Think about it: Who needs chief rabbis?

Rabbi David Stav, at least offers the promise of turning the rabbinate into a place less bureaucratic and more friendly.

Yonah Metzger 521 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yonah Metzger 521
(photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
To many of us the whole hullabaloo around the election of Israel’s new chief rabbis is distasteful at best, and at times even nauseating.
The whole idea of a single rabbinate and two chief rabbis, is in fact quite foreign to the Jewish tradition and ethos. In fact, we must thank the Ottoman Empire on the one hand, and the British Mandatory government on the other, for this heritage, of which we seem incapable of ridding ourselves.
The position of “Rishon LeZion” – today the Sephardi chief rabbi – dates back to the year 1665, when the Ottomans ruled Palestine, and was held by the rabbi of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. In 1921, under the first (Jewish) British High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, it was decided to appoint two chief rabbis – one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, and the Chief Rabbinate was created, embodying a whole setup of religious services, including religious courts, which had existed already in the Ottoman period.
In the pre-state reality, the existence of a Chief Rabbinate, headed by two chief rabbis (both Orthodox, since there were very few Conservative or Reform Jews in the country at the time), side by side with non-religious representative institutions of the Yishuv, established on the basis of the 1926 Religious Communities Ordinance, was a manifestation of the communal autonomy enjoyed by the Jewish community under the British Mandate.
The decision to preserve the religious aspect of this arrangement after the establishment of Israel in 1948 was part of David Ben-Gurion’s concept of upholding a certain religious status quo, which would constitute the basis for a semblance of peaceful coexistence between the secular and religious sections of the Israeli society.
It should be noted that Ben-Gurion had no intention of turning Israel into a religious state, and beyond the issues of kashrut in state and public institutions, the non-provision of public transportation on Shabbat, and a religious monopoly in the provision marriage, divorce and burial services, Israel was to remain secular.
For several decades the religious status quo, and the functioning of the Chief Rabbinate, rarely raised strong controversies or resentment. However, especially after the political upheaval of 1977, which brought Menachem Begin to power, and the enactment of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel Law in 1980, things started to change.
The fact that the rabbinate rapidly became an important bastion of power, through the ability to provide jobs to thousands of religious functionaries, increased the number of religious factors vying for control over it, and opened the door to both institutional and personal corruption, of which the current investigation against Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, on suspicions of his having received bribes, is a symptom.
If in the past people like myself were inclined to accept the status quo as a necessary compromise, even though on a personal level some of us suffered unnecessary humiliations, justified on halachic grounds, in the process of receiving the religious services that were forced on us, today we are increasingly disposed to view the reality as an irksome, bureaucratic farce, which has lost whatever anthropological charm it might have had in the past.
For around 300,000 immigrants who have arrived in Israel since 1990 on the basis of the Law of Return, but who are not considered Jews according to halacha, the rabbinate and its rabbis represent little more than a locked door, and a barrier to finding some logical way out of their impossible civil status.
The straw that has broken the camel’s back in the eyes of many of us is the current campaign. Not only is it an ugly contest for the positions of two functionaries, who head an institution which provides services that we would not require if this were a truly liberal state, free of any religious coercion, but it transpires that at least some of the religious parties and groups that are directly involved in the contest represent communities (mostly haredi ones) that avoid using the services of the rabbinate, and use alternative services provided by non-state institutions.
These forces are involved in the contest, despite their communities’ boycott of the the services provided by the Rabbinate, for reasons directly related to the economic and political power that the positions and the institutions have to offer to those who control them.
However, the most deplorable event connected with the current contest is the treatment that one particular candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi – the only candidate with even minimal appeal to those of us who despise the current set-up – is receiving from powerful religious circles.
I am referring to Rabbi David Stav, who at least offers the promise of turning the rabbinate into a place less bureaucratic and more friendly to those requiring its services.
The reason people like me feel empathy for Rabbi Stav, despite the fact that he is no more relevant to our daily lives than any of the other candidates, is the outrageous attack on him by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Recently the old rabbi (who himself served as a very popular Rishon LeZion in the years 1972-83) termed Stav a “rasha merusha” (a most wicked person), who poses a danger to Judaism – and a “klum” (nothing).
As a result of the flow of slanderous profanity coming from the revered rabbi’s mouth, Rabbi Stav has been all but physically attacked by pious followers of the spiritual leader of Shas, besides being ostracized in both Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredi religious circles.
And why is all this happening? Because Rabbi Stav heads a body called “the Zohar rabbis,” which believes in showing the secular community a more friendly and affable face – without making any compromises on halachic issues – and offers seculars Orthodox marriage services that have gained popularity in recent years.
Unfortunately, at this juncture it seems unlikely anyone will even attempt to introduce any major change in the status and powers of the Chief Rabbinate, and the alienation of large sections of the population from it is therefore likely to continue to grow.
What sort of change would I like to see, if change were possible? While I believe that the state should continue to offer and provide religious services to all those who require them, these services should be offered at the communal or municipal level, and in the case of Jewish services, should not be limited to any particular stream of Judaism. The Chief Rabbinate, in its current form, has no role to play in such a setup.
In addition, I believe that the religious monopoly on marriage, divorce and burial services should be formally ended, and that every inhabitant of Israel should have the right to get married and divorced, or be buried in whatever form she or he pleases. But that is already a separate, even if related, issue.

The writer is a retired Knesset employee.