Rabbinical Appointments in Israeli Cities

By December 10, 2015 January 10th, 2019 Rabbinate and Local Religious Councils, Religion and State

 Eitan Yarden and Ariel Finkelstein

The process of choosing a city rabbi in Israel is difficult, complicated and subject to a host of political scuffles. In recent years, the situation has worsened and nearly every appointment of city rabbi has faced challenges in court, where they get held up for years. Therefore, several recent Supreme Court rulings have mentioned the need to change the appointment procedure. This position paper will present ideas to fix some of the problems which have been discovered in the current process.

The first part of the position paper discusses the appointment process.

The halachik, historic and legal background to the appointment process is brought, leading to the following conclusions:

  • Appointment of a local rabbi must be based on the will of the public he is meant to serve.
  • The choice can be made directly by the local public, by a committee appointed by the local public, or by the local authorities chosen by the local public. The method of appointment should reduce irrelevant criteria and should be chosen in order to minimize unnecessary public disputes.
  • A rabbi should not be chosen by the local authorities against the will of the local public.
  • Rabbinical leaders must be involved in the creation of a short-list of candidates, but they have no authority to appoint a rabbi against the will of the local public.

The paper then reviews the history of city rabbi appointments from the founding of the State until today. It can be seen that over the course of recent years the involvement of the Minister of Religion in the appointment process has increased. The law advises the minister to issue procedures for the process of choosing a city rabbi, but does not grant him direct authority to make such appointments. The increased involvement of ministers of religion violates the provisions of the law.

Problems caused by the procedures for choosing rabbis are discussed. According to the currently applied procedures, the body responsible for choosing a city rabbi is composed of representatives from the local religious council (25%), the local governing council (25%), and the local synagogues (50%). Amongst the problems the process creates are:

  • The non-religious and female population is poorly represented on the appointment committee.
  • The various ministers of religion were often involved in the process of choosing an appointments committee and in choosing the representatives from the local synagogues, though this involvement was in violation of the law. Such involvement swayed the appointment process in favor of the minister’s preferred candidate.
  • The procedures do not clearly define who should be the appointments committee representatives from the local religious council nor from the local governing council. This leads to power grabs when it comes to appointing representatives.
  • There is a problem with allowing representatives of the local religious council on the committee, both because the council is appointed [mainly by the Minister of Religion and not chosen] and because the council is bound to the halachik rulings of the very city rabbi who they are helping to appoint.
  • Procedures do not require that the Minister of Religion appoint a rabbi for a city which does not currently have one. Some ministers used this loophole to delay the appointment of a rabbi when they feared their preferred candidate would lose.

The second part of the position paper discusses a question which arises as a consequence of the appointment process: how long is the term of a city rabbi?

Historically, most Israeli communities appointed their rabbi for short terms of between three and five years. Most halachik rulings do not find a fault in appointing a rabbi for a specified term and there are even rulings which permit removing a serving rabbi mid-term if the public is unhappy with the rabbi’s functioning.

Looking at Israeli history prior to statehood we see that the first procedures called for rabbis to serve a term of five years. In 1974, it was decided that rabbinical terms are not to be limited to a specific number of years but should instead be limited to the rabbi’s age: at age 75 (or 80 with the permission of the chief rabbinical council) he must retire. In 2007, the retirement age was lowered to 70 (75 with permission of the chief rabbinical council). In practice, the chief rabbinical council automatically extends the service term of every rabbi.

There are two main problems with this procedure:

  • There are rabbis who were appointed many years before and are no longer accepted by the public, either because of changes in the community or dissatisfaction with the rabbi’s functioning. In both cases, the community does not have a way to change rabbis.
  • Many rabbis continue to serve though they’ve passed retirement age.

The third part of the position paper focuses on operative suggestions for change. It is suggested that the procedure for appointing city rabbis be changed in the following ways:

  • The Minister of Religion should not be allowed to delay the local council’s appointment of the city’s first rabbi.
  • The composition of the appointment committee should be in keeping with the following principles:

o       Appointments must reflect the will of the community.

o       Community members who will use the rabbi’s services in the future should have more input than those who will not use his services.

o       The appointment process should be simple and well-defined so that public and legal battles over implementation can be prevented.

  • A proposal which balances the above principles calls for the appointment committee to be composed thus:
  • 50% of the members will be from the local governing council, reflecting the will of the local community.
  • The remaining 50% will be a group chosen by the entire local governing council and will be composed of rabbis (certified by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate) and religious court advocates of both genders who reside in the city.

The following suggestions apply to rabbinical term limits:

  • The term of city rabbis will be limited to a ten-year term. At the end of this term the rabbi may seek a second term of office and then a third, etc., until reaching retirement age.
  • A grace period shall be set after which these limits will also apply to rabbis currently serving.

The revised procedures should be anchored in law and not merely in decisions by the Minister of Religion. This will give them added weight and stability and will prevent frequent changes stemming from changes in the makeup of the government.

to the full position paper (In Hebrew)

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