Two chief rabbis is one too many

This duplication of rabbis is not only wasteful and destructive, it has become an immense burden on the local religious councils.

Swearing in of David Lau, Yitzhak Yosef 370 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Swearing in of David Lau, Yitzhak Yosef 370
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israel has one president, one prime minister, one president of the Supreme Court, one Knesset speaker, one governor of the Bank of Israel, one chief of general staff of the IDF – and two chief rabbis. Why? A new position paper by the Institute for Zionist Strategies demonstrates that this duplication, which has been copied in about a third of our cities and local authorities, serves no constructive purpose and amounts to no more than rabbinic “featherbedding” (the artificial requirement to employ unneeded workers).

The popular understanding of this two-headed institution is that each of the rabbis is to serve his respective ethnic community. But this is simply not the case. Both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis rule according to whichever custom is appropriate for the case or parties before them, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, and there is no allocation of function between them based on ethnic demarcation.
So why do we have this wasteful practice, and where does it come from? Not from our tradition. Our tradition has always been that a single mora d’asra serves the entire community. Indeed, IZS researchers found almost no reports of two-headed religious rule throughout hundreds of years of recorded Jewish community history. Here, the practice first showed up in Yaffo in 1911, and was then instituted nationally by the British mandatory government in 1922 with the expectation that it would be a temporary arrangement. But this temporary arrangement means jobs for rabbis and appointments for politicians, so correction never came.
One might expect the rabbinate in general to support the appointment of two chief rabbis over the objections of the religiously uncommitted majority of taxpayers. But this, too, is not the case. It is hard to find a rabbinic authority to justify the duplicative rule. Many, including former chief rabbis, and most notably the late and revered Ovadia Yosef, have publicly stated that it should be abandoned, that one chief rabbi is enough.
The original reason Herbert Samuel appointed two chief rabbis back in1922 was largely symbolic – a recognition of the ostensible social division between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities.
But the perception of this division has faded dramatically. Indeed, today, one cannot readily determine who is an Ashkenazi Jew and who a Sephardi. Widespread intermarriage over many generations has blurred the lines, so that many couples would be hard-pressed to place themselves in either grouping – and most would not particularly care.
It is hard to find a more cogent demonstration of this merging identity, against the wasteful practice of two chief rabbis than that evidenced by the city of Netanya. There, Rabbi David Shalosh serves as chief Sephardi rabbi; the position of chief Ashkenazi rabbi is vacant. Rabbi Yehuda Shalosh, David’s son, has applied for the position, so that, if appointed, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi would be the son of the chief Sephardi rabbi! Rabbi David Shalosh accurately asserted that he already serves both Ashkenazi and Sephardi residents in his capacity of local neighborhood rabbi.
Why then, he argues, should there be any problem for a Sephardi rabbi to serve as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi? Why, indeed.
But the appointment of two rabbis is far worse than just wasteful – it is destructive. The two rabbis get in each other’s way and inevitably fight.
This zero-sum, destructive competition is a function of universal human nature, and we Jews have developed it into a fine art. Take for example Kiryat Atta, where the two rabbis are locked in such bitter controversy that, as the IZS report establishes, one rabbi gives a certificate of kashrut to a restaurant only to have the second one nullify it.
As Rabbi Yosef stated clearly in 1977, it is inevitable that each rabbi will “pull in his own direction so that the situation is like the donkey-camel parable of our sages.”
The real reason for two national rabbis today is not ethnic: it is political patronage, pure and simple.
If they could, our politicians would also nominate two prime ministers, two chief justices, two IDF chiefs of staff, etc. Indeed we came as close as possible to having two prime ministers when we invented the system of rotation, and when the new prime minister (Yitzhak Shamir) rotated into office while the old prime minister (Shimon Peres) didn’t fully rotate out.
This duplication of rabbis is not only wasteful and destructive, it has become an immense burden on the local religious councils. As pointed out in the IZS study, the average cost of two rabbis reaches NIS 1 million per year, and about six out of 10 cities with two rabbis spend 30 percent of their total religious services budget just to pay for the two rabbis. One rabbi less would free significant resources for much-needed services.
The IZS report recommends doing away with duplicate chief rabbis in the cities, and also provides for staged measures to mitigate entrenched opposition.
It is clear that major reform is justified. Two chief rabbis is one too many.
The writer, an attorney in Israel and the US, is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies.