Judaism has a long, rich history of bitter, no-holds barred infighting, particularly among rabbis. During the Second Temple era, Pharisees fought not only against Sadducees and Essenes, they also fought among themselves.
The school of Hillel bickered with the school of Shamai; Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai broke with the more militant elements during Rome’s siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD; and the sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Meir, dissented from nearly everyone.
In the Middle Ages, Yonah Girandi, a.k.a. Rabbenu Yonah, instigated the burning of Maimonides’s books by Catholic authorities, an act he later regretted.
The wars waged by Elijah Ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, also known as the Genius of Vilna, and his many disciples, against the Hassidic movement established by Israel Ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov) are legendary in their ruthlessness and continued for centuries.
So in a sense, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s diatribe against Rabbi David Stav, extraordinary for its sharpness even coming from the unabashedly crude Yosef, follows in a long tradition of intra-rabbinic nastiness. Rabbis tend to be highly opinionated. And when strong opinions are coupled with unequivocal religious convictions and self-righteousness, the result can be explosive, as evidenced by the physical attack by several youths on Stav at the wedding of Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz’s daughter on Sunday night.
Yosef’s most recent invective is essentially the opening shot in the election race for the chief Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis of Israel.
Stav, who belongs to a more open-minded national-religious stream of Orthodoxy, is a leading candidate for the chief Ashkenazi rabbi position. The race was officially launched after many delays and political machinations, when the cabinet on Sunday appointed the five-member oversight committee for the election. And if the tone of Yosef’s comments and the subsequent violence directed at Stav is any indication, the present campaign, not unlike previous campaigns for the election of chief rabbis, will be full of mutual recriminations, mudslinging and even fisticuffs.
For the various streams within the Orthodox establishment – Shas, national-religious, Ashkenazi haredim – control of the chief rabbinate is primarily a means of consolidating power: Cronies get jobs, state funds become available, policies benefiting narrow interests can be pursued.
Unsurprisingly, few feel the Chief Rabbinate represents them. Haredim have their own rabbis and spiritual leaders and do not rely on, or even trust, the kosher supervision of the Chief Rabbinate. Secular Israelis are increasingly turning to alternative expressions of Judaism, whether it be Orthodox groups such as Tzohar, Chabad, Breslav; non-Orthodox movements (a 2009 Guttman Center-AviChai report about religiosity and tradition in Israel found that 8% of Israeli Jews define themselves as Masorti/Conservative or Reform); or non-denominational movements such as Jewish renewal groups Nigun Halev, Beit Tefila Yisraelit or Beit Midrash Alma.
Few see control of the Chief Rabbinate as an opportunity to present a more accommodating, relevant and meaningful form of Orthodoxy to the greater Israeli populace. That role has been almost completely taken over by bodies outside the Chief Rabbinate.
The question then arises, why precisely do we need a Chief Rabbinate? True, this state-funded body provides jobs to rabbis, heads of religious councils and clerks.
And elections provide rabbis such as Yosef with the opportunity to voice their opinions on the qualities and faults of candidates. But private bodies do the Chief Rabbinate’s job better.
Truly talented spiritual leaders and exceptional Torah scholars will emerge regardless of whether or not they are appointed chief rabbi of Israel. And the appointment of unfit rabbis to the position distances those who might have come closer to their Jewish roots.
Rabbis have always been a contentious group of people and that has not changed nor is it likely to in the near future. Instead of providing more opportunities for rabbis to bicker by maintaining a large, state-funded Chief Rabbinate, we should think of ways of limiting to a minimum the functions of the Chief Rabbinate. Perhaps we should even think seriously about doing away altogether with the post of chief rabbi. Judaism would be better off for it.