea that’s been floated around is the establishment of alternate batei din. Tzohar and like-minded Rabbis should set up a competing system of batei din that will provide the services and the justice that the public doesn’t get from the government religious courts.
This is a fine idea, and I happen to support it. Let me address the objections that could arise with regard to this proposal:
There will be no universal system, and no-one will accept each other’s psak.
That’s already happening anyway in the government courts. If anything, the privatization of batei din will lessen the force and power of the hardened black hats. Rav Elyashiv will no longer be able to force decisions that affect the entire country by virtue of the legal authority of the state, just the private Charedi community. If Charedim wish to have higher standards, let them make anyone who wishes to enter their community go through hell (well, more hell than they’re already doing). We should not have to suffer their apathy to the rest of am yisra’el.
This will open the door for non-Orthodox courts.
Doubtful. The only other denomination that has fealty to halacha that might operate a religious court is the conservative/masorti movement, and they’re not very influential here. I’m fairly confident that if the Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist Rabbis worked hard enough, they would make such courts either unnecessary or marginal.
There Aren’t Enough People
This is true enough. The shortage in moderate Rabbis which I mentioned earlier will still be here with the privatization of courts. I’m open to suggestions as to how to encourage increasing the manpower supply. I don’t think this is a good argument for submitting to black-hat dominated batei din, but it is an issue we’ll need to deal with.
The Black Hats Will Shut The Batei Din Down Just Like They Tried to Kill Tzohar’s Marriage Initiative
First, they don’t have the political clout. The failure of that particular government intrusion shows that enough public pressure can ensure alternative religious services, at least Orthodox ones. Second, such a shut-down would not survive a legal challenge. The Rabbinate has tolerated alternate Charedi batei din of all types for years and will continue to do so for reasons of political expediency. The idea that they can allow the black hat batei din but disallow Religious Zionist batei din doesn’t pass the smell test.
To sum up, the best short-term solution is to set up an alternate, moderate beit din system to bypass and dilute the power of the Rav Elyashiv run beit din.
NEXT: Rabbinic licensure