The rise and fall of the Chief Rabbinate and Benedict XVI

The election of Israel's chief rabbis would benefit greatly if it heeded the lessons from the papacy.

Pope Benedict XVI 521 (photo credit: GPO/MCT)
Pope Benedict XVI 521
(photo credit: GPO/MCT)
Pope Benedict XVI has just left, and soon our Israeli chief rabbis will follow suit. The difference is that Benedict left on his own accord, much to the dismay of many in the Church, while our chief rabbis, whose terms of office have ended, are forced to step down—sadly, very much to the delight of many Israelis.
Besides the many internal church problems, Benedict might have felt sandwiched between the Old Catholic teachings according to which he was raised, and the new Christianity, which his predecessor John Paul II initiated and which he himself was partially responsible for introducing, though he didn’t want to admit it. It is possible that this gnawed at his conscience and eventually led to his resignation.
Our chief rabbis have not yet realized what Benedict already understood. They too are sandwiched between a new religious Jewish world and the old manifestation of Judaism. They have not yet recognized the fact that a vast new horizon has opened up, which demands a new and bold religious Judaism that will inspire and make itself and halacha (Jewish law) desirable to the Israeli mainstream. Benedict understood that his guidelines were no longer what the Church needed. He realized that the Church would move on without him, but he didn’t want to compromise his principles, so he stepped down. That shows courage and integrity.
The late John Paul II was a man with broad shoulders who sometimes ignored Catholic fundamentals and changed the rules of the papacy. He traveled his own way, literally and figuratively. He could do this because he was not the typical Catholic theologian; he was too great for that. John Paul was involved with too much ad extra, working outside the church, and too little ad intra, dealing with issues within the Church—its dogmas and “facts of faith.” But it worked wonders. He brought millions back to Catholicism.
In contrast to Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Chacham Benzion Uziel and some other great and innovative Israeli chief rabbis, those who were in office during the last two generations have shown to be dedicated followers of Benedict’s approach, and not of John Paul’s. They believed in the conventional and were scared of innovation. They did not stand up against rabbinical rulings and ideologies that would no longer work. Like Benedict, they, who were meant to lead, brought their religion to an impasse and showed a lack of courage when it came to making necessary changes such as finding a solution to the agunah (women who are refused a writ of divorce from their husbands)  problem.      
The difference however, is that Benedict is a much greater theologian than any of our later chief rabbis. He has shown an incredible amount of theological creativity. But this was his undoing. What does a man do with such brilliant new insights when he needs to compress them into mainstream Catholicism and conservatism? In the end, he drowned in his own knowledge and then discovered that he needed to start swimming in order to stay afloat, only to realize that his conservatism again began to gnaw at his conscience and pulled him under once more.
Our later chief rabbis, some of them very righteous and willing to make great personal sacrifices, have lacked theological and philosophical background. They have remained exclusively in the “dalet amot shel halacha” (the four cubits of Jewish law) and have seemingly never studied secular or general religious philosophy. Nor have they seriously studied any Jewish theology (this is perhaps the wrong term to use in the context of Judaism). Consequently, they are unable to compete with Jewish or non-Jewish philosophers and clergy. This is also the reason why they have not the slightest influence on the academic world, unlike Rav Kook who never set foot in a university yet influenced generations of academics who wrote many doctoral theses on his philosophy.
Our chief rabbis have not accomplished anything even close to what Benedict did. Benedict wrote masterpieces of Catholic theology, all of which reflect his creative thinking. His famous Ratzinger Report is one of the finest works ever written. His diagnosis of the problems facing the church is mind-boggling, though he took a very conservative stand. Yet, profound works on the state of Judaism today have never been penned by our chief rabbis.
John Paul II can be facetiously dubbed a “Christian Chabadnik” in that he propagated a worldwide “ba’al teshuva” (returning to the faith) movement, aiding the disintegration of Communism and bringing his message to millions of people by traveling to all corners of the earth. But to do so effectively he knew he had to bend the rules and realized that novelty had to be his trademark. He simply suspended himself over the planet and landed wherever he wanted. Archbishop Michael Miller said that “from the moment John Paul II stepped out onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he simply dominated that space. He looked like he had been pope forever.” In the press coverage from those early years, the Pope was dubbed “God’s athlete.” With a passion for the outdoors, the Pope partook in skiing ventures, climbed mountains and swam.  
Sure, on his many travels he sometimes missed the runway, but he didn’t care so much. He just took his plane elsewhere and landed right on the mark. He inspired, had immense chutzpah and drew crowds as no one else ever did in Catholic history. True, he was condemned for focusing too much on the messenger and not enough on the message. But he had good reason to do so. His teachings were the outgrowth of his personality; they depended on him and not on the long-running and constant tradition of the Church. Not only did he have the ideal personality for this, but he realized that Catholicism had to be reshaped. It had to do away with its “theology of contempt” toward the Jews, its hatred for anybody who did not believe in the canon of Catholicism. He knew that it needed a complete overhaul and that it had to admit to the “truth possibility” of other religions—first and foremost, of Judaism—and even forms of secularism.
But where have our chief rabbis been? Have they ever dominated the world with startling new insights, or with remarkable humor such as John Paul’s? Have they surprised us with their audacity, reaching far beyond the borders of the Jewish people, causing shock waves the world over? Have they studied—in depth—Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, the teachings of the Reform and Conservative movements, the works of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or the works of Buber, Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, David Hartman, Tamar Ross, and Arthur Green? Have they tried to learn from them even if they don’t agree with some of their ideas?
Did they climb intellectual mountains, have the chutzpah to go their own way, and see the need for an overhaul of Orthodox Judaism? Did they ever work through religious doubt and feel the pain? And if not, how can they guide the tens of thousands of Israelis who do experience doubt, but still love Judaism and wish to connect to it? Do the chief rabbis realize that it is entirely impossible to apply halacha, as developed in the Diaspora, to conditions in the State of Israel, and that there is much more to halacha than what is stated in its traditional codes?   
Perhaps they should take an example from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is about to retire from the British Chief Rabbinate. He is the paradigm for a man who is at home in today’s intellectual climate; prepared to have an open debate with Jewish and gentile secular thinkers and scientists, he is a man who has been conveying the great message and relevance of Judaism to top intellectuals, members of the British Government including prime ministers, and even to archbishops.    
It is true that our chief rabbis are victims of an education that did not   challenge or stimulate them to see far beyond the limited horizons of those institutions where they studied. But the time has come for the Knesset to ensure that we do not repeat this mistake. It is the government’s obligation to appoint chief rabbis who combine the powerful personality and chutzpah of John Paul II with the intellectual creativity of Benedict XVI.
And if there is nobody to choose from, we should build yeshivas of a different kind, where students’ leadership and intellectual abilities can be nurtured, so that at the election in a few years time there will be a list of outstanding candidates to choose from. And would it not be equally prudent to choose a chief rabbi whose wife is also a standup personality in her own right? Admittedly, it will be a while before we can ask the same of the pope!