Earthbound Israelis with rabbis on a different planet

By Nathan Jeffay, December 29, 2011
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Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu: under investigation

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu: under investigation

Israel has a rabbi for every mood. There are rabbis who roil; rabbis who heal rifts; rabbis with their the Knesset; activist rabbis for mainstream social causes and rabbis with obscure ideologies.

But for the average Israeli, the rabbi is the state-salaried functionary who recites the blessings at a funeral or a wedding.

The normal place where the more outspoken rabbis' views emerge is the news media, the criterion being the capacity to shock. And the most popular stories are those about reactionary rulings.

Today's trends in both religious-Zionist and Charedi communities mean that these are not in short supply.

The Gaza disengagement of 2005 ushered a feeling among religious-Zionist rabbis - whose adherents had the strongest attachment to the Gaza settlements - that its vision for the future was at odds with that of the rest of the country, and sparked a push to the right, politically and religiously.

And Charedi rabbis, increasingly confident due to their growing constituency, are becoming stricter on many religious matters, including, but certainly not limited to, gender segregation.

A bit of scandal or sensation undoubtedly adds spice. Shmuel Eliyahu, for example, the state-salaried rabbi of the city of Safed is currently under investigation for incitement against Arabs.

Stories like this lead large parts of the public to conclude that rabbis are an impediment to peace. Some 42 per cent of the country's Jewish public believe that rabbis worsen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Charedi rabbis usually make the news when their rulings emphasise how different a lifestyle they expect their followers to lead from the secular majority - as with their ban on the internet smart phones - or when they clash with national priorities, as with the delay they imposed last year on the work being carried out to extend a hospital in Ashkelon.

Some individual Orthodox rabbis are doing inspiring, innovative and admirable things.

But, understandably, what interests the media - and the public - is the broad direction that rabbis appear to be taking - and this is all that the secular majority hears about.

This coverage leads ordinary Israelis to only one conclusion: rabbis are becoming less and less like them and helping to create a more polarised Israel.

    Last updated: 12:40pm, December 29 2011