Thursday, May 05, 2011

Let's consider now what specific policy shifts might strengthen communities in Israel.

A good starting point for our discussion might be a comparison of community-based charity and state-sponsored welfare.

State-sponsored welfare has the obvious advantage of being distributed according to transparent and objective criteria, not according to the whim of askanim. Furthermore, states have tools at their disposal to coordinate and track disbursements to avoid duplication and waste. They also have enforcement mechanisms to punish and deter fraud.

On the other hand, private charity, while subject to no small amount of arbitrariness and duplication, offers certain profound advantages. Those responsible for distributing community charities are familiar with their donors and their recipients. They can establish criteria for selecting recipients that don't encourage those who could be self-reliant to become dependent on charity and that motivate donors to wish to donate more. Charity within a community is often regarded by both donors and recipients as a form of good fellowship that, in other circumstances, might flow in the opposite direction. It strengthens communal bonds and increases aggregate social capital.

State-sponsored welfare has mostly the opposite effect. States are too large and too committed to "neutral" policies to distribute entitlements according to criteria that might encourage self-reliance. On the contrary, the objective and static rules states must employ to distribute entitlements are easily gamed. They thus reward precisely those least loyal to the state and hence with the least compunctions about gaming the system. By rewarding the unemployed, such entitlements encourage unemployment; by rewarding those without families, they encourage the dissolution of families; by rewarding manipulators, they encourage manipulation. Furthermore, just as citizens learn to game the system of entitlements, politicians learn to exploit it to increase power. The result is a spiral of increasing tutelary power held by the state and diminishing social capital within communities.

Israel's welfare policies seem particularly ill-suited to its demographic objectives. For example, child allowance payments in Israel are highly correlated with astronomic birth rates among Bedouin. Moreover, special entitlements granted to single mothers reward illegal polygamy, common among Muslims.

Such counter-productiveness is even more conspicuous in Israel's policies with regard to those religious anti-nationalists committed to separatism. Consider the example of kollel stipends. Stipends for kollel students certainly make no less sense than stipends for students of literature or philosophy. They have the added important advantage of increasing the number of students studying Torah. But they have some unintended consequences as well. Obviously, they create dependency on the state. They also encourage administrators who wish to maximize their share of the available funds to use all manner of deceit to game the system. Finally, as we saw earlier, by lowering the cost of learning in kollel, they diminish the signaling value of learning in kollel. As a result, those who would actually prefer to leave and support their families are forced to remain in kollel longer to send a signal of equal value. Thus, the policy of subsidizing kollel study mainly harms those whom it is ostensibly helping.

It is important to note that taking into account the dynamics of signaling in separatist communities does not always indicate the preferability of state non-intervention. Let's consider two examples where a small amount of state intervention actually serves the interests of all parties.

One of the crucial ways a community preserves its independence is by controlling the content of its educational curriculum. States are often tempted to advance social policies by mandating curricula that they believe serve those policies. In Israel, unaffiliateds are particularly heavy-handed when it comes to determining the contents of mandated high-school civics courses. Thus, we should be extremely cautious about state intervention in matters of education. Nevertheless, the government's refusal to enforce even a minimal core curriculum in separatist schools betrays an inability to read lips saying "twist my arm".

Back in the old country, I went to a yeshiva elementary school named after a great tzaddik and gaon that was run by his grandson – I'll call him Rabbi Einikel – who was neither. The vast majority of parents wanted their kids to get some reasonable secular education (for practical reasons, not principle). Running counter to that interest was the mutual interest of both Rabbi Einikel and a fair percentage of the parents to signal that their school was the frummest school in the neighborhood. Left to their own devices, this could have easily lead to an escalating war in which the end result would be very limited secular studies, a result that would actually have left almost everybody (secretly) unhappy. Fortunately for all concerned, state educational requirements allowed everyone to maintain their principled positions while still getting their preferred result. (Sidebar: Rabbi Einikel preferred for the “goyish” teachers to at least look goyish. Once a substitute named Markowitz showed up in chassidish levush and RE's son, Ur Einikel – who, as of seventh grade hadn't mastered the pasach genuva, but is probably a Rashkabahag somewhere today – reported that his father was outraged and would never let that happen again.)

In short, when people beg you to twist their arms so they can shout that you're a bigger anti-semite than Hitler, it's sometimes a good idea to fargin them.

Another example involves enforcement of internal standards within a community. Certainly, communities must establish membership criteria. If you don't toe the line, communities can use all manner of social pressure to get you to quit the club. On the other hand, the state can't allow community enforcers to police your behavior. But the difference between banishing non-cooperators and enforcing cooperation is not always obvious, especially when a community regards residence in a particular geographic area as a form of implicit membership. When the mishmeres hatzniyus shames someone into leaving Geulah or when the Eida Charedis adjudicates domestic disputes involving possible criminal behavior, it is not clear whether they are enforcing membership standards or engaging in criminal behavior themselves and so it is not clear if state intervention is preferable to non-intervention. There is a rich history of this sort of thing – in Europe, it was known as charivari – outside the Jewish world. The problem with charivari, including the mishmeres hatzniyus version, is that the enforcers have their own, possibly shifting, signaling interests and hence the system too easily devolves into gang wars among groups with competing interests. The pattern in Europe in the 19th century suggests that almost everybody prefers the stability and (mostly) disinterested nature of state law enforcement to the volatility of charivari.

To summarize, Jewish communities in Israel are likely to be strengthened vis-à-vis the state if welfare is privatized (to the extent that coordination requirements allow) and if the state takes relatively benign steps to prevent intra-community signaling wars from spiraling out of control.

All this runs counter to the oft-proclaimed, even if insincere, preferences of religious separatists. Now let's turn to some oft-proclaimed preferences of religious nationalists that are no less destructive.

When does state sponsorship, regulation and enforcement of Judaism strengthen Jewish communities and when does it weaken them? Let's start with a few examples where the kind of state involvement long advocated by religious nationalists is mostly harmful.

By law, the only organization that is allowed to issue a teudat hechsher is the state rabbinate. This official monopoly is easily circumvented, however, since any organization can issue a certificate serving the same purpose as a teudat hechsher without using the term. (Typically, such alternative certificates are called teudot hashgacha.)

Let's compare this system with the free market system of kashrus supervision used, for example, in the United States. In the free market system, an organization that provides supervision depends on its reputation to stay in business; if it is not respected by consumers, food manufacturers will have no incentive to pay for their services and they'll go out of business. Different organizations might serve different markets and for each some level of stringency is optimal. The system has proved to be quite efficient.

Under the Israeli quasi-monopolistic system, the situation is quite different. First of all, the standards of supervision are extremely low. Inspectors are paid directly by the establishments they supervise, so they have strong incentives to overlook problems. (In the US, clients pay the supervising organization, which pays a fixed salary to the supervisors.) Inspections are extremely infrequent. Under normal market conditions, such poor service would not earn the respect of restaurant patrons and would be punished by the market, namely, the restaurants who pay for the supervision. But state-funded kashrus supervision is immune to punishment by clients. Furthermore, even if it were motivated to establish high kashrus standards, the state rabbinate is not at liberty to do so. The courts have on several occasions ordered the rabbinate to provide certification to establishments that did not meet the rabbinate's own standards. (The argument is that the rabbinate's legal authority is limited to enforcing the fraud-in-kashrus law and hence it can't invoke any standards that do not relate to the kashrus of the food in the narrowest sense.)

Finally, the rabbinate's formal monopoly also sometimes results in too much stringency. For example, when the rabbinate decided to allow local official rabbinates not to authorize use of the heter mechirah for shemittah (a decision ruled illegal by the Supreme Court – see above), it was not legally possible for private organizations to fill the market demand for supervision that did authorize the heter mechirah. In a free market system, the courts could not have dictated standards to the rabbinate (scandal number one) and the market demand for more lenient supervision would not have been frustrated by a legal monopoly (scandal number two).

Another example of state involvement in religion that serves little constructive purpose is the official rabbinate's monopoly on recognized marriage in Israel. Currently, a marriage involving at least one Jew that takes place in Israel is only recognized by the state if it is officiated by a rabbi authorized by the state rabbinate. I don't think the civil rights arguments against this arrangement are any more compelling than a hypothetical argument against laws restricting the performance of surgery to surgeons authorized by the official medical establishment. I just find this arrangement counter-productive.

There are three ostensible arguments in favor of this monopoly. The first is that it compels Jews to meet a rabbi at a crucial point in their lives and hence has educational value. The second is that it reduces instances of mamzerut. The third is that it prevents single-sex marriages and inter-religious marriages.

The first argument is unconvincing (to say the least) because Jews who meet a rabbi out of legal compulsion are unlikely to come away from the experience with a warm and fuzzy feeling. This is especially true if limitations on competition under-incentivize rabbis to provide the best possible service. Second, compelling people who are not especially committed to the sanctity of marriage to marry according to halacha actually increases mamzerut. What actually reduces mamzerut is the rabbinic monopoly on divorce. The third argument is more or less correct, though, to be precise, the rabbinic monopoly does not prevent single-sex marriage or inter-marriage, it just causes them to be performed abroad (after which they are recognized in Israel).

A far more productive arrangement would have the state recognize all marriages between a man and a woman, including regulated civil unions that are explicitly stipulated to not be kiddushin. Bigamy laws would require that no previously married person could remarry unless their marriage was dissolved by a get administered by the rabbinate but would stipulate that regulated civil union could be dissolved through a civil procedure. In exchange for the rabbinate's relinquishing of its monopoly on marriage, the law would stipulate that single-sex marriages would not be recognized by the state.

Such a limitation on state involvement in religion would reduce mamzerut, reduce anti-religious resentment and ultimately increase rabbinic influence.

There are, on the other hand, many instances in which legal recognition or enforcement of specifically Jewish preferences is actually productive. For example, Israel's official state symbols (flag and anthem), its official calendar and its official language all should reflect its Jewish character. With regard to such matters, no neutrality is possible. (As it happens, Israel's symbols and calendar do already reflect its Jewish character. With regard to language, Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages dating back to the British mandate.) Similarly, naturalization laws that give preference to repatriation of Jews, legally mandated and funded connections between Israel and Jews in the diaspora and state funding for the preservation of Jewish culture are all sufficiently consensual as to present mostly upside.

With regard to the character of the public square, the tradeoffs need to be weighed carefully. First, I should reiterate that selective normative arguments against the imposition of the values of a particular community on the public square are not compelling. Restrictions on selling pork as offensive to Jewish tradition are no more objectionable than restrictions on selling dog meat as offensive to European tradition; restrictions on selling whale blubber for environmental reasons are no more objectionable than those same restrictions on kashrus grounds. The question is only which forms of state intervention weaken the Jewish community – by usurping its role, bastardizing its values and diminishing its influence – and which forms of state intervention strengthen communities – by extending its reach and magnifying its message.

The precise calibration of tradeoffs with regard to all the issues considered in this post – welfare and subsidies, state involvement in the distribution of public goods, state sponsorship of clerics, legislation of ethnic and religious preferences, etc. – is a non-trivial challenge. The principle that we must always bear in mind is that, in most cases, limiting the state's reach is likely to ultimately strengthen communities and weaken the power of elites entrenched in the state's bureaucracy. Even vastly disparate communities are likely to share respect for community-based moral instincts of the type rejected by unaffiliateds. These moral instincts – respect for authority and community traditions, willingness to make personal sacrifices for communal benefit, and so on – are precisely the ones that ultimately strengthen states in the right way – not by extending their reach but by increasing their viability and their ability to exercise legitimate authority.

Let's bear in mind, though, that these political tweaks are just small steps we can take to nudge us in the right direction. The objective is to slowly revive a Jewish code that reflects and encourages moral instincts rooted in Jewish tradition and is given meaning and direction by a narrative that is natural, not doctrinal.

I am optimistic that Israeli statehood, properly conceived and constrained, is catalyzing precisely such a process. We are returning to a more stable and consensual balance of universal and particular moral instincts. In much of the rest of the world, the disconnect between the universal and particular grows ever greater. Unaffiliateds, who lack any sense of the particular, and savages, who lack any sense of the universal, are growing both more dependent on each other and more hostile to each other. Their shared hatred for us is a saving grace; it has forced us to become more independent and self-reliant. They will destroy each other and, be-ezrat Hashem, we will live.


Blogger treppenwitz said...

[CLAP - CLAP-CLAP] Bravo!!!

I plan to read every word out loud to my parents.

I don't care if I have to tie them to their chiars. They will hear this! :-)

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In Israel, unaffiliateds are particularly heavy-handed when it comes to determining the contents of mandated high-school civics courses. Thus, we should be extremely cautious about state intervention in matters of education."

i think you are saying this because you are religious and the controlling body is not. if the religious had greater control over school curriculum i wonder if you would take this position.

your comparison between environmentalism/blubber and kashrut is specious. there is some real world improvement in the former, once you hit a critical mass. kashrut is mostly what some premodern rabbis made up over a very long time.

but overall i agree with treppenwitz in sentiment if not in execution.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous shachar ha'amim said...

great series - hope to see it in a .pdf front to back that that can be circulated or linked to

a few things on last post:

there is already a "civil" procedure in place for unwinding civil marraiges. Nothing needs to bechanged in that respect.

English is also an official language in Israel and can be used in dealing with all official bodies as well as the courts - just that government notices have to publicized in Hebrew and Arabic only

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Y. Ben-David said...

I certainly hope your belief that the unaffiliateds and the savages are hating each other. Their mutual hatred of us has created a bizarre "Red-Green-Brown" alliance (Red-Marxists, Communists; Green-Islam and/or Radical Environmentalists; Brown-Neo-fascists and Neo-Nazis) which has led to large anti-Israeli demonstrations where people holding red hammer-and-sickle flags are marching arm in arm with people dressed as HAMAS suicide bombers.
However, history has shown that a shared belief in antisemitism has not prevented internal conflicts, otherwise a united Europe would have arisen centuries ago.
A possible example of a change is the fact that Obama, whose core of support are the Reds and Greens in the US, was willing to blow away Bin Laden. Maybe a real change is on the way.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous yoeli said...

the eidah hachreidis with all the problems people have with it will outlive the medinah!

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you were the kid that was the one who the rebbisheh eineklich confided with? what a nerd!

8:32 PM  
Anonymous yoeli said...

did you say hallel yesterday or today?

9:21 PM  

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