Is this the end of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel?

They have no place in Judaism at all, certainly in the 21st century.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau.  (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)
Judaism has no pope. The last time Jewish religious authority was highly centralized was the Gaonate in Babylonia more than 1,000 years ago. The first siddur – “order of prayer” – was the result of questions posed by the Jews of Spain around 860 CE to Rav Amram Gaon. While the siddur was important, Rav Saadia Gaon created a successor “liturgical masterpiece” between 928 and 942. But Rav Amram’s response of the “responsa literature” indicates the reliance of Jews throughout the known world on the leaders of the Babylonian seminaries for conducting Jewish ritual. Rav Amram set the order for most prayer books. Yet, that centralization in Baghdad would soon fade with independent rabbinic establishments along the Rhine River (Ashkenazi) and in Muslim Spain and North Africa (Sephardi). Even with a towering figure like Maimonides in Egypt in the 12th century, rabbis were still independent in their rulings free from any central authority.
While the Chief Rabbinate of Israel only has sway in the Jewish state, it should be realized now that, as the Diaspora declines, the Israeli chief rabbis will be the ultimate religious authority in world Judaism. That is dangerous and a break from past Jewish history. While I celebrate the appointment of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook as the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi – he certainly deserved the honor – this office was granted by the British Mandate and its concept of a “Chief Rabbi” in England. It was also rooted in the politics and religion of the Ottoman Empire. They have no place in Judaism at all, certainly in the 21st century.
The Chief Rabbinate has become more highly politicized with each passing year. It has had nothing imaginative to say about “who is a Jew?” and has failed to creatively address a host of issues that rabbis in the past have grappled with. Perhaps the onset of modernity and the creation of a state by irreligious socialists and nationalists – as well as the different denominations of Judaism in America – have them running for the exits. They are here to enforce the status quo. It is a travesty. Hillel the Elder, 2,000 years ago took the daring step of instating prosbul to react to a societal crisis sparked by a commandment in the Torah to remit debts in the shmita year. He dealt with this imaginatively and creatively without subverting Torah Law. The Chief Rabbinate, on a host of issues, lacks the imagination and guts of Hillel. We yearn for better.
To the chief rabbis – what have you done about the crisis of the aguna – the chained woman whose husband refuses to grant her a divorce? She is shackled for years and cannot marry again. She cannot give birth to children. An easy and enduring solution would be an addendum to the ketubah agreeing that the husband will grant a divorce, if that tragically happens. Since when is this considered a radical subversion of Halacha? Hillel’s prosbul used the court system in a much more radical way to ensure that the poor would receive loans before the shmita year. There is no halachic defense of the failure to prevent the aguna. It is a lack of guts. It is a lack of imagination. It is a lack of creativity.
To the chief rabbis – what are you doing about those 250,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union in limbo, caught between the Law of Return and the lack of a religious identity based on matrilineal descent? You demand that potential converts perform every mitzvah or the conversion is not accepted. Do most of those born as Jews according to Halacha perform every mitzvah? It is a double standard. Instead of rewarding these immigrants with a Jewish identity based in Judaism – and not solely a political identity – you ignore the commitment to the Jewish people they have expressed: making aliyah, serving in the IDF and participating in political, economic and social life. They tell us that to do so would be to go down the “slippery slope” toward negating all the mitzvot. They are scared. Any creativity in crafting Jewish Law frightens them. They have carved out their seats of power and never want to relinquish them. These issues will never be resolved. And a central body of cowards is not going to resolve them.
They care little about the life and spirit of most Jews – just as long as they can intrude now and then to perform life-cycle rituals for those who know little about Judaism. How about teaching them? Too much trouble. Rock the Boat. The End. Impossible.
One could argue that the decentralization model worked well in the Diaspora of the past but is a necessity in a sovereign Jewish state. The reality is that no one is satisfied, except the establishment rabbinate, its funding, and its bureaucracy. The system will eventually collapse under its own self-importance and lack of imagination. Meanwhile, women remain chained and Russian Jews remain in a state of uncertainty. The Chief Rabbinate can pat itself on the back – the institution is a real success. Not in this world.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.