I think the Chief Rabbinate should be abolished, but I couldn’t help envying Catholics when I read the reports about the interview Pope Francis gave on his way back to Rome from South America. Asked about gay priests, he is quoted to have said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
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Most commentators were struck by his use of the colloquial term “gay” instead of “homosexual”, but primarily they were impressed by Francis’ departure from the ultra-conservative line taken by his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both of whom were intransigent about the traditional Catholic teaching that homosexuality is sinful, in and of itself – all the while ignoring the mounting evidence about the scale of homosexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Francis is beginning to remind of Pope John XXIII, who shocked the Catholic establishment by tackling many dogmas, including his approach to the Catholic Church’s problematic history with the Jews. Francis seems open-minded and strongly aware that the Catholic Church must adapt to the realities of the 21st Century.
Israel shouldn’t have a Chief Rabbinate to begin with. As opposed to the Catholic Church, Judaism does not have a unitary organizational structure and it doesn't have a position equal to that of the Pope. In principle, there is no such position of Chief Rabbi of Judaism.
As a result, Israel will never have a Chief Rabbi with the stature and courage of Pope Francis. We will never be able to admire a Chief Rabbi’s courage and ability to face his ultra-Orthodox colleagues with surprising rulings. There is no chance on earth for an Israeli Chief Rabbi to show such open-mindedness and courage.
The reason is that nobody recognizes Israeli Chief Rabbis as leading religious authorities. Except for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, when he was still creative and courageous in his halakhic rulings many years ago, the Orthodox establishment has not taken any Israeli Chief Rabbi seriously. The ultra-Orthodox world listens to very different leaders, like Rabbi Shach, Rabbi Elyashiv and now Rabbi Shteinman.
As a result, our newly-elected Chief Rabbis will keep anxiously looking over their shoulders to make sure everything they say is acceptable to the leaders of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, who are considered the true authorities on halakha. None of them will have the courage to take a position the way Pope Francis did on homosexuality, or on any other contentious issue for that matter.
Outside the ultra-Orthodox fold, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is nothing but an aggravation for Liberal, Reform and secular Jews. In marriage and divorce, non-Orthodox Jews have to undergo rituals which many of them experience as offensive and primitive and they have to deal with rabbis who they do not recognize as authorities in any way. Israel is the only country on earth where Jews cannot marry who they want and in the manner they want, forcing tens of thousands of Israelis, unwilling to accept such religious coercion, to marry abroad.
It is profoundly unhealthy that in Israel the state takes positions on religious issues, for example by granting the Orthodox version of Judaism – to be precise, the ultra-Orthodox - a monopoly on religious rulings. It is a total anachronism for a modern democracy to intervene in its citizens’ personal lives through religion.
So Israel is stuck with the worst of all possible worlds. On the one hand, the Chief Rabbinate does not reflect today’s Judaism, which is mostly not Orthodox. On the other hand, unlike the Catholic Pope, the Chief Rabbinate has no real authority and the people who have occupied the post have been quite unimpressive, to say the least.
Then again, the Chief Rabbinate costs the taxpayer a fortune and aggravates Israel’s secular and Reform Jews. Possibly even worse, the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversion law in Israel is creating an ever-deepening rift between Israel and the largest group of Jews in the planet: American Jewry. More than 80 percent of U.S. Jews are not orthodox. They cherish and identify with one of the core values of the classical liberal tradition since the 18th Century: freedom of faith.
For most American and European Jews, it is inconceivable that Rabbis who do not represent the particular stream of Judaism they belong to have a say in their personal lives. It is even less conceivable that their authority is enforced by the state. The continued stranglehold of ultra-Orthodox Judaism on Israeli public life alienates world Jewry more than most of Israel’s political leaders realize.
Israel might do well to learn from history. Jewish life for millennia has been organized around communities which chose their own rabbis, thus creating a healthy balance between the community’s views and the rabbi’s halakhic authority. Returning to this model would finally enable Israeli Jews to live their lives according to their knowledge and conscience, as befits a modern state, and end Israel’s impossible mix between democracy and theocracy.