Wanted: Two chief rabbis, down and dirty

It is no easy task to be the rabbi of this diverse, demanding, distinctive community of Israel. But if you dare to run for the office, you had better be prepared to meet that challenge.

311_Amar and Metzger at Joseph's Tomb (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Amar and Metzger at Joseph's Tomb
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first chief rabbi of the IDF, served with distinction as Israel’s chief rabbi from 1973 to 1983.
As his term was ending, he petitioned that he – as well as then- Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef – be permitted to serve another 10-year term as Israel’s spiritual leaders. When that petition was turned down, Rabbi Goren was said to have remarked, “You may as well abolish the office itself, because there will never again be a chief rabbi as great as Ovadia or myself!”
Rabbi Goren may have been just a tad too outspoken, but, alas, he was quite correct. Few chief rabbis in the three decades since have approached Rav Goren or Rav Ovadia in either scholarship or spiritual courage. Indeed, Rav Ovadia remains the Sephardi “go-to guy” in virtually all religious matters, far overshadowing whoever happens to hold the official title at that moment.
And the gap becomes even more glaring when we compare modern holders of the office to the giants of the past, most notably Rav Kook, Israel’s charismatic first chief rabbi who set the standard for all to follow, and Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, an out-and-out genius and recipient of the Israel Prize who held several PhDs in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of all Jewish subjects.
In fact, the decline in stature of our chief rabbis has led many, both without and within the observant community, to question whether we really need the office at all.
WHY THIS precipitous decline in caliber and capability of the chief rabbinate has occurred is a subject of much debate.
After all, we certainly have no lack of serious talmidim hachamim studying today in the hundreds of yeshivot that dot the land. And modern technology has made it infinitely easier to access text and responsa in order to more seamlessly navigate the vast sea of rabbinic literature.
Some have suggested, ironically, that it is precisely because talmudic study is so widespread and “entrance requirements” so attainable that the bar has been significantly lowered, resulting in fewer outstanding scholars emerging from the halls of study.
Others point to a more cynical – even sinister – reason why we are in such a state today. They claim that the hierarchy of the ultra-Orthodox community works specifically against the most outstanding candidates, so as to prevent the State of Israel from having a person at the helm whose spiritual excellence threatens their authority and advances the Zionist cause, making the Jewish state look good. For this reason, they insist, the best and the brightest rabbinic figures – from the late Rabbi Hayim David Halevi (chief rabbi of Tel Aviv) to Rabbi Yaakov Ariel to Rabbi Simha Hakohen Kook – were passed over, despite their stellar resumés and reputations.
And now, come June, it is time to elect new chief rabbis. The hope, among many, is that Bayit Yehudi – if it ever makes it into the coalition – will wrest control of the Religious Services Ministry from Shas, and so have a large say as to who gets in. Specifically, there is the expectation that, at long last, the chief rabbis of the State of Israel will subscribe to state institutions, sending their children to serve in the IDF and study at Zionist yeshivot.
This has fueled speculation that Rabbi David Stav of Tzohar fame will be elected, as he already is reported to have the backing of both Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu. Rabbi Stav, who is chief rabbi of Shoham, has made a name for himself by offering a “kinder, gentler,” rabbinic approach to the wider public, specifically in the area of marriage registration.
WHILE I, too, pray that the next chief rabbis will have solid Zionist credentials, what really matters is not the label they wear, but what they do with their position.
Despite the unprecedented access to Jewish learning, Israel today is a nation that seeks its soul, both on a national and individual level. The chief rabbis must help to guide and facilitate that search.
They must be men of the people, willing to “come down” from their high position to meet the masses ba’asher hu sham – where they are, spiritually speaking – at the present moment.
They must be willing to tackle the really hard issues, from the conversion quagmire to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) participation in national service to social justice.
They must be open and available to any and all who seek their guidance, and they must travel far and wide across the country – like the “circuit rabbis” of old – to visit every town and moshav, not in pursuit of “photo ops,” but to personally transmit his message of hope and to offer spiritual guidance.
There are a lot of people in this nation who are suffering, be it the poor, the bereaved or the disenfranchised. The chief rabbi-elect must seek them out and inspire them, rejuvenate them and instill in them an unshakeable belief in God and country, in themselves and in the bright future of Israel.
On a personal note, one of my great disappointments is that when our beloved son fell in battle in defense of the nation 10 years ago – generating an avalanche of faith issues within our family – neither of the chief rabbis bothered to contact us, let alone come and visit. While then-president Moshe Katsav, IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, Natan Sharansky and Ehud Olmert – among many others – reached out to us, the rabbis were nowhere to be seen.
I later learned, from our many contacts within the bereaved community, that this was unfortunately the norm; few, if any, of them had received consolation from the rabbis when their loved ones perished.
We persevered, thank God, but the bitter taste of their dereliction of duty remains in our mouths and hearts.
The story is told of Rav Kook, who one Tu Bishvat visited a kindergarten. The teacher took the children out into the adjoining field, and brought a chair for the rabbi to sit in. He watched as the youngsters, each having been given a small plant, dug holes in the dirt and lovingly planted their seedlings in the earth.
Suddenly, Rav Kook began to cry.
“What is the matter?” asked the shocked teacher.
Rav Kook replied, “Everyone has something to plant, but I have nothing!” The teacher was taken aback. “But we didn’t think the great rabbi would want to get his hands dirty,” she said.
Rav Kook then bent down upon the ground and helped one of the children smooth out the ground and carefully place the seedling.
“If you want to build a country,” said Rav Kook, looking up at the teacher, “then you had better be prepared to get off your chair, and get your hands dirty.”
It is no easy task to be the rabbi of this diverse, demanding, distinctive community of Israel. But if you dare to run for the office, you had better be prepared to meet that challenge.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana www.rabbistewartweiss.com; [email protected]