To be or not to be?

Local leaders fail to see the importance of filling the position of chief rabbi.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Shas party flex political muscle to see the appointment of Yosef's son as the next chief rabbi of Jerusalem, many of the city's leaders, religious and otherwise, are playing down the post as either unimportant or completely unnecessary. In 2003, the chief Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis of Jerusalem passed away, effectively ending the reign of that institution in the city. No replacements have been appointed, mainly due to the inaction of Jerusalem's religious council, which oversees the reelection of such figures. Selecting a figure that enjoys the respect and loyalty of Jerusalem's myriad religious groups, it seems, has proven difficult. But if the elder Yosef gets his way, that reality may very well change soon, as two of his sons are being considered for the post. Two Ashkenazi rabbis, Yosef Efrati and Dovid Grossman, are also being considered. Whether or not the position will once again be split between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, however, remains to be seen. While the Shas spiritual leader continues to closely follow developments on the matter, other local leaders are dismissing the efficacy of the appointment, questioning its potential influence in a city that already has more than its share of religious leaders. "If you told me that Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Moshe Feinstein were going to be the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, that would be important," says Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag, a leading Ashkenazi halachic authority who himself was a possible candidate for the job. "But I don't think we are discussing anyone who has the ability to preside over such a large and diverse community as Jerusalem. There are so many different groups and Jerusalem is such a special place, that I don't think it will really make a difference if there is a chief rabbi or not." Even the Reform movement seems to be in agreement with Ralbag over the lack of influence such a figure might have on the city's religious environment. "With us, the whole story of having a chief rabbi of Jerusalem is just another setback that distances us from the rabbinate," says Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Committee. "In this particular situation there's more politics involved than religion, more special interest than spirituality. We're standing on the side and basically saying, 'We told you so' as far as the need for a separation between religion and state. If there's a rav or not, it will influence one thing - that rabbi's bank account." Also weighing in against the need for such a post is Meretz city councilor Pepe Alalu. "A chief rabbi will do little to solve the problems facing Jerusalem," he says. "The problems of demographics, education, culture - these problems will exist with or without a chief rabbi of Jerusalem, and in my opinion it's an unnecessary step." The appointment process itself is also no stranger to controversy. In October 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signed new regulations, at Shas's request, for appointing city rabbis, which increased the religious services minister's power in electing city rabbis. Prior to the new regulations every city, along with its religious council, had the power to elect its rabbi. Now the religious services minister has control over three of the five members of the rabbis' election committee. The committee approves each city's election assembly, which in turn elects a city rabbi. The committee is composed primarily of synagogue managers and representatives of the local authority. But following Olmert's signing of the new regulations, the Union of Local Authorities (ULA) petitioned the High Court, arguing that the regulations were depriving the local authorities of their ability to determine who would serve as rabbi. The High Court suspended the regulations and sent Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen to reach an agreement with the petitioners. But debates on the matter have yet to make any headway. "As much as a head rabbi is important, he doesn't deal with all the day-to-day things," says Ralbag. "In the end, people will rely on their rabbis, the rabbis who are out there checking [kashrut, etc.]. Ultimately, Jerusalem won't feel the change with a rav or without one."