As if the Chief Rabbinate was not under enough scrutiny with the unseemly
shenanigans surrounding the upcoming election of new chief rabbis, the dramatic
events surrounding the investigation of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger for
financial improprieties have served to cast an even darker shadow over the
The current investigation into Metzger, which
is not his first as chief rabbi and not even his second as an ordained rabbi, is
just one of several recent indicators of the grave crisis of legitimacy facing
Indeed, Metzger’s appointment in 2003 was seen by many as a haredi ploy to
weaken the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, given his lack of credentials,
especially compared to the other prominent candidates at the time: the much
respected national-religious leader Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat
Gan; and the equally wellconsidered rabbi and rabbinical judge Shlomo
Daichovsky, who is currently the director of the state rabbinical courts
But the leading haredi rabbi of the time, the late Rabbi Yosef
Shalom Elyashiv, decided to back Metzger, despite his slight credentials, which
secured Metzger the election due to the strength of the haredi parties in the
electoral committee for the Chief Rabbinate.
Metzger was the first chief
rabbi to be elected who was not qualified as a rabbinical judge, an important
component of the position of chief rabbi since the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief
rabbis alternate as president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court.
this situation, legislation had to be passed in 2008 to allow Sephardi Chief
Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stay on as president for a second five-year period instead
of Metzger. This has not prevented Metzger from sitting as Supreme Rabbinical
Court judge during his time as chief rabbi.
Metzger also lacked
experience, having served as the neighborhood rabbi of north Tel Aviv before his
election to Ashkenazi chief rabbi, but never having served as a chief municipal
This was not a concern for Elyashiv, however, since the haredi
community pays scant regard to the Chief Rabbinate anyway, and members of the
haredi public have very little occasion to avail themselves of its services.
They do not rely on the kashrut certification of the rabbinate and mostly use
independent haredi rabbinical courts and non-rabbinate-affiliated rabbis for
Aside from the particular personalities presently
involved in the institution, the current contest for the Chief Rabbinate and the
heavy politicking that has gone with it have also served to diminish the respect
for and legitimacy of the institution.
In particular, two political deals
were floated in recent months by conservative elements in Bayit Yehudi’s
rabbinic leadership and by Shas to enable Rabbi Yaakov Ariel to stand again,
despite his age ruling him out, and Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stand for reelection
despite the law ruling this out.
Although both deals ultimately fell
through, the protracted and ardent efforts of the political factions to change
the law for the benefit of their desired candidates left the impression that the
position of chief rabbi has less to do with the candidate’s qualities and
credentials as a spiritual leader, and more to do with their ability to wrangle
and cajole politicians.
Aside from its leadership, the sprawling, unruly
nature of the Chief Rabbinate has also been greatly responsible for the
increasing dissatisfactions with the institution in general.
bureaucracy has led to an increase in civil marriage abroad, and the absence of
disciplinary procedures for officials in local religious councils has created a
staff so unaccountable that former religious services minister Ya’acov Margi of
Shas described some of these bodies as “a law unto themselves.”
local religious councils are subject to the authority of the Religious Services
Ministry and not directly to the Chief Rabbinate, both institutions have been
mutually tainted by their status as indivisible parts of the established state
One organization that has sought to resurrect the image of
Judaism in Israel from its current nadir is the national-religious Tzohar group.
By being independent and attentive to its audience, mostly secular Israelis in
need of services for life-cycle events such as marriage, it has become extremely
popular and its services are increasingly sought after.
has risen so much that the prominent light of the Tzohar rabbinical association,
its chairman Rabbi David Stav, is now a leading candidate for Ashkenazi chief
rabbi and has the political backing of coalition parties Yesh Atid, Bayit
Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu and Hatnua.
But Stav’s liberalizing ideas and
desire to revamp and modernize the rabbinate has created such intense
opposition, not only from the haredi leadership but from the conservative wing
of the nationalreligious movement as well, that even if he were to be elected,
which is far from guaranteed, the Chief Rabbinate could end up with even less
A situation in which the both the hardal, conservative,
sector of the national-religious community and the haredi sector do not respect
or honor the Chief Rabbinate would be another blow to the authority of the
It is in this milieu that calls for the decentralization and
even dismantlement of the Chief Rabbinate will continue to grow. And while it is
perhaps not surprising that organizations promoting religious freedom, such as
Hiddush, are in favor of disestablishment, and that Meretz chairwoman Zehava
Gal-On called earlier this month for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate, the
notion is gaining currency among Orthodox actors as well.
national-religious organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah has for some time been
promoting a communal model for religious services in the country that would
radically overhaul the current system.
Instead, it would put control of
religious life to a much greater extend in the hands of congregations and
communities and wrest it from the centralized government authorities, the
Religious Services Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate.
As the political
battles over control of established religion in Israel become ever sharper and
more vicious, it may become even harder to prevent the ongoing decline in
legitimacy of the Chief Rabbinate.