Redundant rabbis or crucial chiefs?

Jerusalem to fill chief rabbi positions after over a decade of vacancy.

The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The election for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Jerusalem are set for this Tuesday after over a decade without anyone occupying these distinguished positions.
But many people are unaware that the capital has in fact been without any official rabbinical figureheads.
Several organizations and public figures have questioned the necessity of filling the posts.
The last serving Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem was Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz, who stepped down in 2002 due to ill health and died the following year at 81, while Rabbi Shalom Mashash, the former Jerusalem Sephardi chief rabbi, died the same year at 90.
The long delay between the passing of the previous incumbents and the elections for new chief rabbis was caused by protracted legal wrangling, which reached the High Court of Justice on numerous occasions, over how to select their replacements.
This was finally resolved earlier this year, and the 48-member electoral body comprised of 24 representatives from the local municipal council, according to the division of seats in the council, 12 designated by the religious services minister and 12 by different synagogues around the city.
The Jerusalem chief rabbis are to receive, as all other chief municipal rabbis do, a lifetime appointment till the age of 70, with the opportunity to extend their service till 75.
In addition to this lifetime appointment, they look to enjoy a generous salary, amounting to more than NIS 34,000 a month, or NIS 408,000 annually.
So what is the role a chief rabbi of a city? There is no distinction in the duties performed due to their respective Ashkenazi or Sephardi backgrounds.
Dr. Shuki Friedman, a law professor at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot and the head of the Religion and State project at the Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah lobbying group, says a municipal chief rabbi has little official authority as defined by law.
It is the local religious council and its various departments that deal with the bureaucracy of religious services such as marriage registration, kashrut licensing and other daily matters of religious life.
However, it is the municipal chief rabbi who sets halachic policy for the religious council. Questions of Jewish law pertaining to the provision of religious services in the city are generally decided by them, whether it is specific concerns regarding a marriage registration file, terms for receiving a kashrut license, questions relating to the city’s ritual baths and other religious infrastructure.
In addition to this general function, the chief rabbis of a city serve as the heads of its rabbinical court, if it has one, as Jerusalem does, which deals largely with issues of marriage and divorce.
They have informal influence in the allocation of funds provided to the local religious council by the local municipal authority and the Religious Services Ministry.
Money from the local religious council is used to fund the religious bureaucracy, provide religious services in the city such as kashrut, marriage and burial, as well as pay for the upkeep of religious infrastructure, including mikvaot and the eruv, a ritual boundary which permits people to carry on the Sabbath.
Although a municipal chief rabbi does therefore have significant influence in the provision of religious services in a given city, Jerusalemites have got married, found kosher restaurants to eat in, immersed in ritual baths and generally availed themselves of the daily religious services made available by the local religious council even without a municipal chief rabbi.
In this 10-year interim period, the heads of the local religious council departments have largely run the bureaucracy and taken the necessary decisions on halachic policy or asked a senior rabbi with whom they are close if a question was especially complex.
According to Friedman and Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, the very absence of municipal chief rabbis in Jerusalem proves that the position is to a large degree not needed.
“The elections for chief rabbis of Jerusalem have become dirtier by the day and involve political interests from every side,” Friedman told The Jerusalem Post in reference to the labyrinth of political deals and intrigues that have surrounded the run-up to the elections.
“Jerusalem has been without chief rabbis for 10 years and has got on just fine, which only proves the fact that the position is unnecessary and that the rabbinate must provide efficient religious services through directly elected neighborhood rabbis and local rabbis who serve for a limited period and have a connection with the public and whom the public is actually aware of,” he said.
“This is the only way the institution of the Chief Rabbinate will be able to save itself.”
Director of the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, attorney and Reform rabbi, Uri Regev argued that the position was unnecessary.
“Ten years without chief rabbis in Jerusalem proves how unnecessary the post is and that the city is better without them. It’s reasonable to assume that many religious wars have been averted because the positions were not filled,” Regev said.