It has always been questionable whether Israel required a chief rabbinate. It
has never represented more than a small section of the population – the majority
of secular Israel have no desire for such an institution, while the haredi
(ultra-Orthodox) population – the most rapidly growing sector of the country’s
Jewish population – do not recognize its authority.
And since the
political power struggles among the religious factions have often led to the
incumbent being chosen from among the moderate haredi elements, even the
religious Zionists have not always accorded it the esteem such an institution
And yet, as the past few months have shown, the position is
fought over with great intensity, not only by the religious Zionist and Orthodox
factions, but also by the main political parties. This is due to the fact that
the chief rabbis wield significant power as heads of the major rabbinical
courts, and in determining state policy with regard to such critical matters as
conversion, marriage, kashrut, and a host of other matters governing the way in
which Judaism is defined and practiced in the public sphere.
those who believe that the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis have a role to
play are left with little faith in this institution following the political
infighting and backstabbing of the past year, in the lead-up to the elections.
Even in terms of political struggles, the events of the past year have been
dirtier, more prolonged and nothing short of a disgrace.
To put it in its
simplest religious terms, the fight to determine who will be Israel’s next set
of chief rabbis has been nothing short of a “chilul Hashem” – a desecration of
It has become impossible to really know who supports who, and
for what reasons. Since the coming to power of the new government, the religious
parties have made deals with each other, then gone behind each others’ backs
only to make new deals, changed their minds, introduced new candidates,
attempted to influence the political composition of the election council and, if
nothing else, have once again proved the old saying of British Lord Hailsham:
“The introduction of religion to politics is the end of honest politics, while
the introduction of politics to religion is the prostitution of
Most Israelis do not recall the venerable rabbis who occupied
this position in the early years of the state. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog
was esteemed and appreciated by the population at large for his attempts to
bridge the world of religion and secular statehood, and to introduce many of the
public practices governing religious behavior in the public domain.
predecessor, in pre-state days, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook is, to this
day, revered as an ultra-Orthodox, but strongly pro-Zionist chief rabbi of
Palestine, whose attempts to incorporate the entire Jewish population of
Palestine is far removed from the narrow minded and segregationist tendencies of
those who speak in his name today.
Following the death of Herzog, chief
rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman carried on in the best tradition of representing
religion not only to the Israeli public but to the outside world as a
Within the Sephardi world, rabbis Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and
Yitzhak Nissim paralleled the work of their Ashkenazi counterparts. It was never
an easy job, perceived by many as being the imposition of religion upon a
majority secular population, but it worked, thanks in no small part to an
understanding by these venerable holders of the post of chief rabbi as to the
nature of the state in which they lived.
The position started going
downhill from the 1970s onwards. Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef were
responsible for feuds between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sectors. Due in no
small way to their direct intervention, the Religious Councils became places for
“jobs for the boys,” affiliated with each of them respectively. While their
respective religious scholarship and achievements were undisputed, both Goren
and Yosef set the seeds of the intense and bitter political infighting which has
become the trademark of the contemporary Chief Rabbinate.
pair of chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, toned down the
internal rivalries, but turned the Chief Rabbinate in another political
They openly supported the hardline right-wing political
positions of Gush Emunim and the West Bank settlement movement, thus causing an
additional schism within the institution which should appeal to as broad a
public as possible, and definitely should not take up political positions with
which only certain sectors of the population identify.
The most notable
holder of the position during the past 20 years has been chief rabbi Yisrael
Meir Lau who, unlike so many of his predecessors, is an eloquent speaker, on
both the Israeli and the international circuits. Now returned to his previous
position of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Lau – were it not for his age – would have
been a popular figure to be the first chief rabbi to occupy the position for a
second term of office.
The fact that his son, Rabbi David Lau, is seen as
one of the leading candidates for the position is, in no small way, due to the
name recognition given to the position by his father.
Almost a year ago
it seemed as though a real revolution could take place as the name of Rabbi
David Stav, the rabbi of Shoham and one of the founders of the religious
moderate Tzohar Rabbis Movement, was touted as the favored candidate.
outreach approach, his understanding that the position of chief rabbi is as
much, if not more, aimed at the non- Orthodox population (who anyway have their
own rabbis to turn to when they have questions and problems) was seen as a
welcome breath of fresh air to this troubled and increasingly insular
Enter the religious politicians. Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali
Bennett keeps chopping and changing, if only because his own party is split from
within. Arye Deri of Shas is back to what he does best: wheeling and dealing
behind everybody’s backs and informing everyone that it is all in the name of
the real power broker, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
And now, with the early
departure of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, surely one of the most inept
holders of this position, power has passed to his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi
Shlomo Amar, who is able to nominate no fewer than 10 members of the selection
committee. Amar surely regrets that the political deal aimed at changing the law
to enable him to stay on in the position of chief rabbi after his 10-year term
comes to an end did not succeed in gaining the necessary political
What has been going on is nothing short of a disgrace. If there
ever was a public institution which has become totally discredited in the eyes
of the people it is meant to serve, it is surely the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Many are rightly asking: if this the depth to which this institution has sunk,
is it perhaps time to seek an alternative mechanism by which religion can be
organized in the State of Israel? The writer is dean of the faculty of
Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are
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