Rabbinic consolidation

A radical reevaluation of the Chief Rabbinate’s relevance must be part of such a discourse.

Inauguration of new chief rabbis 370 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Inauguration of new chief rabbis 370
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
There are a lot of good reasons to do away with the separate positions of chief Ashkenazi and chief Sephardi rabbis, and create a single chief rabbi position – both on the national level and in cities, towns, regional councils and settlements.
Perhaps when the Chief Rabbinate was first created in 1921, it made sense to have two rabbis – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi – to cater to the different ethnic communities.
However, for some time now – at least since the huge waves of Jewish immigration to Israel from Muslim lands in the 1950s and 1960s – there has been a gradual but steady process of integration of these communities. Over the decades, a unified Israeli culture has developed in which both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions have contributed. Israeli food, music and other aspects of culture contain elements of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi influences. And the same goes for religious practices.
In most communities – except perhaps among the ultra-Orthodox – it is almost as likely for a Sephardi Israeli to marry an Ashkenazi as it is to marry within one’s own ethnic community. And this simple fact has major ramifications for religious traditions and customs. One trend that has resulted from these “mixed marriages” has been a gradual unification of a single “Land of Israel” tradition, which is an amalgamation of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs.
Additionally, because both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Israelis live in the same neighborhoods, send their children to the same schools and even attend the same synagogues, rabbis and educators, regardless of their own background, have had to acquaint themselves with both Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs. Today there are many books of practical Jewish law that contain both customs.
At any rate, the Sephardi-Ashkenazi dichotomy ignores the many different customs that have developed in different countries and geographical areas. The Jews of Yemen, for instance, belong to neither tradition. And there are many differences between the traditions of North African Jews and those who lived in Iraq or Iran. Likewise, there are many differences in customs among European Jews from Galitzianers and Yekkes to Litvaks, to name just a few.
In short, all these customs can never hope to be given full expression through the chief rabbis, whether there be one or two. But by cutting in half the number of rabbis that serve in 34 cities and regional jurisdictions, and by appointing only one chief rabbi of Israel instead of two, we can significantly decrease the burden on taxpayers that goes to all these rabbis’ monthly salaries.
It should come as no surprise that the Council of the Chief Rabbinate announced Monday it was opposed to a bill drafted by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) calling to unite the posts of Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis. Doing so would cut in half the number of state-funded rabbinic positions, and force many rabbis to seek employment elsewhere.
The anachronistic split between Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis is just one problem afflicting the Chief Rabbinate.
For some time now, the Chief Rabbinate has lost its prestige as an institution seeking to represent Judaism’s highest goals. It is not just that the previous chief Ashkenazi rabbi is embroiled in a criminal investigation into alleged embezzlement, or that the present chief rabbis were elected primarily due to their political connections and less for their personal qualities or erudition.
Long ago, many great democratic thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson reached the conclusion that attempts to connect state and religion are doomed to failure. And in 1783, Moses Mendelssohn wrote Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism, in which he also called for separation of the two. Religion, argued Jefferson and Mendelssohn, is inevitably compromised by political forces, while politics are marshaled to enforce religious coercion.
Israeli society has only barely begun to seriously discuss the problematic marriage of religion with state. Part of the problem is that for secular elites, it is convenient to consign the country’s religious life to the rabbinate. Doing so excuses them from providing their own vision for the uniquely Jewish aspects of Israel.
But eventually, a serious public discourse will have to take place regarding how best to strike the balance between the undeniably religious aspects of Zionism and the purely civic aspects of running a modern state.
A radical reevaluation of the Chief Rabbinate’s relevance must be part of such a discourse.