Whither the Chief Rabbinate?

The fundamental challenge therefore entails abolishing the coercive power of the Chief Rabbinate, most notably with respect to the crucial issues of personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.

Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Some years ago, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, then-chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, commented that the office of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel possessed “not a scintilla of moral worth.”
Although surely a statement exaggerated for effect, it did reflect widespread discontent among Jewish leaders both with the office itself and its most recent occupants. Matters have grown worse since then, particularly with respect to conversions, toward which the Chief Rabbinate has taken an increasingly harder line. No longer a force for unity, and indeed, a source of deep divisions within and outside Israel, the Chief Rabbinate has clearly become an object of derision, even scorn in many quarters, both in Israel and the Diaspora.
To be sure, in earlier decades the office of chief rabbi, of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, had attracted luminaries of Jewish scholarship and rabbinic leadership.
The first Sephardi chief rabbi took office in 1665; in 1921, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook became the first official Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Kook justly was acclaimed as inclusive of all Jews. His motto, “That which unites us is greater than that which divides us,” became the slogan for those seeking to bridge divides within the Jewish world.
In the first decade of Israel’s statehood, Rabbi Isaac Herzog hued to a similar path, asking how Jewish law best might function in a modern democratic society. His Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, was notable for his welcoming attitude to Jews outside the religious mainstream, whether secular Jews, the Bene Israel of India, or those converting to Judaism, especially if they were offspring of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. In later years, chief rabbi Shlomo Goren likewise courageously adopted inclusive stances on questions of personal status, marriage, and conversion.
In recent decades, however, many of Goren’s successors have badly tarnished the dignity of the office.
Shockingly, some Ashkenazi incumbents have been non-Zionist rabbis, who attached little, if any, transcendental meaning or purpose to a Jewish state.
Also dismayingly, some have utilized the office as a “bully pulpit” to denigrate expressions of Judaism other than their own. Almost all have insisted upon maintaining the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on issues of personal status, most particularly conversion and the human right of marriage. The net effect has been the alienation of the Israeli public, as well as the overwhelming majority of American Jews, from the office of the Chief Rabbinate, and, for many, from Judaism itself.
IN THIS context, the upcoming election for a new Ashkenazi chief rabbi harbors considerable importance.
The prime minister usually exercises considerable leverage, which is often reflective of which groups among his coalition partners most ardently desire the office as a coalition reward.
Given governmental political leverage, many within Israel call upon Diaspora Jewry to let its voice be heard, inasmuch as the office affects Jews worldwide and is meant to function as a symbol of Judaism in the public square.
Most interestingly, one member of the “Tzohar” or “enlightened” rabbinate, Rabbi David Stav, has declared himself as candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi. His supporters promise that his election will bring about no less than a “social revolution benefiting the entire Jewish people,” primarily through user-friendly customer service, enhancing the position of women, particularly on questions of marriage and divorce and according women the right to eulogize loved ones at funerals, and eliminating corruption in the kashrut industry.
Many welcome these steps as desirable and long overdue. Critics, however, argue that irrespective of who becomes chief rabbi, the more fundamental problems of the relationship of synagogue to state and the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over issues of personal status will continue. Nor are they confident that the office will remain in the hands of enlightened rabbis, given ongoing demographic currents within Israel’s Jewish population. For these critics, abolition of the office itself is the sole solution. This argument for abolition evokes limited yet significant resonance within modern- Orthodox circles, both in Israel and the United States.
WHAT, THEN, should be done? Calls for the abolition of the office remain unlikely to be realized in the near- to mid-term future. Bureaucracies generally are slow to change, especially when budgetary and human resources are at stake. The Orthodox establishments, both in Israel and the United States, likely will defend the status quo as far preferable to separating synagogue and state, for such separation, in their view, means the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Yet the desire for significant change in the rabbinate is also widespread.
At a recent AJC-sponsored colloquium on the Chief Rabbinate and its impact on Israel-American Jewish ties, calls for major transformation were near-universal among the 50 participants representing a broad cross-section of Jewish communal life.
By definition, a Jewish state necessitates a public role for Judaism and Jewish religious leaders. Such leaders, however, need to be broadly representative of all sectors of the Jewish people rather than of the interests of a narrow grouping.
Still more importantly, the moral voice of Judaic heritage needs to be heard on questions of private and public ethics. By contrast, invoking the coercive power of the state to determine who has the right to marry whom, the nature of an IDF soldier’s burial, or the legitimacy of a convert’s intentions, gives rise only to derision at best, and anger and alienation at worst.
The fundamental challenge therefore entails abolishing the coercive power of the Chief Rabbinate, most notably with respect to the crucial issues of personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion and burial. Many modern-Orthodox leaders, both here and in Israel, to say nothing of the leaders of the liberal religious streams, agree that the time is long overdue to transform the Chief Rabbinate from an office that exercises coercive power to one that entails moral influence. Shouldn’t Israel’s leadership be listening to those voices for the sake of the Jewish state and, yes, the Jewish people?
Dov S. Zakheim chairs the American Jewish Committee’s Commission on Contemporary Jewish Life. Steven Bayme serves as director for the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department, AJC.