This article originally appeared at Jewish Ideas
Daily and is reprinted with their permission.
The public face of world Jewry will change this summer. Come September, both
England and Israel will install new chief rabbis. Jonathan Sacks, the brilliant
and widely published chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, is retiring, to be
succeeded by the affable Ephraim Mirvis, currently rabbi of the Finchley
Synagogue in North London. Yona Metzger, the chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi
community of Israel, is completing his 10-year fixed term, to be succeeded by
whomever a special 150-member electoral assembly selects – for the moment, a
subject of intense speculation and backroom maneuvering.
The position of
chief rabbi dates far back in Jewish history. In the Middle Ages, when Jews were
treated as a corporate body, the chief rabbi served not only as the judge,
scholar and supreme religious authority for his community, but frequently bore
responsibility for collecting its taxes as well. Many a chief rabbi, as a
result, was appointed or confirmed directly by the king.
today confine their authority to the religious realm, but their role is never
Inevitably, they must also devote themselves to
promoting their own brand of Judaism (usually some variety of Orthodoxy) over
all the others. Israel’s chief rabbinate, in recent years, has sought to
undermine more liberal approaches to conversion and has taken a hardline stance
on women’s issues and on the thorny problem of who is a Jew. Rabbi Sacks
alienated liberal Jews early in his tenure and promoted a centrist form of
Orthodoxy that those to his religious Right openly disdained.
unusual in never having had an official chief rabbi. In 1888, a short-lived
Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations imported Rabbi Jacob
Joseph of Vilna to serve as chief rabbi of New York, but that effort ended
Consumers soon balked at the extra charges imposed in
return for the rabbi’s supervision of kosher food. Competing rabbis, some of
whom also styled themselves “chief rabbi,” offered their supervisory services at
lower rates. Without its projected income stream, the association of Orthodox
congregations that had brought Rabbi Joseph to America defaulted on its
obligations to him and went out business. The unfortunate rabbi spent his last
years as an impoverished invalid. No successor was ever appointed.
Orthodox rabbis in other American cities did, for a time, carry the title “chief
rabbi,” based on their learning and status. One or two even pretended to the
title “chief rabbi of the United States.” But none ever achieved recognition
outside his own Orthodox circle.
As a matter of law, the First Amendment
to the US Constitution precludes the government from recognizing one religious
authority as “chief” over another.
Just as America introduced free-market
capitalism into the economy, so it created a free market in
Contrary to expectations, this has had the paradoxical effect
of strengthening religion in the United States.
As Thomas Jefferson
observed as early as 1820, religion thrived under the maxim “divided we stand,
united we fall.”
In this environment, the creation in America of a
government-protected form of Judaism under the authority of a chief rabbi was
Instead, American Jews accommodated themselves to the
nation’s competitive religious marketplace, which by and large has served them
well. Rabbis, like their Christian counterparts, win or lose status through
their individual activities and accomplishments, exemplified by Newsweek’s
annual listing of the 50 most influential rabbis of the year.
JEWS have nevertheless been reluctant to recommend their free-market approach to
religion to Jewish communities abroad. A recent conference hosted by the
prestigious American Jewish Committee, for example, heard a litany of complaints
concerning the Israeli chief rabbinate and its maltreatment of non-Orthodox
Jews, Russian Jews, women and converts.
But in the end, AJC called for
“significant modifications” to the chief rabbinate, rather than the embrace of
the religious free market. A paper by former undersecretary of defense Dov
Zakheim, delivered at the conference, argued that “what is needed... is not the
abolition of the Chief Rabbinate, but rather its transformation into a much more
circumscribed, yet relevant and all-inclusive authority.”
Rabbi Joseph B.
Soloveitchik, America’s foremost 20th-century Modern Orthodox thinker, who
exercised vast influence on American Jewish life without ever having been
selected chief rabbi, was wiser. He turned down the invitation to serve as
Israel’s chief rabbi, because, he explained in 1964, he “was afraid to be an
officer of the State.”
As England and Israel prepare to install new chief
rabbis, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s decision deserves to be remembered. “A rabbinate
linked up with the state,” he warned, “cannot be completely free.”
writer is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish
history at Brandeis University and chairman of its Hornstein Jewish Professional
He is also the chief historian of the National Museum
of American Jewish History. His most recent book is When General Grant Expelled
the Jews (Schocken/Nextbook). This article originally appeared at Jewish Ideas
Daily and is reprinted with their permission.