It’s time to retire the Chief Rabbinate

On July 24, a voting body made up of 150 rabbis, politicians and community leaders will decide who will be the next Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Israel.

By
July 22, 2013 20:44
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

Haredim lots of haredim 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

On July 24, a voting body made up of 150 rabbis, politicians and community leaders will decide who will be the next Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Israel. At the center of this public and political debate is the burning question of which two men will be filling these highlycoveted seats. But there are more and more voices, some of them coming from the national-religious (modern Orthodox) community in Israel, that make a bolder claim: There is no sensible reason that the Chief Rabbinate should continue to exist as a state-power-wielding institution in the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.

In contrast to the notion that the Chief Rabbinate is essential to defining Israel as a Jewish state, this outdated and coercive institution damages the reputation of Judaism and subverts the rule of law. Only last week, the Global Corruption Barometer published its annual study, demonstrating that the Israeli public believes that the religious institutions (and political parties) are the most corrupt bodies in the country. This global study shows that, in the rest of the world, religious institutions are [on average] the most respected by their populations.

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This week, a leading polling firm published a study showing that 67 percent of the Jewish public opposes the continued existence of the Chief Rabbinate in its current form. It also reported that most Israelis maintain that the Chief Rabbinate alienates Israeli Jews from their Jewish heritage. Israel’s secular political leaders, having given the office over to the ultra- Orthodox politicians, perpetuate the powers given to the rabbinate by the state. The current elections for chief rabbis manifest the extent to which political horse-trading and behind-the-scenes deals play in determining the unholy future of the chief rabbinate; a drama almost reminiscent of an episode of Game of Thrones.

Throughout the lengthy campaigning for the Chief Rabbinate elections, the irony of the whole story sticks out like a sore thumb: The Chief Rabbinate is a completely foreign institution to Jewish history and tradition. It was created by the non-Jewish Ottoman Empire and continued through the British Mandate, not to strengthen Judaism in Palestine, but to meet the needs of these rulers.

Every year Hiddush publishes the Religion and State Index which repeatedly demonstrates that a decisive majority of the Jewish population in Israel supports the implementation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence’s promise to guarantee freedom of religion and conscience to all of its citizens.

Despite the public’s will, secular politicians have surrendered the control over marriage, conversion, kashrut and other critical areas of religious and everyday life to the religious “establishment” in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate blatantly contradicts the founding values of the State of Israel. Many state-funded and -empowered rabbis do not recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s civil laws and judiciary. The outgoing Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, for instance, explicitly wrote that the state’s laws and courts are considered “gentile.” He stated that Israel should be ruled by the laws of the Torah, and that continuation of the existence of civil courts and laws represents the “Sitra Achra” (an Aramaic term for Satan).

In the elections for the new chief rabbis, there are many proponents calling for a moderate figure. Many have claimed that if Rabbi David Stav (a modern-Orthodox rabbi and chair of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization) is elected Ashkenazi chief rabbi, the anachronistic religious establishment will become progressive and relevant. There is no doubt that Rabbi Stav’s smile is friendlier than his competitors’, but just like his ultra-Orthodox colleagues, Rabbi Stav vehemently opposes civil and non-Orthodox marriages and supports the concept of a coercive and monopolistic Chief Rabbinate. He has also attacked the Supreme Court for ruling that Israel must recognize non- Orthodox conversions.

While declaring a war on the bureaucracy in rendering rabbinic services, Rabbi Stav comes to the table empty-handed when it comes to providing answers for the 350,000 immigrants who have Jewish roots, but are not halachically Jewish and, therefore, according to current Israeli law cannot marry in Israel. Like his opponents, he would bar two-thirds of the next generation of American Jews from marrying in Israel because they are “not Jewish enough.” He has no intention to change the current situation for Israeli Jewish couples that wish to divorce and must go through the rabbinic courts regardless of how or where they married.

These are some of the serious and damaging issues that Israel has to deal with in the field of religion and state. Smiles will not solve these problems.

The role of a rabbi in Jewish tradition must not be understated.

Today there are thousands of rabbis all over the world who serve as a great source of inspirational leadership and influence in their respective communities. But these rabbis have merited the respect and honor from their communities without serving as a state-appointed “chief rabbi.” However, those who hold such titles are often considered irrelevant for a majority of their communities.

The answer is simple: Israel must stop giving rabbis, any rabbis [haredi, modern Orthodox or non- Orthodox], monopolistic or coercive authority. A rabbi’s authority and respect must come from the community that has chosen to accept him or her as their spiritual leader. I am by no means suggesting that Israel adopt the American model of complete separation of religion and state; Israel should be able to provide financial support for religious services in the same manner that cultural initiatives and sports are subsidized. But rabbis’ authority must come from their own voluntary communities and not be imposed by the state.

Subsidies and grants for religious services must be based on objective criteria and the country’s economic ability, similar to the guidelines that apply to other recipients of government assistance, not on political horse-trading.

Anyone who is worried about the possibility that Judaism wouldn’t be able to survive without “chief rabbis” should take a look at Jerusalem.

For the past 10 years, there has been not been a chief municipal rabbi in Israel’s capital and no one seems to notice the absence.

Israel is in desperate need of independent and visionary rabbinic leadership to provide Jewish inspiration, not edicts, to advocate for peace and Tikkun Olam, and serve as role models. We need rabbis who are driven by the biblical commandment, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” who internalize the meaning of a Jewish and democratic state, and are willing to celebrate its promise for religious freedom and equality, not undermine it.

Israel needs rabbis who are gifted with the halachic bravery to find creative, compassionate, solutions that are relevant for the challenges the Jewish people face today. This was the virtue of the great rabbis of old. Today, we are witnessing too many rabbinic leaders who have surrendered to the extremists. They either believe that any sort of Jewish innovation is forbidden or don’t dare to openly declare innovative solutions in the face of the growing rigidity and fundamentalism of the religious establishment.

Israel’s rabbis must bear a deep understanding of the needs of a diversified, pluralistic and often secular Jewish people. Our religious leaders must understand that realizing the Declaration of Independence’s promise for freedom of religious and conscience will only strengthen Jewish identity of individuals and society, as well as enhance the democratic character of the state. It will heal and intensify the Jewish state’s connection to the diverse myriads of Jewish communities around world.

This compelling vision for the future of Israeli rabbinic leadership is in direct contradiction to the misguided notion that we need state-appointed chief rabbis. Retiring the Chief Rabbinate will allow a new generation of rabbinic leadership relevant for 21st-century Israel to blossom and will restore the proper honor to the rabbinate and ensure a brighter future of Israeli Judaism and our solidarity with the rest of the Jewish People.

Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq., heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, an educational and advocacy for religious freedom and equality.


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