Analysis: Events surrounding chief rabbi cast dark shadow

As the political battles over control of established religion in Israel become ever sharper and more vicious, it may become ever harder to prevent the ongoing decline in legitimacy of the chief rabbinate.

June 23, 2013 21:01
Rabbi Metzger

Rabbi Metzger. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

As if the Chief Rabbinate was not under enough scrutiny with the unseemly shenanigans surrounding the upcoming election of new chief rabbis, the dramatic events surrounding the investigation of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger for financial improprieties have served to cast an even darker shadow over the once-respected institution.

The current investigation into Metzger, which is not his first as chief rabbi and not even his second as an ordained rabbi, is just one of several recent indicators of the grave crisis of legitimacy facing Israel’s rabbinate.

Indeed, Metzger’s appointment in 2003 was seen by many as a haredi ploy to weaken the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, given his lack of credentials, especially compared to the other prominent candidates at the time: the much respected national-religious leader Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan; and the equally wellconsidered rabbi and rabbinical judge Shlomo Daichovsky, who is currently the director of the state rabbinical courts system.

But the leading haredi rabbi of the time, the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, decided to back Metzger, despite his slight credentials, which secured Metzger the election due to the strength of the haredi parties in the electoral committee for the Chief Rabbinate.

Metzger was the first chief rabbi to be elected who was not qualified as a rabbinical judge, an important component of the position of chief rabbi since the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis alternate as president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

Because of this situation, legislation had to be passed in 2008 to allow Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stay on as president for a second five-year period instead of Metzger. This has not prevented Metzger from sitting as Supreme Rabbinical Court judge during his time as chief rabbi.

Metzger also lacked experience, having served as the neighborhood rabbi of north Tel Aviv before his election to Ashkenazi chief rabbi, but never having served as a chief municipal rabbi.

This was not a concern for Elyashiv, however, since the haredi community pays scant regard to the Chief Rabbinate anyway, and members of the haredi public have very little occasion to avail themselves of its services. They do not rely on the kashrut certification of the rabbinate and mostly use independent haredi rabbinical courts and non-rabbinate-affiliated rabbis for life-cycle events.

Aside from the particular personalities presently involved in the institution, the current contest for the Chief Rabbinate and the heavy politicking that has gone with it have also served to diminish the respect for and legitimacy of the institution.

In particular, two political deals were floated in recent months by conservative elements in Bayit Yehudi’s rabbinic leadership and by Shas to enable Rabbi Yaakov Ariel to stand again, despite his age ruling him out, and Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stand for reelection despite the law ruling this out.

Although both deals ultimately fell through, the protracted and ardent efforts of the political factions to change the law for the benefit of their desired candidates left the impression that the position of chief rabbi has less to do with the candidate’s qualities and credentials as a spiritual leader, and more to do with their ability to wrangle and cajole politicians.

Aside from its leadership, the sprawling, unruly nature of the Chief Rabbinate has also been greatly responsible for the increasing dissatisfactions with the institution in general.

Stifling bureaucracy has led to an increase in civil marriage abroad, and the absence of disciplinary procedures for officials in local religious councils has created a staff so unaccountable that former religious services minister Ya’acov Margi of Shas described some of these bodies as “a law unto themselves.”

Although local religious councils are subject to the authority of the Religious Services Ministry and not directly to the Chief Rabbinate, both institutions have been mutually tainted by their status as indivisible parts of the established state synagogue.

One organization that has sought to resurrect the image of Judaism in Israel from its current nadir is the national-religious Tzohar group. By being independent and attentive to its audience, mostly secular Israelis in need of services for life-cycle events such as marriage, it has become extremely popular and its services are increasingly sought after.

Its popularity has risen so much that the prominent light of the Tzohar rabbinical association, its chairman Rabbi David Stav, is now a leading candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi and has the political backing of coalition parties Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu and Hatnua.

But Stav’s liberalizing ideas and desire to revamp and modernize the rabbinate has created such intense opposition, not only from the haredi leadership but from the conservative wing of the nationalreligious movement as well, that even if he were to be elected, which is far from guaranteed, the Chief Rabbinate could end up with even less legitimacy.

A situation in which the both the hardal, conservative, sector of the national-religious community and the haredi sector do not respect or honor the Chief Rabbinate would be another blow to the authority of the institution.

It is in this milieu that calls for the decentralization and even dismantlement of the Chief Rabbinate will continue to grow. And while it is perhaps not surprising that organizations promoting religious freedom, such as Hiddush, are in favor of disestablishment, and that Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On called earlier this month for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate, the notion is gaining currency among Orthodox actors as well.

The national-religious organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah has for some time been promoting a communal model for religious services in the country that would radically overhaul the current system.

Instead, it would put control of religious life to a much greater extend in the hands of congregations and communities and wrest it from the centralized government authorities, the Religious Services Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate.

As the political battles over control of established religion in Israel become ever sharper and more vicious, it may become even harder to prevent the ongoing decline in legitimacy of the Chief Rabbinate.

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