In a number of his recent sermons to the Ramot Gimmel Young Israel Congregation in Jerusalem, Rabbi Shmuel Slotki has addressed the massive political and social crisis we are facing in Israel. Without taking sides or voicing an opinion as to the merits of the judicial reform or revolution (depending on your point of view,) he has, with a calm and quiet eloquence, sourced the weekly Torah readings, providing spiritual perspective, purpose, and direction to most of us middle-of-the-road Israelis who may have opinions either way, but fear for the future of the social fabric of our fragile country.
While these lines cannot possibly do justice to the depth of his thoughts, here are the themes he has referenced. He spoke of the decision to appoint the more conciliatory Joshua as Moses’ successor despite the better qualifications of Caleb, who was a dogmatic, uncompromising ideologue.
Another sermon centered on the internal strife caused by the demand of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to remain on the eastern banks of the Jordan, outside the boundaries of the Promised Land. Part of the compromise fashioned by Moses was to allot land to the conciliatory tribe of Manasseh straddling both sides of the river, thereby creating an unbreakable connection between all the fractious factions of the nascent nation. We also heard of the state of society in ancient Israel, leading up to the mass devastation and destruction in ancient temple times, and modern parallels.
Rabbi Slotki has been praised by congregants expressing their gratitude for his wisdom and leadership at this time of confusion and alienation. His words serve as guidance at a time when they are so sorely needed. It is a great shame that his, and the thoughts of others like him, are not heard by a greater audience.
Israel's chief rabbis stay silent in a time of great division
AGAINST THIS background, the silence of our two chief rabbis is thunderously indicative of the abject state of these once meaningful and relevant positions. One would imagine, that as the appointed spiritual leaders of our flock, they would be seen and heard on media, in synagogues and auditoria, charismatically calling for conciliation and unity as we flounder in unchartered waters, churned by animosity. To the best of my knowledge, there has been nary a word uttered by Rabbi’s Lau and Yosef throughout all of these months.
Is it legitimate to expect that our chief rabbis be such leaders? The definition of their roles as per their official website includes, “… a representative and leadership role: the rabbis appear before the diverse Israeli public, and give lectures on a variety of acute topics relevant to daily Israeli socio-national life: relations between religion and state… concern for others and the needy, and more...”
Looking back, we remember, among others, the profound mystical writings of the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook; the passionate speeches and proclamations of Rabbi Shlomo Goren; the activism and groundbreaking halachic rulings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef; and the remarkable eloquence and unifying persona of Rabbi Meir Lau.
You may or may not have agreed with them. After all, even Mordechai, who together with Esther saved the Jewish diaspora, earned the approval of just “a majority of his brothers.” But these were personalities who had the courage to take a stand, and were a source of thought and insight for so many who revered their wisdom and words. Sadly, if there is anything we remember about the recent crop, it is that the previous Ashkenazi incumbent subsequently served a jail term for bribery, corruption, tax fraud, and obstruction of justice.
The names Lau and Yosef are the key to understanding why leadership is no longer one of the job requirements for these towering titles. In the Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Shimon teaches us that “there are three crowns, the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of royalty.”
The crowns of royalty and priesthood are granted on a hereditary basis. However, for good reason, the crown of Torah is bestowed on the basis of meritocracy, or ought to be. And when it is not, no grand appellation or headgear can disguise the state of bankruptcy of the institution.
The position of chief rabbi, which has a ten-year tenure, has become a political tool and the province of members of a few elite families who monopolize it. This titular crown of Torah is now worn by two sons of previous office holders. Family connection in itself should not disqualify a prospective candidate but it must not be the stepping stone for those unworthy of the position.
POSTS OVER the past two months on the Facebook page of the Chief Rabbinate at the time of writing, concern themselves almost exclusively with the examinations that are currently being taken by 2,800 prospective rabbis. Every single one of the subjects the candidates are tested on relates to aspects of halacha, almost all of them ritual in nature. To the best of my understanding, there are no requirements relating to pastoral leadership.
The solution to this loss of direction is for the power to be vested in the people. We must demand a reform, or revolution if you will, that transforms the Chief Rabbinate from a bastion for functionaries, to a source of pride and inspiration for Israelis on all sides of the great divide as well as for Jews around the world.
Given the performance of the latter holders of this office, the argument that only the “experts” are qualified to know who is best, is absurd. How about a once-in-seven-year general election, where the citizens of the country elect the president and chief rabbis? (It must be noted that the current president, whose father and grandfather held distinguished offices, is proving to be an outstanding exception to his sorry counterparts at Heichal Shlomo.)
Rabbi Shimon concludes his list of crowns with a fourth one. “The crown of a good name is greater than the others.” What we desperately need are spiritual leaders who have built a reputation for themselves based on their own lofty values and actions, to be present and active in guiding us through the storm so that we may emerge from it with our nation and families intact.
In the meantime, given the current unfortunate affairs of state and religion, we will continue to draw sage guidance from Rabbi Slotki and his kind.
The writer produces ‘Gift of a Lifetime’ videos for people wanting to pass on their life’s story and values to their offspring.