Middle Israel: A rabbinate begging redemption

Beyond Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger’s house arrest lurks an institution that has been in decline for decades.

June 27, 2013 22:00
Former chief rabbi Yona Metzger

CHIEF RABBI Yona Metzger 370. (photo credit: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

The Chief Rabbinate’s finest hour nearly arrived in 1959, when Boston-based Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was offered the opportunity to succeed Rabbi Isaac Herzog.

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.

With the two chief rabbis’ terms expiring next month, the arrest dramatized an already heated debate about the rabbinate’s purpose, condition and future.

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.

Under Rabbi 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.

Metzger, 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 mine.

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 donations.

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.

The result 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.

The rabbinate was a minor player in that debate, besides having ended up on the losing side.

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.

This was 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 again received.

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 half-century.

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 ruling.

Alas, the two quickly became rivals and then also sworn enemies.

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.

Meanwhile, the 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.

In 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 Jewish state.

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 elected.

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.

And more 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 Katsav’s.

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.

Paradoxically, Metzger’s 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 minister.

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.

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