Both Chief Rabbis are in the news, doing their part to soothe or disturb in different corners of the complex phenomenon that is Judaism.
The Sephardi Chief Rabbi has weighed in on the issue of the Temple Mount, and has aroused the ire of Naftali Bennett, head of what considers itself a religious political party (Jewish Home) by insisting that Jews stay away from the place. His reasons are partly theological, but more pointedly in the rabbinic tradition to avoid arousing the goyim.
The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi has spoken out forcefully against those who are not Jewish according to Orthodox law, but who--in the view of this Chief Rabbi--are threatening Israel with what may be 15 or so million people who can claim a Jewish grandparent, thereby qualify for the Law of Return and could come and ruin the economy with their welfare demands. But many or not most of them are well-to-do. The rabbi does not mention that the real economic threat against Israel are the hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox already in the country, who are threatening its economy by virtue of their welfare demands, their insistence that that their countless children do not learn anything useful, and do little more than grow up to have more children, grandchildren etc etc who learn nothing practical and demand free meals and housing for endless generations.
Both Chief Rabbis are the sons of former Chief Rabbis, which is one insight into the politics involved in their selection. Also in the closet of the Chief Rabbinate is one predecessor said to be a womanizer, and another said to have an inclination toward little boys. The previous Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, has been charged with bribery, money laundering and income tax violations.
There are lots of reasons for bribing a chief rabbi. An industrial importer, or an Israeli industry may want a flexible inspection of what is kowher. And a rich father might want his less than qualified son appointed to a distinguished post under the control of the Chief Rabbi.
Chief Rabbis have also sullied the reputation of their office by selling their willingness to officiate at the weddings of the rich and famous of Israel and Jewish communities abroad. Some of those extravaganzas rival the wedding scene in Goodbye Columbus for their tasteless opulence.
The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef is certifiably ultra-Orthodox, being the son of Ovadia Yosef, the iconic founder of SHAS. His comments about provoking the goyim came at the funeral of a yeshiva student, the grandson of a senior Sephardi rabbi and a member of its rabbinic council, who died from injuries suffered in the most recent case of a Palestinian driving into a group of people waiting at a light rail station. According to Rabbi Yitzhak, it was provocation of the Muslims by misguided and extremist Jews wanting to expand Jew's rights on the Temple Mount that led to the boy's death.
The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, currently Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, well-known as a Holocaust survivor and Chairman of Yad Vashem, fits in the category of Hardal. This is a recently created amalgam of Haredi and Mafdal (the name of the Orthodox party that melded into Jewish Home), signifying a posture with Orthodox roots but that has moved toward the ultra-Orthodox.
The Chief Rabbis sit atop bureaucracies and courts of rabbis with branches in every Israeli city with a population of Jews. Its various offices deal with matters crucial to our personal lives and the national economy. Inspectors of kashrut affiliated with the Rabbinate approve or question details of food processing in some of the country's major industries and in every restaurant and hotel that wants a certificate of kashrute to hang prominently on its wall. Rabbinical bureaus certify Jews as entitled to marry in Israel, and send rabbis to officiate at the ceremony. The Rabbinate along with the Ministry of Health provides trained and licensed mohelim (circumcizers) who in almost every case will perform one of Judaism's most ancient rites while leaving the baby able to enjoy his masculinity in years to come. Rabbinical courts provide Israel's principal option for Jewish couples who wish to separate from one another, divide their assets and access to their children.
Judaism being what it is, there are several options to all of the above.
Some of them exist to the right of the official Rabbinate. The ultra-Orthodox seek to control the election of Chief Rabbis at the same time that they ignore their rulings. They rely on their own rabbis, with each community having its hierarchy of who knows how they bestow the title of most learned, or most esteemed student and judge of the law. There are also institutions of kashrut that compete with that of the official Rabbinate, with claims (for which they charge the industries, restaurants, and hotels), that they of more reliable in insisting that the food and wine of the faithful meets every jot and tittle of religious law. Look at a bottle of kosher wine from Israel, and see at least three certificates of kashrut.
A bit to the left of the Rabbinate are organizations of Orthodox rabbis who seek to serve Israel's secular majority. They offer help in maneuvering through the hoops of the Rabbinate to obtain a marriage license, send rabbis to officiate at weddings who are known for personalities and flexibility likely to please a crowd not enthusiastic about an overly heavy dose of religious ritual, and make it clear that they do not charge for the service. Orthodox rabbis also work against their more assiduous colleagues to ease the processes of Orthodox conversion to Judaism, and speak out against those who take extreme positions on issues concerned with the status of women.
And for those of us who wish even more separation from the religious establishment, Israel facilitates overseas marriages (among Jews or with who cares what antecedents) and divorces via civil officials, which the Interior Ministry registers as official with no inquiry into whether the rabbis might approve. There are also secular family courts that take some of the misery about a former couple's property and children from the rabbinical courts.
There is a rich tradition enjoyed by secular Jews who take pride in a culture without rabbis. It may be a historical stretch to see their line going back to the Hellenized Jews who are among the bad guys in the Chanukah story. Yet most modern Jews--even those who pray according to Orthodox rites on their way to work in universities or high tech industry--are Hellenized in their education and analytic culture. Look under the kipot, or at successful Jews who are not religious, and you'll find individuals who are more Greek than Judaic in the way they think.
The bastions of non-Orthodox religious Jews in the Diaspora, mostly the Reform and Conservative congregations of the United States, have not made significant inroads with Israelis who have distanced themselves from the Rabbinate. We're not looking for another religion is the response of secular Israelis who reject approaches by the non-Orthodox.
Intermarriage may be a threat. Likewise, the Palestinians, ISIS, and the naivete of Barack Obama and John Kerry. The Chief Rabbis and their establishments, along with their competitors among Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox rabbis are not a threat, but for many they are a nuisance. Thinking in history, the list of what has threatened or only annoyed Jews is a long one.
We should not relax, but Jews may not know how to relax.