The Chief Rabbinate’s finest hour nearly arrived in 1959, when Boston-based
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was offered the opportunity to succeed Rabbi
A versatile genius whose Talmudic authority, educational
achievements and philosophical originality won the respect of ultra-Orthodox
rabbis and secular Zionists as well as non-Jewish thinkers, Soloveitchik could
have brought to the Chief Rabbinate what Stanley Fischer brought to the Bank of
Israel: Admiration, gravitas and relevance.
But Soloveitchik said no, and
the rabbinate was abandoned to the devices of Israeli politics, which slowly led
it to the decline that last week landed it in the nadir of its 92-year history:
Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger’s house arrest on corruption charges.
two chief rabbis’ terms expiring next month, the arrest dramatized an already
heated debate about the rabbinate’s purpose, condition and
Established by a foreign government and originally led by one of
the greatest modern- era rabbis, the Chief Rabbinate was born an entirely
different creature from the one that now awaits redemption.
Abraham Isaac Kook, who died in 1935, the rabbinate was prestigious, as he was a
leading Talmudist, original thinker, prolific writer and a worldly intellectual
who befriended and advised academics, literati and politicians.
universally seen as a rabbinical lightweight, never pretended to be a thinker or
jurist. He was, however, hyperactive as a wedding-officiator, a ceremonial task
for which he reportedly charged up to $1,000, at times performing five weddings
in one evening – scooting through jammed intersections from one canopy to the
next on a Suzuki motorbike – and turning the rabbinate into a small gold
The thought that the man on the motorbike became Kook’s successor
made many observant Zionists fume, even before he was sent last week to house
arrest, reportedly in the wake of suspected embezzlement of
Yet Metzger’s situation is but a symptom of steady
institutional decline since the heady days when Kook thought he was building the
Jewish nation’s moral compass.
Kook wanted the rabbinate to serve not
only the observant public and to deal not only with religious law, but to
morally oversee society, including its secular leadership.
True to his
vision, that Zionism was the beginning of the messianic era, Kook sought a
bridge – not only between Jews of all walks, but between the past’s exile and
the future’s redemption.
This combination of inclusive philosophy and
outgoing personality made him an asset to secular Zionist leaders. The British
also saw Kook as useful for dialoguing with Palestine’s Jews.
of all this was indeed a moral authority of a sort the rabbinate never returned
to wield. After Kook’s death, the rabbinate took sides in the debate over the
1937 partition proposal, joining its many opponents, which at the time ranged
from liberal academics to Marxist kibbutzniks.
That episode exposed the
limits of Kook’s original quest, to restore the clout of the ancient Sanhedrin
that sat in the Temple and issued laws to the entire Jewish people.
rabbinate was a minor player in that debate, besides having ended up on the
This is how once the state was established, the rabbinate
shrank from Kook’s moral compass to a bureaucracy that oversees marriage,
authorizes divorce, administers conversion, supervises kashrut and presides over
a court system that handles Jewish matrimony and also civil cases, when both
sides choose it as an arbitrator.
This alone made the rabbinate anathema
to many secularists who found it overbearing, but for decades the chief rabbis
themselves were still respected as scholars, even by the ultra-Orthodox, who
derided the Chief Rabbinate itself as secular Zionism’s tool.
particularly so in the early 1970s, when the Chief Rabbinate last stood a chance
to become nationally relevant, a chance it squandered spectacularly and never
BACK in 1921, the British decided, in typical
Machiavellianism, to split the Rabbinate and appoint two chief rabbis, one
Sephardi and one Ashkenazi. Kook and his colleague, Rabbi Jacob Meir, lived in
harmony, as did all pairs of chief rabbis during the rabbinate’s first
That is why the appointments in 1972 of Rabbis Ovadia Yosef
and Shlomo Goren were seen as having great promise, especially because the two
brought with them not only great scholarly credentials, but also what most chief
rabbis lacked: charisma, vision and daring.
Goren came after having built
the IDF’s chaplaincy, a task that involved rulings on situations Jewish law had
not faced since the Roman era, like holding maneuvers on Saturday, dietary laws
on the battlefield or marrying a missing soldier’s wife. Yosef, at the same
time, had earned respect as a juridical genius and a proud Iraqi-born Jew who
ruled according to Sephardi tradition even when there was a contrary Ashkenazi
Alas, the two quickly became rivals and then also sworn
What sparked their rivalry was Goren’s ruling that two siblings,
whose mother bore them from a second husband without divorcing the first, could
marry despite the Jewish law that forbids bastards to marry for 10 generations.
Yosef disagreed, and the two’s rivalry soon became public, nasty and legendary,
but there was more to it than ego.
Socially, Yosef was fueled by the
sense of ethnic insult that would soon help bring the Likud to power and later
give rise to Shas.
Goren was a product of the veteran establishment, a
longtime colleague and personal friend of powerful leaders Moshe Dayan and
Yitzhak Rabin, who had also worked directly opposite the state’s first prime
minister David Ben-Gurion and all of his successors.
As an extension of
this social context, Goren planned to open in the rabbinate new outreach
departments aimed at secular Israelis and Diaspora Jewry. But this quest was
torpedoed by Yosef, whose social focus was on the Israeli working classes that
he would later excite and mobilize by establishing Shas.
two also sparred theologically, as Goren opposed the West Bank’s potential trade
for peace, whereas Yosef ruled that land could be traded for peace.
short, by the early 1980s, the rabbinate that Kook had envisioned as a social
healer became a microcosm of the political tensions that were besetting the
The Goren-Yosef clash debilitated the rabbinate, so much so
that in 1983, both were replaced and a new law limited any chief rabbi’s tenure
to one 10-year term.
Yet the politicians’ real cure for the rabbinate was
keep charisma away from it.
That is how the rabbinate became an anecdote.
First, it was handed to Rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordecai Eliyahu, who
remained little-known outside their own circles and turned the rabbinate into an
obscure branch of the Greater Israel movement. Then the baton passed to rabbis
Yisrael Meir Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi- Doron, who admitted that they were
answering to other rabbis – the non-Zionists who got them
Metzger was the aftermath of this process, installed by
ultra-Orthodox rabbis out to devalue what Modern Orthodoxy still believes should
be the model for a future Sanhedrin.
WHILE THESE dynamics of decline led
to what now seems like decay, Israel faced new challenges that could have made
the rabbinate relevant.
The arrival in Israel of a large immigration of
partial Jews demanded religious leadership, authority and daring of the sort
once displayed by Yosef, whose ruling that Ethiopian Jewry is Jewish allowed its
airlifting here. Yet the rabbinate remained a captive of ultra-Orthodox rabbis
who are hostile to the new immigration.
The rabbinate also remained
irrelevant in purely moral struggles, like the war on trafficking in women, a
marginality that would be unthinkable in Kook’s vision.
technically, the proliferation of offshore marriages in order to avoid contact
with the rabbinate is widely seen as a voting by the feet against a system in
bad need of an overhaul.
Metzger may be legally innocent, but if the
rabbinate is to become socially relevant, then his successor will still have to
do to Metzger’s office what President Shimon Peres did to Moshe
As the succession struggle accelerates, there is a
more-of-the-same atmosphere, with candidates including the sons of three former
chief rabbis, while some try to amend the law and extend Sephardi Chief Rabbi
Shlomo Amar’s term.
The candidate who is seen as representing change is
David Stav, the 53-year-old rabbi of Shoham who has won the endorsement of Bayit
Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett and the condemnation of Yosef, who called him
“wicked” for reasons he neglected to detail.
arrest improves the chances of Stav, an affable Sabra who served as a community
rabbi in Belgium and also as religious film school Ma’ale’s rabbi, before
co-founding a yeshiva in Petah Tikva with Rabbi Shai Piron, when neither of the
two thought in his wildest dreams that Piron would become today’s education
Piron, Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s No. 2 in the Yesh
Atid faction, is working hard to realize an even wilder dream, making Stav chief
rabbi of Israel. Neither has illusions about Stav fully filling Kook’s shoes,
but that does not mean he cannot try to lead the rabbinate away from where it
has come today, and closer to where it began.
Considering where the
rabbinate has now arrived – that should not be difficult.