To many of us the whole hullabaloo around the election of Israel’s new chief
rabbis is distasteful at best, and at times even nauseating.
idea of a single rabbinate and two chief rabbis, is in fact quite foreign to the
Jewish tradition and ethos. In fact, we must thank the Ottoman Empire on the one
hand, and the British Mandatory government on the other, for this heritage, of
which we seem incapable of ridding ourselves.
The position of “Rishon
LeZion” – today the Sephardi chief rabbi – dates back to the year 1665, when the
Ottomans ruled Palestine, and was held by the rabbi of the Jewish community in
Jerusalem. In 1921, under the first (Jewish) British High Commissioner for
Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, it was decided to appoint two chief rabbis – one
Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, and the Chief Rabbinate was created, embodying a
whole setup of religious services, including religious courts, which had existed
already in the Ottoman period.
In the pre-state reality, the existence of
a Chief Rabbinate, headed by two chief rabbis (both Orthodox, since there were
very few Conservative or Reform Jews in the country at the time), side by side
with non-religious representative institutions of the Yishuv, established on the
basis of the 1926 Religious Communities Ordinance, was a manifestation of the
communal autonomy enjoyed by the Jewish community under the British
The decision to preserve the religious aspect of this
arrangement after the establishment of Israel in 1948 was part of David
Ben-Gurion’s concept of upholding a certain religious status quo, which would
constitute the basis for a semblance of peaceful coexistence between the secular
and religious sections of the Israeli society.
It should be noted that
Ben-Gurion had no intention of turning Israel into a religious state, and beyond
the issues of kashrut in state and public institutions, the non-provision of
public transportation on Shabbat, and a religious monopoly in the provision
marriage, divorce and burial services, Israel was to remain secular.
several decades the religious status quo, and the functioning of the Chief
Rabbinate, rarely raised strong controversies or resentment. However, especially
after the political upheaval of 1977, which brought Menachem Begin to power, and
the enactment of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel Law in 1980, things started to
The fact that the rabbinate rapidly became an important bastion
of power, through the ability to provide jobs to thousands of religious
functionaries, increased the number of religious factors vying for control over
it, and opened the door to both institutional and personal corruption, of which
the current investigation against Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, on
suspicions of his having received bribes, is a symptom.
If in the past
people like myself were inclined to accept the status quo as a necessary
compromise, even though on a personal level some of us suffered unnecessary
humiliations, justified on halachic grounds, in the process of receiving the
religious services that were forced on us, today we are increasingly disposed to
view the reality as an irksome, bureaucratic farce, which has lost whatever
anthropological charm it might have had in the past.
For around 300,000
immigrants who have arrived in Israel since 1990 on the basis of the Law of
Return, but who are not considered Jews according to halacha, the rabbinate and
its rabbis represent little more than a locked door, and a barrier to finding
some logical way out of their impossible civil status.
The straw that has
broken the camel’s back in the eyes of many of us is the current campaign. Not
only is it an ugly contest for the positions of two functionaries, who head an
institution which provides services that we would not require if this were a
truly liberal state, free of any religious coercion, but it transpires that at
least some of the religious parties and groups that are directly involved in the
contest represent communities (mostly haredi ones) that avoid using the services
of the rabbinate, and use alternative services provided by non-state
These forces are involved in the contest, despite their
communities’ boycott of the the services provided by the Rabbinate, for reasons
directly related to the economic and political power that the positions and the
institutions have to offer to those who control them.
However, the most
deplorable event connected with the current contest is the treatment that one
particular candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi – the only candidate with even
minimal appeal to those of us who despise the current set-up – is receiving from
powerful religious circles.
I am referring to Rabbi David Stav, who at
least offers the promise of turning the rabbinate into a place less bureaucratic
and more friendly to those requiring its services.
The reason people like
me feel empathy for Rabbi Stav, despite the fact that he is no more relevant to
our daily lives than any of the other candidates, is the outrageous attack on
him by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Recently the old rabbi (who himself served as a very
popular Rishon LeZion in the years 1972-83) termed Stav a “rasha merusha” (a
most wicked person), who poses a danger to Judaism – and a “klum”
As a result of the flow of slanderous profanity coming from
the revered rabbi’s mouth, Rabbi Stav has been all but physically attacked by
pious followers of the spiritual leader of Shas, besides being ostracized in
both Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredi religious circles.
And why is all this
happening? Because Rabbi Stav heads a body called “the Zohar rabbis,” which
believes in showing the secular community a more friendly and affable face –
without making any compromises on halachic issues – and offers seculars Orthodox
marriage services that have gained popularity in recent
Unfortunately, at this juncture it seems unlikely anyone will even
attempt to introduce any major change in the status and powers of the Chief
Rabbinate, and the alienation of large sections of the population from it is
therefore likely to continue to grow.
What sort of change would I like to
see, if change were possible? While I believe that the state should continue to
offer and provide religious services to all those who require them, these
services should be offered at the communal or municipal level, and in the case
of Jewish services, should not be limited to any particular stream of Judaism.
The Chief Rabbinate, in its current form, has no role to play in such a
In addition, I believe that the religious monopoly on marriage,
divorce and burial services should be formally ended, and that every inhabitant
of Israel should have the right to get married and divorced, or be buried in
whatever form she or he pleases. But that is already a separate, even if
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.