There are a lot of good reasons to do away with the separate positions of chief
Ashkenazi and chief Sephardi rabbis, and create a single chief rabbi position –
both on the national level and in cities, towns, regional councils and
Perhaps when the Chief Rabbinate was first created in 1921,
it made sense to have two rabbis – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi – to cater to
the different ethnic communities.
However, for some time now – at least
since the huge waves of Jewish immigration to Israel from Muslim lands in the
1950s and 1960s – there has been a gradual but steady process of integration of
these communities. Over the decades, a unified Israeli culture has developed in
which both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions have contributed. Israeli food,
music and other aspects of culture contain elements of both Ashkenazi and
Sephardi influences. And the same goes for religious practices.
communities – except perhaps among the ultra-Orthodox – it is almost as likely
for a Sephardi Israeli to marry an Ashkenazi as it is to marry within one’s own
ethnic community. And this simple fact has major ramifications for religious
traditions and customs. One trend that has resulted from these “mixed marriages”
has been a gradual unification of a single “Land of Israel” tradition, which is
an amalgamation of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs.
because both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Israelis live in the same neighborhoods,
send their children to the same schools and even attend the same synagogues,
rabbis and educators, regardless of their own background, have had to acquaint
themselves with both Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs. Today there are many books
of practical Jewish law that contain both customs.
At any rate, the
Sephardi-Ashkenazi dichotomy ignores the many different customs that have
developed in different countries and geographical areas. The Jews of Yemen, for
instance, belong to neither tradition. And there are many differences between
the traditions of North African Jews and those who lived in Iraq or Iran.
Likewise, there are many differences in customs among European Jews from
Galitzianers and Yekkes to Litvaks, to name just a few.
In short, all
these customs can never hope to be given full expression through the chief
rabbis, whether there be one or two. But by cutting in half the number of rabbis
that serve in 34 cities and regional jurisdictions, and by appointing only one
chief rabbi of Israel instead of two, we can significantly decrease the burden
on taxpayers that goes to all these rabbis’ monthly salaries.
come as no surprise that the Council of the Chief Rabbinate announced Monday it
was opposed to a bill drafted by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) calling to unite the
posts of Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis. Doing so would cut in half the
number of state-funded rabbinic positions, and force many rabbis to seek
The anachronistic split between Ashkenazi and
Sephardi chief rabbis is just one problem afflicting the Chief
For some time now, the Chief Rabbinate has lost its prestige
as an institution seeking to represent Judaism’s highest goals. It is not just
that the previous chief Ashkenazi rabbi is embroiled in a criminal investigation
into alleged embezzlement, or that the present chief rabbis were elected
primarily due to their political connections and less for their personal
qualities or erudition.
Long ago, many great democratic thinkers such as
Thomas Jefferson reached the conclusion that attempts to connect state and
religion are doomed to failure. And in 1783, Moses Mendelssohn wrote Jerusalem:
Or on Religious Power and Judaism, in which he also called for separation of the
two. Religion, argued Jefferson and Mendelssohn, is inevitably compromised by
political forces, while politics are marshaled to enforce religious
Israeli society has only barely begun to seriously discuss the
problematic marriage of religion with state. Part of the problem is that for
secular elites, it is convenient to consign the country’s religious life to the
rabbinate. Doing so excuses them from providing their own vision for the
uniquely Jewish aspects of Israel.
But eventually, a serious public
discourse will have to take place regarding how best to strike the balance
between the undeniably religious aspects of Zionism and the purely civic aspects
of running a modern state.
A radical reevaluation of the Chief
Rabbinate’s relevance must be part of such a discourse.
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