Some years ago, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, then-chancellor of the Jewish Theological
Seminary, commented that the office of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel possessed
“not a scintilla of moral worth.”
Although surely a statement exaggerated
for effect, it did reflect widespread discontent among Jewish leaders both with
the office itself and its most recent occupants. Matters have grown worse since
then, particularly with respect to conversions, toward which the Chief Rabbinate
has taken an increasingly harder line. No longer a force for unity, and indeed,
a source of deep divisions within and outside Israel, the Chief Rabbinate has
clearly become an object of derision, even scorn in many quarters, both in
Israel and the Diaspora.
To be sure, in earlier decades the office of
chief rabbi, of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, had attracted
luminaries of Jewish scholarship and rabbinic leadership.
Sephardi chief rabbi took office in 1665; in 1921, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
became the first official Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Kook justly was acclaimed as
inclusive of all Jews. His motto, “That which unites us is greater than that
which divides us,” became the slogan for those seeking to bridge divides within
the Jewish world.
In the first decade of Israel’s statehood, Rabbi Isaac
Herzog hued to a similar path, asking how Jewish law best might function in a
modern democratic society. His Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, was
notable for his welcoming attitude to Jews outside the religious mainstream,
whether secular Jews, the Bene Israel of India, or those converting to Judaism,
especially if they were offspring of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. In
later years, chief rabbi Shlomo Goren likewise courageously adopted inclusive
stances on questions of personal status, marriage, and conversion.
recent decades, however, many of Goren’s successors have badly tarnished the
dignity of the office.
Shockingly, some Ashkenazi incumbents have been
non-Zionist rabbis, who attached little, if any, transcendental meaning or
purpose to a Jewish state.
Also dismayingly, some have utilized the
office as a “bully pulpit” to denigrate expressions of Judaism other than their
own. Almost all have insisted upon maintaining the monopoly of the Chief
Rabbinate on issues of personal status, most particularly conversion and the
human right of marriage. The net effect has been the alienation of the Israeli
public, as well as the overwhelming majority of American Jews, from the office
of the Chief Rabbinate, and, for many, from Judaism itself.
context, the upcoming election for a new Ashkenazi chief rabbi harbors
The prime minister usually exercises
considerable leverage, which is often reflective of which groups among his
coalition partners most ardently desire the office as a coalition
Given governmental political leverage, many within Israel call
upon Diaspora Jewry to let its voice be heard, inasmuch as the office affects
Jews worldwide and is meant to function as a symbol of Judaism in the public
Most interestingly, one member of the “Tzohar” or “enlightened”
rabbinate, Rabbi David Stav, has declared himself as candidate for Ashkenazi
chief rabbi. His supporters promise that his election will bring about no less
than a “social revolution benefiting the entire Jewish people,” primarily
through user-friendly customer service, enhancing the position of women,
particularly on questions of marriage and divorce and according women the right
to eulogize loved ones at funerals, and eliminating corruption in the kashrut
Many welcome these steps as desirable and long overdue.
Critics, however, argue that irrespective of who becomes chief rabbi, the more
fundamental problems of the relationship of synagogue to state and the monopoly
of the Chief Rabbinate over issues of personal status will continue. Nor are
they confident that the office will remain in the hands of enlightened rabbis,
given ongoing demographic currents within Israel’s Jewish population. For these
critics, abolition of the office itself is the sole solution. This argument for
abolition evokes limited yet significant resonance within modern- Orthodox
circles, both in Israel and the United States.
WHAT, THEN, should be
done? Calls for the abolition of the office remain unlikely to be realized in
the near- to mid-term future. Bureaucracies generally are slow to change,
especially when budgetary and human resources are at stake. The Orthodox
establishments, both in Israel and the United States, likely will defend the
status quo as far preferable to separating synagogue and state, for such
separation, in their view, means the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
the desire for significant change in the rabbinate is also widespread.
a recent AJC-sponsored colloquium on the Chief Rabbinate and its impact on
Israel-American Jewish ties, calls for major transformation were near-universal
among the 50 participants representing a broad cross-section of Jewish communal
By definition, a Jewish state necessitates a public role for
Judaism and Jewish religious leaders. Such leaders, however, need to be broadly
representative of all sectors of the Jewish people rather than of the interests
of a narrow grouping.
Still more importantly, the moral voice of Judaic
heritage needs to be heard on questions of private and public ethics. By
contrast, invoking the coercive power of the state to determine who has the
right to marry whom, the nature of an IDF soldier’s burial, or the legitimacy of
a convert’s intentions, gives rise only to derision at best, and anger and
alienation at worst.
The fundamental challenge therefore entails
abolishing the coercive power of the Chief Rabbinate, most notably with respect
to the crucial issues of personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion and
burial. Many modern-Orthodox leaders, both here and in Israel, to say nothing of
the leaders of the liberal religious streams, agree that the time is long
overdue to transform the Chief Rabbinate from an office that exercises coercive
power to one that entails moral influence. Shouldn’t Israel’s leadership be
listening to those voices for the sake of the Jewish state and, yes, the Jewish
people? Dov S. Zakheim chairs the American Jewish Committee’s Commission on
Contemporary Jewish Life. Steven Bayme serves as director for the William
Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department, AJC.