Perspectives: Dealing with our Catholic marriage to the Chief Rabbinate

Lapid warns us that Chief Rabbinate is at risk of becoming irrelevant; however proposed union might be a marriage made in heaven.

Yair Lapid with gay flag 370 (photo credit: Yair Lapid at meeting in Knesset, 3 June 2013.)
Yair Lapid with gay flag 370
(photo credit: Yair Lapid at meeting in Knesset, 3 June 2013.)
Last Thursday, Israeli citizens found out that Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef would be their chief rabbis for the upcoming decade. Finance Minister Yair Lapid commented on his Facebook page that the Chief Rabbinate is becoming “an irrelevant institution.”
Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennett – the justice minister and religious services ministers, respectively – announced that they would redouble efforts to consolidate the post into one chief rabbi for Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike.
Even if Lapid is correct and the Livni-Bennet duo is successful, however, we are inextricably linked with the two rabbis in an unbreakable bond that is often described in modern Hebrew as a “Catholic marriage.”
Ten years is a long time.
Given the deluge of cynicism directed against the Chief Rabbinate, are there grounds for optimism? I am, in fact, hopeful, because the first action taken by Rabbi David Lau since his election seems to be much more than a symbolic gesture or a good deed. After Shabbat, Lau visited Rabbi Ovadia Isakov at Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva. Isakov, who heads the Chabad House in Derbent, a small town near the Caspian Sea, was gravely wounded in a hate crime in Russia and rapidly flown to Israel for medical care. Lau’s behavior was exemplary.
My argument for the importance of the Chief Rabbinate is not related to the high-voltage issues that are debated in religious circles today such as conversion and agunot, “chained women” or women denied divorces by their husbands.
Those are often tragic situations, but they pertain to a minority of the population.
My concern is with the unique ability of rabbis of stature to have an impact on matters that affect us all – the interface of religion with healthcare in general and endof- life issues in particular.
As a practicing oncologist, I treat patients confronting serious illness. By definition, there is a tremendous psychological burden on such people as well as on the loved ones who accompany them.
Despite the outstanding level of technical care available to Israeli citizens, there are tremendous barriers erected in the paths of those who seek emotional and spiritual support. It is still unusual to find a modern Israeli hospital that offers chaplaincy to deal with these delicate matters.
A chief rabbi could embark on (please pardon the expression) a crusade to make sure that the rabbis in Israeli hospitals are trained not only to verify the kashrut of food and mezuzot but also to attend to the souls of those experiencing hardship.
Can we imagine if the chief rabbi took it upon himself to visit the sick at least once a month and – provided consent is obtained – invited others to join him? Arrangements might even be made to broadcast such encounters as teaching moments. Now that would surely be reality TV worth watching! One other observation from my professional life warrants emphasis. When I counsel patients about innovative therapies and enrollment in clinical trials, I am often asked whether the experimental drug being tested will keep the patient from dying. No clinical trial has ever prevented anyone from dying. No treatment that I offer keeps anyone from dying.
Everybody dies! Sorry to be pedantic about the semantics, but I feel strongly because modern Western societies are denial oriented, especially when it comes to death.
Several years ago, the Knesset passed the “Dying Patient Law,” progressive legislation designed to help the terminally ill and their families hold conversations relating to how individuals wish to die. In a study that will be published next month in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology, survey results will reveal that the DPA is rarely applied and, therefore, these sacred if not eye-opening conversations are not being conducted.
If a chief rabbi were to adopt end-of-life care as a cause, a national dialogue would immediately ensue, and Israelis would be in the vanguard of understanding how a “good death” can bring about a more meaningful life.
Two men will share the title of chief rabbi for the foreseeable future. David Lau has already demonstrated where his heart lies, and Yitzhak Yosef is an established author of one of the premier texts of rabbinical decision making, Psak Halachah. Before the Knesset begins to debate the consolidative proposal of Livni and Bennett, perhaps a transitional phase can be implemented.
So here’s a suggestion from a layman: maintain the rabbinical duo, but without the anachronistic, artificial, Diaspora- imposed dichotomy of Sephardi vs Ashkenazi.
Instead, let the rabbinical pair which provides spiritual leadership to the modern State of Israel be comprised by a pastor (such as Lau) and a posek (halachic decisor, such as Yosef).
Lapid correctly warns us that the Chief Rabbinate is at risk of becoming irrelevant; however the proposed union might just be a marriage made in heaven.
The author is professor and chairman of the Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center and co-founder of the NGO Life’s Door-Tishkofet. His blog (“52”) is posted on