Recently, Rabbi David Stav, chair of the moderate Orthodox group Tzohar, announced his candidacy for Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. Stav said that he seeks the office to reach out to and make Jewish law "more relevant” for secular Israelis.
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To some, this is encouraging news. Tzohar has been a voice urging reform of the Rabbinate, whose rules appear arcane and rigid to many Israelis, turning many away from Judaism.
Others, however, feel like Stav represents the same product, wrapped in more attractive packaging. True, Tzohar helps people adhere to the Rabbinate’s rules and presents a more positive Orthodoxy. But the problem is not simply that the Rabbinate in its current iteration is overly stringent, alienating and detached from most Israelis. Nor is it the Rabbinate’s poor PR, as Stav suggests. The problem is the Rabbinate itself, and it should be abolished.
Many people are surprised to learn that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has little precedent in Jewish history. Far from a Talmudic precept, it traces its origins to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans allowed non-Muslims to practice limited self-rule under their own religious laws. Chief rabbis were appointed to govern the Jewish community, and to represent the community and its interests to the Sultan.
When the British assumed control of Palestine, they upheld the Ottoman practice. As it was for the Ottomans, it was probably useful for the British to have a Jewish religious representative. It was likely good for the Jews, too. The British even expanded the institution, appointing an Ashkenazi chief rabbi in addition to a Sephardic one. For various reasons, Israel’s founders kept the position.
The model may have made sense for the Ottomans and the British, but it also represented a convergence of religious and political power that, for most of Jewish history, was almost always separate. The ancient kings shared power with prophets and priests. In late antiquity, different rabbis split judicial, religious, and executive powers. Those separated powers checked each other’s authority to rule unilaterally.
With limited authority and a smaller, more homogenous Jewish community (as was the situation under the Ottomans and British), the combination of religious and political power was not particularly worrisome. But modern Israel, where the chief rabbis have sovereignty over a large and diverse Jewry, is much different.
Today, the chief rabbis have legislative, judicial, and even executive powers in areas like marriage and divorce, burial, conversion, and kosher certification. This kind of power consolidation is what James Madison called “the very definition of tyranny.”
History is littered with despots who held executive, legislative, religious, and/or judicial powers, and the Israeli chief rabbis act with similar tyranny. Need proof? Ask the women who are left chained to abusive husbands, the Jews by choice whose conversions have been annulled, or the female worshippers at the Western Wall who have been arrested for the crime of wearing a prayer shawl. There is little reason to believe Stav would govern differently. His Tzohar group “opposes any official recognition” by Israel of non-Orthodox Judaism, a position that aligns them with the forces of the Rabbinate’s status quo.
The problem here isn’t with Orthodoxy. The Rabbinate is problematic even if Reform or Conservative rabbis, and not Orthodox ones, were to hold the top spots. And the problem is not the rabbis, either; rabbis have a crucial role to play in Jewish religious and communal leadership. The problem is a state giving governmental power and authority to religious leaders as religious leaders. Doing so has historically led to the persecution of those who refuse to embrace their beliefs.
Ironically, Jews have frequently felt the negative ramifications of state-sponsored religion. Israel was intended to provide sanctuary to a people who had suffered as a religious minority and to enable religious freedom for those of all backgrounds. Israel is a shining beacon when it comes to non-Jewish faiths. But the Rabbinate makes the Jewish State the world’s only democracy where Jews do not enjoy religious freedom.
In our time, the options for Jewish expression are many and vibrant. Israel, our homeland, ought to recognize and celebrate the fact that there are numerous legitimate ways of being Jewish. This diversity is both a fact and value: The Talmud teaches, “There are seventy faces to Torah.” There are and ought to be a myriad of valid ways of interpreting and observing the Jewish tradition. All Israeli Jews should have the right to live out the fullness of their Jewish identities according to their beliefs and the dictates of their own consciences, and no Jew should be coerced by the state to practice a brand of Judaism with which she or he does not agree.
Only abolishing the Chief Rabbinate will fulfill Israel’s promise of religious freedom for all its citizens. And the time has come.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a Clal - Rabbis Without Borders fellow. You can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rabbiknopf