Licensure of Religious Services in Israel

[For a good description of licensure and its effects, see here. This post will be merely descriptive. In further posts I will discuss how to improve the situation]

This post was originally going to be entitled ‘Rabbinic licensure’. However, after a more thorough study I have decided that this title is inappropriate. This is because the licensure in Israel, when it occurs, occurs at the stage of actually providing services, not the title itself. It potentially affects not only Rabbis, but anyone offering religious services.

What is licensure? Simply put, licensure is a policy in which a government requires an individual to answer to certain terms before they may legally provide a specific good or service. These terms may include a certificate of education from an approved school, the payment of a license fee and any other conditions the state lays down. Sometimes licenses are required for each individual service as we will see below.

Only people possessing licenses may provide the specified services. If a person provides the service without a license, even if they are more than qualified to do so, they are subject to criminal prosecution which can include fines and even jail time. Furthermore, the legal validity of their actions are often not recognized by a court of law after the fact.

Religious Services and Licensure

As far as I know, there is no such thing as “licensure” for the title or job of Rabbi in the state of Israel. Anyone who has the appropriate certificates may call themselves by that title, whether they are Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. The only exception to this is a Rabbi who enters the public service under the Rabbinate. Then their semicha is subject to scrutiny and approval or disapproval (not revocation per se, just deciding whether it’s sufficient to allow one to enter public service as a Rabbi or Dayan).

Where licensure comes in is the provision of specific religious services. In order for these services to be considered legally valid, they need to be approved first by the state, an indirect form of licensure:

  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Conversion
  • Burial
  • Kashrut

A Rabbi performing any of the above three services without the specific permission and approval of the Chief Rabbinate is performing an act that is legally null and void. As was seen in the case of Rav Druckman, that which can be given can just as easily be taken away; R Sherman’s “revocation” can be seen in secular terms as a revocation of license with all that entails.

Burial is another religious service which requires a license approved by the Ministry of Religious Services. One can register either as a religious burial service or a civilian-secular one. As of this writing, hard-right Hevra Kadishas have an almost complete monopoly on religious burial, one of the reasons for the many conflicts regarding women as well as exorbitant marginal costs.

Kashrut is an interesting case. According to the 1983 law against fraud in Kashrut, only the Rabbinate may declare food or food products to be labeled “kosher”. This is the case even if said food has already been declared kosher by other hashgachot such as the OU. Ostensibly, this is a clear cut case of monopoly.

However, the fact is that there are innumerable private hechsherim run out of the Charedi community that doesn’t answer to the Rabbinate. So how do they avoid getting jailed or fined? Simple. They don’t write “kosher”. They simply say “behashgachat” and the like.

I should point out that there are many services that don’t require a license or specific permission. A mohel can be certified by the Rabbinate and the Ministry of health, but a mohel who merely knows his craft from spending time as an apprentice is legally allowed to operate. The same goes for mashgichim, balaniyot and a number of other services.

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Response to Dr. Shai Secunda, Part II: Who Is the ‘God of the Text’?

[Note: This was originally meant to be the third part of the response. However, I decided to bump it up in light of the second quote. Enjoy. AIWAC]

“Rashi? Rashi was an idiot!” – Anonymous*

“Like my Rabbeim, I tremble before Rashi. But I shudder at the thought of those that wish to deconstruct him.” – Rabbi Shaul Gold, Cross Currents

The two quotes presented above represent the two extremes of attitudes towards the study of sacred texts. The first is easily recognizable to modern ears – utter irreverence and even contempt towards anything ancient or ‘primitive’. Even in its more moderate manifestations, the modern attitude initially precludes reverence or even respect for an object of study.

It is true that academic studies today do not contain the kind of dismissive attitudes of, say, the 19th century.** Articles and books show what appears to be proper respect for religion even when they deconstruct and analyze the factual claims that it makes. Ostensibly, academia is more “religion-friendly” nowadays – at least on the surface.

However, this fact does not overcome a much more serious and fundamental problem, one which has potential to undermine any attitude of holiness or transcendence to text. To wit, when a researcher or a critical student approaches a text, he is its God and no other.

Like הקב”ה himself, the researcher judges his personae לשבט ולחסד, decides what text is the more correct and serves as judge, jury and executioner for an entire period and collective work. Even if he decides not to do so, it is his decision to spare the text, so his position of omnipotence and power is in no way diminished.

Of course, it cannot be otherwise. If a researcher or critical student abandons his position as judge, then he betrays his fidelity to the cause. He ceases to be a researcher and becomes something else. Nevertheless, few wield power without becoming drunk with it, and in an age when all heroes – ancient, medieval and modern – are torn down with glee, it is hard to believe that the critical reader will use that power responsibly.

It is this attitude of irreverence and general disdain of sacred Jewish texts and commentators which so shocked Rabbi Shaul Gold. To counter it, he proposes the opposite extreme, one of humility bordering on self-negation. Rabbi Gold would make the text the God and the reader its humble and obedient servant. I assume that for Rabbi Gold, to counter the irreverence of academics and critical thinkers alike, only going to the other extreme will do. Half-measures or balance will not work.

Yet here I must side with Dr. Secunda – such an approach is not only wrong factually, it is counterproductive. Almost none of the great authorities of the Jewish past held to either extreme. Anyone who reads their works will see this and, having been given no real alternative, will likely reject the Rabbi Gold approach for the irreverent one.

Striking a balance between critical faculties and proper respect, reverence and humility towards our forbearers is no doubt a daunting task. But in my opinion, it has the potential to create a much healthier sort of Jew than the fundamentalist yeshivisher or the Orthopractic scholar. It has the potential of creating a world in which we realize that Talmud Torah is a partnership between the ‘God inside and behind the text’ and Man who wishes to uncover His Will with the critical gifts that He gave him.

כן יהי רצון

* This quote is based on hearsay about a conversation from years ago.

** This doesn’t mean that scholars have stopped to view the ancient world through 21st-century glasses. The feminist, racial and class critiques are no less a part of the 19th century project to cut texts down to size, just in a different way.

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The Devil’s Advocate: Arguments in FAVOUR of Maintaining the Orthodox Marriage Monopoly

Now that we’re approaching Purim, I thought I might pull my own ונהפוך הוא. Rather than explain why eliminating the Orthodox marriage monopoly would be a good thing, even for the Orthodox, I will lay out some arguments in favor of maintaining the monopoly without further comment (keep in mind that these arguments are from an Orthodox POV). After Purim, I will discuss them one by one and see whether they stand up to scrutiny.

Readers are invited to add their own arguments or debate these ones in the comments section.

Argument #1: Most people make use of the Rabbanut through inertia; the number of people actively interested in civil marriage is quite small. Break up the monopoly and the number of people getting a non-Orthodox wedding will skyrocket.

Argument #2: It prevents encroachment of the Conservative and Reform Movements into the country by denying them the ability to perform a critical religious service.

Argument #3: Cancellation of the monopoly will lead to an increase in halachically forbidden marriages among Jews (e.g., Kohen w/grusha, mamzerim)

Argument #4: Cancellation of the marriage monopoly will necessarily break the divorce monopoly and lead to an explosion of halachic mamzerim vadai.

Argument #5: Intermarriage will increase exponentially, either by Israelis bringing non-Jews from abroad or among the non-Jewish Russians

Purim Sameach, AIWAC

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Gemara Education Links

  • Dr. Pinhas Hayman’s structured, or “layered” method of teaching gemara.
  • The Gemara Berura “skills-based” approach to teaching gemara.
  • Finally, an article in Hebrew arguing that the spread of Schottenstein in the Charedi community is evidence of their failure to adequately teach understanding of pshat gemara. The author argues, as I do, that geniuses succeed in black-hat yeshivot only because geniuses are smart enough to overcome the severe deficiencies of RW gemara cirriculum. This leaves the normal folk in the dust.
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Response to Dr. Shai Secunda, Part I: On Those “Anti-Intellectuals”

Dr. Secunda’s interview has garnered an unusual amount of attention for this blog (over a hundred views!). It’s only fair that I give my probably less interesting response to the many important points he makes.

Let’s start from the end. Dr. Secunda asserts that:

I think the [rampant disinterest of Orthodox high-school students in Talmud] is part of the anti-intellectual environment in which the majority of the US and Israeli Orthodox communities find themselves, where the life of the mind and the attempt to really sweat over gaining one’s own understanding is simply not valued.

I think this assertion is simply wrong, at least on the students’ end. There are many better explanations for the disinterest – the apparent irrelevance to daily life, the many petty details, the inscrutable and arcane language as well as the lousy and inefficient methods of instruction have much more to do with this, in my opinion.

Dr. Secunda would do well to draw his attention to the many Orthodox Jews who go into intellectual life in various settings such as Beit Morasha, or Hartman and Van Leer to their left. All of these are people deeply committed to a “life of the mind”. However, the overwhelming majority are interested in non-gemara areas – Tanach, philosophy, history, sociological surveys and the like. Even when they do discuss the literature of Chazal, the focus is on aggada and midrash, not the “hard-core” halachic sections.

So the issue is not the unwillingness to live a “the life of the mind”. It’s that far too many students don’t see the benefits of gemara study to invest in it. I’ve seen many people do incredible things to get what they want intellectually – but only if they thought there was some kind of achievment at the end of the journey. HS students just don’t see that purpose.

The Evil ‘Anti-Intellectuals’

Let me relate a story that may help explain what I’m about to discuss:

A yeshiva bochur stayed at our family house for Shabbat (we’ve had many, so there’s no disclosure here). The bochur in question was a standard MO Jew. He loved wrestling and he studied intensively in a yeshiva known for its intellectual challenges and hurdles. He was about as ‘out-of-the-box’ as you can get. Yet when I asked him how he wants to raise his family, he replied that he wants to do so in a sheltered community. Needless to say, I was stunned. Why would this guy, who clearly can take it and dish it with the real world, want to retreat into a cocoon for his kid? When he said that, I began to understand the rationale for the ‘anti-intellectualism’ Secunda bemoans.

Secunda is right that a wave of anti-intellectualism is spreading through the more right-wing elements of the Orthodox community. It has hit the most committed – the teachers, the idologues – especially hard. These are the people who will praise every chumra and view any attempt at kula as ‘Reform’. This is even though, because of their lack of secular knowledge, few of them will know what ‘Reform’ actually means. Where pretty much every critic of the RW errs is in the inability to understand that the ‘anti-intellectuals’ have very good rational reasons to be afraid.

Once upon a time, when the ghettos were opened and the “light of the enlightenment” seeped in, Jews thus affected simply left Judaism or adopted breakaway versions like the Conservative and Reform movements. Only מתי מעט  remained “frum” to any extent. Even Poland was not immune to the many secular ideologies sweeping the world at the time.

In Israel as in much of Eastern Europe, secular Zionism was often the anti-religion magnet of choice. There are no Guttman reports from that period, but data from the Ministry of Education’s Mamad branch during the 1950s would indicate that the OTD rate ran from 60-70%. Slowly but surely, that hemorrhaging was slowed; today, the rate of religion abandonment is around 20%, a pretty normal and manageable statistic.

There are many reasons for this slow-down – the increase in homogenous communities, the strengthening of religious education from K-12, the establishment of yeshivot and mechinot, the decline of the belief in secular Zionism in general Israeli society and the rise in confidence of the Religious Zionist branch of society. Regardless of each factor’s weight, religious Jews should have started to ‘calm down’ – they were and are growing demographically in spite of the regular 20% loss.

The problem is that while at least nominal observance of halacha increased and eventually stabilized, the power of the many questions and challenges brought up by modernity did not. If anything, they’ve increased in power and scope. Far more religious Jews have either attended university or college in the past twenty years than previously. The age of the internet also means that whatever walls people try to erect are doomed to be dismantled.

All of this would be somewhat bearable for the ‘anti-intellectuals’ if the people making the challenges were all secular – i.e., the “others”. However, the past several years has seen a steady rise in the number of “frum academics” – people who are versed in academic Jewish studies and also keep halacha. Prof. James Kugel is only the most prominent and brazen example of this trend. Once upon a time, frum Jews who were “burned out” theologically because of biblical criticism, philosophical challenges or kept their opinions to themselves or at least only published them in obscure publications which no-one read. This is not the case anymore, and in many instances what they have to say is anathema to an Orthodox ear.

An ‘anti-intellectual’ increasingly sees kippa-donning Jews who deny the historicity or the divinity of the Tanach or argue that it makes no difference whether or not you keep halacha to be a ‘good Jew’. Every week, said ‘anti-intellectual’ will see people for whom liberal values always seem to trump halacha and fidelity to God. I once saw one of them use a very derogatory term – such people are ‘חילונים חובשי כיפה’; secular Jews who wear a kipa. The anti-intellectual attitude is thus not just one of erecting barriers with the outside world; it is an attitude of erecting barriers between the true faithful and what the Chazon Ish once called ‘frum apikorsim’. It is first and foremost a war within Orthodoxy itself.

Dr. Secunda will no doubt rightly complain that my above description was an unfair generalization. He’ll say: You’re cherry-picking the worst examples and forgetting the many religious and truly devout Jews – not simply ‘sociologically Orthodox’ – who are at home with Jewish studies whether formally or informally. He will argue, much like in the interview, that academic, rational study can provide a profoundly spiritual experience by ‘getting into the heads’ of our great sages and understanding the background against which they lived.

The problem is that for the ‘anti-intellectuals’ and even many of the fence-sitters, people like Dr. Secunda are the exception and not the rule. They see a world in which ‘criticism’, ‘subversiveness’ and just plain ‘anti- for the sake of being anti-‘ reign supreme. They see a group of people who may keep halacha, but who view the intellectual and moral foundations of their world with skepticism and even disdain, while looking lovingly at anything that is ‘Western and progressive’. There may be a few צדיקים בסדום, but it’s still סדום.

Worse still for the Dr. Secundas of the world is that most of his frum colleagues don’t even try to make the case that they are not the enemy. In fact, the most vocal of them relish in being gadflies. I’ve yet to see any really concerted and truly empathetic attempt to address the anti-intellectuals’ legitimate concerns. All there is today is simply self-congratulations among the ‘already enlightened’. Small wonder, then, that the ‘anti-intellectuals’ prefer to run to the hills and build walls than live with their brothers as neighbors.

But what of Dr. Secunda’s actual defense of academic study? Surely he makes a good case, even if his colleagues do not?

Indeed he does, and we will discuss what I consider to be both the good and the weak points in his arguments in upcoming posts.

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Give This Man A Medal

From a lookjed discussion on “social justice education”:

“Social Justice” in this context is a code-word for socialism. Anyone who is on the board of the ULT must realize this. The challenge is to place socialism in a Jewish context. I will point out how socialism differs from the Jewish sense of charity in certain subtle but important aspects. 

In the Book of Ruth… Ruth and Naomi were widows. By justice they had a right to charity. Yet no one chased them down to give them food. They had to make some effort. Ruth went to the fields and walked behind the harvesters, picking up the leavings. It was her right. The harvester was not allowed to pick up what they dropped. It no longer belonged to the farmer. It belonged to the poor, the widow and the orphan. It belonged to Ruth but she had to reach out and make some effort to get it. 

At the soup kitchen I would point out to students that Jewish charity requires a certain amount of effort from the person receiving charity unless they are physically incapable. (Recall Aishet Chayil… “she puts out her hand to the poor [thus they must get up to take her gift] and reaches out to the destitute [because they cannot get up]”) I would ask my students whether the people at the soup kitchen were required to do anything for their meal. Were they required to clear their plates, clean up their area, maybe pick up trash in the vacant lot across the street? 

If they were not making a personal effort themselves, in a sense participating in their recovery, then that kind of charity isn’t Jewish. 

This is the reasoning behind the establishment of ORT: to provide training so that a person can get a job and feed himself rather than simply accept charity day after day. 


Much of United States government help is not Jewish charity. Giving people “stuff” unconditionally is not traditionally Jewish. Government programs require very little effort from people any more. And making government the mode of distributing charity takes the individual giver out of the loop. When the money is taken from me by force (in the form of taxes) even the meager merit of grudgingly giving a few dollars to the poor is taken away from me. What effort does it take for me to vote to take money from someone else to give to the poor? 

Synagogues have given up a major part of their purpose if they are not helping the poor, personally. The merit of helping the poor does not come from voting to give people “stuff.” 

The man who saved my life told me, “Alex. Your personal participation is required.” Ed was a millionaire yet he didn’t write checks to charity. He did something better. He offered himself to people who needed help, real help. People like me. I could call him any time of the day or night, even interrupt his business. I could ask him questions and he would give me tasks that were designed to improve my self. He wasn’t a professional in any psychological sense. He was more like a mentor. I wanted to be like him and not because of his money. He never gave me a dime of his money and G-d knows at the time I really could have used it. I wanted his confidence, his sureness. I must admit, occasionally I longed for his “stuff” but I knew this was a childish desire….unbecoming of me. If I was meant to have “stuff” G-d would see to it and when I no longer needed “stuff” G-d would take it away and give it to someone else who deserved it more. Ed taught that to me too. Ed told me that he owned nothing. It all belonged to G-d. Ed simply got to use it for a short while by the grace of G-d. 

Where did this millionaire learn this valuable lesson of personal participation? He learned it from a multimillionaire, a man now of blessed memory… Chuck. When Chuck died there were tears of joy celebrating his life. Each of those hundreds and hundreds of people were personally touched by Chuck… including Ed… and Ed touched me. Now I touch you. 

Don’t give people “stuff”. It keeps them dependent. This is not the Jewish way. Teach them how to feed themselves and the beginning of that is showing the poor how to work for their charity. Before you give them soup, make them sweep up, pick up the alley, clean themselves up a little. 

Marvin Olasky wrote a book that put him on the map. “The Tragedy of American Compassion”. He goes through the history of American compassion and proves to us that American compassion began with preparing people for work. You chopped wood, carried and fetched BEFORE you received charity. You simply weren’t fed. You had to improve your dress, your manner and your spiritual training. Nowadays people simply give you “stuff” for the asking. Olasky proved this to himself by putting on simple clothes and walking to the nearest shelter. He wears glasses so he put a little tape on them as if they were broken but otherwise was he was normal. He asked for stuff and it was given to him for free. There was never a suggestion that he had to do anything for it nor any question about whether he actually needed charity. He normally takes medicine for a back condition. They gave it to him. He was not asked if he had insurance nor whether he could afford the medicine. 

Personally I met a homeless man who owned a laptop computer and regularly got on the Internet. Only in America… 

Here is a link to Olasky’s book (Note of caution: Marvin Olasky is a Jew who converted to Christianity but he retains his sense of Jewish charity so the book is still valuable to read.)… 

Ed, the millionaire, worked hardest on my spiritual training. He was not a religious man. He wasn’t a nut either but he knew G-d was compelling him… pushing him along in the right direction and he taught me how listen to G-d through prayer and meditation…. and most important he stressed the importance of working with others personally. 

That was many years ago. I am so different than the ugly creature that came to Ed’s attention in 1977. Now I volunteer as a jail chaplain. I make myself available to Jewish inmates and anyone else who wishes to talk with me. I think Ed would be pleased to know I was following in his footsteps. 

One last note of caution: the homeless are not always guys down on their luck. Some of these guys are a little more than grumpy old men in need of a hot meal. I have met men on the street carrying guns. One suggested that I join him to rape a woman coming out of a auto parts store. Naturally, I declined. 

On the bus I saw a young girl, no more than 16 years old, obviously a runaway. I wanted to reach out to help her but she was being watched carefully by two young men using her as bait to trap those charitable people who might stop to help her. I am an old man. I couldn’t fight off two strapping young men single-highhandedly. They got off at a very nice part of town, no doubt thinking they could mug some well-meaning rich people. 

A final warning: one of our community opened her car window to give a beggar some money at the street corner. He stabbed her in the arm. I don’t know why he did that. She couldn’t figure it out either. Just know it can happen. My wife now carries zip lock bags filled with small things and food for such beggars. It is small enough so that she opens the window a crack and slips the bag out to them. 

I have spent some time telling you how important it is to become personally involved but use your head. There is usually a very good reason why the families of these men don’t take them in. Only meet such people in controlled conditions such as a soup kitchen. Don’t meet them alone. 

Alexander Herrera 
[Volunteer Jewish Chaplain, Travis County Jail, Texas]

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The Darker Side of Academic Jewish Studies for Orthodox Jews

[Note: I’ll be writing my thoughts on the interview itself sometime next week. I just thought this comment on the post was worth mentioning. – AIWAC]

Well, I expected my interview with Dr. Secunda to cause discussion. What I didn’t expect was getting one of the most dismissive and arrogant statements of superiority towards Orthodoxy and perhaps Judaism as a whole that I’ve seen in a while in the comments section. Folks, if you want to understand why I’m so cagey about academia, it’s because of attitudes like this:

I think what he’s saying is that in certain circles there is too much of an emphasis on understanding things from an intellectual point of view, without understanding that maybe our goal is to understand what Chazal meant at the time. There’s also a lack of understanding that Gd is really the goal, no? This is problematic for so many reasons because if we’re going to be honest, we have to admit that the math problem doesn’t add up: If there’s a Hebrew Gd who did all these things, why is the historical evidence so spotty? Why is the text itself so filled with holes? Why is it clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls that there were a lot of different versions of the later prophets? Hmmmm….

The anti-intellectual movement he mentions is the people who dislike the above because it removes Gd from the equation. They are looking for the “ruchniat” that Judaism provides. When it says “Love your Gd with everything you have.”, they want to LOVE Gd, even though the word “V’Ahavata” might actually mean Devote yourself. Putting words in the contextual environment of the day is too scary for them (the idea of V’Ahavta as devotion comes from ancient Ugaritic), as it brings up all the other questions that Dr. Secunda referenced. Most people want to believe that people stood around a mountain and Gd handed them the parchment scroll they see in shul every Shabbat. The idea that the scroll has been “developed” over time is scary, especially when you’re not touching your spouse for 2 weeks every month, bankrupting yourself for tuition and enslaving yet another generation to a possibly meaningless religion. It’s too scary to contemplate that this doesn’t really mean anything at all, and so critical examination is rejected because the questions come way faster than the answers.

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