As we brace ourselves for today’s Chief Rabbinate election, it is worth remembering the words of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the founding father of the Chief Rabbinate. In the spring of 1921, in a speech in Jerusalem on the founding of the Chief Rabbinate in what was then Mandate Palestine, Kook lamented the sorrowful lack of respect many Jews felt for the rabbinic establishment.

Infighting among Jewish sects from hassidim and mitnagdim to Zionists and maskilim was, for Kook, intimately connected with the deterioration of the rabbinate.

Instead of rising above the petty bickering and serving as a unifying force, rabbis and the rabbinic establishment had been dragged into the fray and sullied in the process.

Kook the visionary, who died in 1935, rightly foresaw that the burgeoning Jewish community in Palestine would serve as the basis for the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. He hoped to “invigorate the rabbinate’s spiritual essence” and transform the rabbinate into an “an organizing force,” a force that informs and influences “the entire national rebuilding process” from law and economics to literature and art.

Unfortunately, Kook’s hope never materialized.

More worrying, Kook’s criticism of his own generation has not lost it relevancy. The rabbinate remains in the hands of individuals of a “special type” and who are captive to “special factions,” as Kook euphemistically put it 92 years ago. We would put it more bluntly: The rabbinate has become an instrument manipulated by rabbis representing narrow interests to leverage the power and influence of their allies and cronies and to bash opposition.

One faction or another lucky enough to gain control over the Chief Rabbinate has repeatedly exploited its state-backed monopoly over kashrut supervision, marriage registration, and the building of synagogues and ritual baths to benefit their cohorts and to take revenge against the outgoing faction that did the same in the previous term. National religious fight with Shas and the Ashkenazi haredim and each of these groups has subgroups that quarrel among themselves.

This often vicious infighting was on embarrassing display in recent months as the races for chief Ashkenazi rabbi and chief Sephardi rabbi heated up.

What is more, in stark contrast to Kook’s vision, the rabbinate has increasingly restricted its interests to the narrow confines of religious law as it developed in the Diaspora in pre-modern times.

Not since such rabbinic luminaries as Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi after the establishment of the state, or Shlomo Goren, the third chief Ashkenazi, has serious thought been devoted to grappling with the unique religious and spiritual challenges of running a Jewish state in the Land of Israel in modern times. What does Judaism have to say about diplomacy? What does it say about the rights of minorities living in a Jewish state? About the way a Jewish economy should be run? Of course, none of these issues can be addressed until Orthodoxy also develops a more sophisticated approach to the tremendous sociological upheaval since the 19th century that led to the creation of the “secular Jew.”

Millions of Jews – both in Israel and abroad – retain a Jewish identity that is devoid of any halachic dimension but which is no less profound than the identity proclaimed and practiced by the most pious Jew. As long as the Chief Rabbinate disregards, minimizes or trivializes this majority as nothing more than a bunch of “captive infants,” suffering from false consciousness, it can never hope to be relevant in any significant way for the entirety of the Jewish people.

Understandably, the vast majority of Israelis feel that the rabbinate has absolutely no relevance, except when one is forced to interact with the religious bureaucracy that monopolizes marriage registration, divorce, burial and kashrut supervision. Too often such interaction is a bad experience, particularly when the mind-numbing inefficiencies inherent in any state-run bureaucracy are combined with a holier-than-thou condescension affected by the religious functionaries toward those unfortunate “captive infants” they must serve.

Had Rabbi Kook’s model of the rabbinate come into being, Israeli society and world Judaism would have been dramatically transformed. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Recognizing this is the first step toward fixing this sorry state of affairs. We hope that at least a modest step will be taken toward such a tikkun olam by the two newly elected chief rabbis.

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