Apparently, Rabbi Joseph Soloveithchik, the great Modern Orthodox leader and scholar, was practically offered the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel. Legend has it that he was assured that if he wanted the position, David Ben-Gurion would personally see to it that he would be selected. As the story has it, Soloveitchik declined the offer partly because it was the case that Ben-Gurion, a secular prime minister of a secular government actually had the sort of power to appoint whoever he saw fit to preside over the Rabbinate of Israel (for a more historically accurate account of Soloveitchik’s potential candidacy, see Rabbi Jeffery Saks' article on the issue). Certainly, Prof. Isaiah Leibowitz refused to support Soloveitchik’s candidacy for the following reason:
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“I view the very institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel – religious leadership established by an atheistic government for reasons of political gain, religious leadership functioning with the authority of such government and entwined in its bureaucracy – as a prostitution of religion, destruction of the Torah, and desecration of God … I wish to further point out that I’ve heard from friends in the United States that R. Soloveitchik himself has privately expressed his complete agreement with what I have written … regarding separation of religion and state.”
Indeed, without going quite so far, Soloveitchik did later say himself that, “the Chief Rabbinate is ensnared in the political net ... It proves that this holy institution is nothing more than a ball for the political parties to play with.”
To what extent have things changed? Soloveitchik says that when he dreamed of becoming Chief Rabbi of Israel, a dream with which, as we’ve seen, quickly became disillusioned, the main attraction “was the potential for teaching and disseminating Torah. I dreamed that as Chief Rabbi I would be able to transform the rabbinate into a font of Torah and knowledge. I thought that I would be able to deliver shiurim [lectures] like I do in New York … The Chief Rabbi must be the leading teacher of Torah, otherwise in what way is he ‘chief?’” And, I have no doubt that, as an electrifying public speaker, and as one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the last century, he would have risen to that task. But instead, our chief rabbis are today, despite whatever personal merits they have, nothing more, in many respects, than the heads of a massive, uninspiring, publicly resented bureaucracy.
As chief rabbi, Soloveitchik would have striven to be a vocal, inspiring and provocative spokesman for Jewish values; to be the Chief educator and moral compass of the land. The fact that Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger is currently under criminal investigation only seems to highlight the disparity between Soloveitchik’s dream and our dismal reality.
Indeed, in recent weeks, we have seen the soon-to-be-vacant positions of Ashekenazi and Serphadi chief rabbis fought over, haggled over, and campaigned over, by all of the main players in Israel’s political system; seemingly proving Soloveitchik’s words that the Chief Rabbinate is merely a “ball for the political parties to play with.”
I don’t know exactly how Israel will decide matters, which are anyway in something of a legal limbo, such as who should be considered a Jew for the purposes of immigration, if Israel disestablishes the Rabbinate, to whom it looks to authorise conversions to Judaism. I don’t know exactly how the state will provide kosher food to its soldiers if it doesn’t have a Rabbinate to defer to on matters of Jewish dietary law. But what I do know is this: in recent years, matters of Jewish law, such as conversion, and the status of various streams of Judaism, have been debated in the secular parliament and the secular courts of our secular Jewish democracy.
This is what Soloveitchik had to say about this type of phenomenon: “[T]he mere fact that from time to time Halakhic problems are discussed as political issues at Cabinet meetings is an infringement of the sovereignty of the rabbinate.” In Leibowitz words, it is a prostitution of religion.
Let every community appoint their own chief rabbi, and let them fund it too. Let every person seek for himself or heself rabbinic guidance as he or she sees fit, in accordance with the words of the Mishna (Avot 1:6): “Make for yourself a rabbi.” It doesn’t say, let some shady committee of politicians and technocrats decide for you. Let matters of conversion and theology be discussed by the Jewish people at large. We will disagree - at times passionately - but to refer these things to our secular parliament, or our secular courts is to demean us all.
One of the reasons that Jewish people fast on the 17th of Tammuz is that on that day, an idol was erected in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Surely we are doing something very similar by taking the Rabbinate and turning it into a bureaucracy at the service of vested political interests. We are infecting something holy with the stench of self-service; the most pervasive form of idolatry known to man.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.