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Chief Rabbi or not?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-12-03

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The issue of whether we need a Chief Rabbi or not, was raised by the American financier Michael Steinhardt at a speech to the UJA last week.

Coincidentally, two months ago, the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, has voted to make changes to the positions of Chief Rabbis in Israel, notably to merge two positions into one.

Of course those who stand to lose their perks are up in arms! It is risible that religious positions should be decided by Governments altogether. Indeed I find it a joke that similar appointments elsewhere are usually made by a collection of common and garden laymen who may be reasonably good at running businesses and very nice, sincere human beings (sometimes) but understand as much about rabbinics as a Kossack ( or Madonna ) understands Kabbalah.

The situation in Israel comes about because of politics. Originally it was the British Government Mandate personnel who thought they had to imitate a largely ceremonial system modelled on the Church of England. Then after the establishment of the State of Israel the position was reinforced as a result of the negotiations of religious parties who were looking for jobs for the boys.

Surprisingly many of the choices have been felicitous. The first Chief Rabbi of Israel was the great and saintly Rav Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook. To my mind he was the greatest spiritual leader of the last century. He was totally vilified by Rav Sonnenfeld and the Ultra community who found the very notion of an appointed Chief offensive. Then there was Rabbi Isaac Herzog, another saintly, scholarly great man. Later on came fighting characters like Rav Goren and his Sephardi nemesis Rav Ovadia Yosef. Both men were scholars and fighters who ended up fighting each other. Most of their successors have been placemen of varying degrees or learning and charisma.

But after the establishment of the State, politics took more specific control and only men associated with certain parties qualified for selection. And the main body of outstanding candidates from the Ultra Orthodox communities would have absolutely nothing to do with appointments set up at the behest of a secular government and controlled by lay politicians. Perhaps had the politicians been theirs they might have!

Amongst the politically motivated innovations was the insistence on two Chief Rabbis, one for Sephardim and one for Askenazim, another example of unnecessary Israeli bureaucracy, doubling of jobs, offices, cars and expenses but hey, what’s new in Israeli politics. The real issue was that the very orthodox, as elsewhere in the world, didn’t give a hoot for Chief Rabbis or government appointees and totally ignored the system at best or humiliated it and poured scorn upon it at worst.

For them a rabbi of any sort has to prove his leadership based on knowledge and in some cases spiritual greatness. Once upon a Talmudic time, rabbis (as opposed to High Priests) were elevated by their peers on the basis of spirit and learning rather than political maneuvering or beauty contests. Over recent centuries the secular world has asked to have Jewish religious leaders to fulfil diplomatic and representational roles which by their very nature are totally different to and often diametrically opposed to real innovative leadership. So Israel has appointed two Chief Rabbis for limited terms who in the main have spent as much time treading on each others toes as they have trying to bridge the gaps between religious and secular. And as with all politics, mud is flung around with accusations against candidates of sexual and monetary impropriety.

Now the average orthodox Jew around the world today follows the dictates of his Rebbe if he or she is a Chassid or his Rosh Yeshiva if he is a Litvak or one of a select body of men whose scholarship and expertise is established and accepted regardless of any position they may hold. They would no more turn to a Chief Rabbi for a halachic opinion than they would to Justin Timberlake to explain Bach. The role of Chief Rabbis is essentially both functionary and diplomatic and some of the holders do an excellent job. But there’s absolutely no need for two of them unless they were to divide the role quite rightly into its two very different roles. If that were to happen I’d have some sympathy. But otherwise on balance I do not for the life of me see what the Chief Rabbis have to offer Israel altogether. They play to a restricted constituency of largely uninterested or apathetic citizens and the money spent on them would be better used helping the poor or improving the standard of education.

In Britain we have a Chief Rabbi who is expected to try to combine two roles that are really contradictory. You can be an excellent diplomat, writer and speaker but not be a great leader. And to be a great leader you have to offend and fight and not be at all diplomatic if the occasion requires it. I very much doubt whether anyone nowadays can fulfil both roles.

Of course I am an anti establishment rebel and I think genuine religious leadership emerges naturally not through appointment. But I have yet to hear persuasive arguments in favour of having a single representative of a multi facetted community. The most dynamic of Jewish communities, the United States, has managed far better than most without one and no one seems to have noticed!