Whenever I think that the elections for the Chief Rabbinate cannot get more absurd, I am proven wrong: Apparently, when control of Israel’s massive religious bureaucracy is at stake, no candidate is too outrageous, no statement is too outlandish, and no political deal is too shady for Israel’s religious parties. All that matters is winning – whatever the cost to Torah, tradition, and Judaism’s good name.
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The latest development is that two leading candidates for Sephardi chief rabbi both hold ugly, racist, anti-Arab views. (More on this below.)
On some level, as an opponent of the Chief Rabbinate, I see this election campaign as a gift from heaven. The religious parties are doing far more to discredit the Chief Rabbinate than its critics could ever do.
The chief rabbis – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi – are elected for 10-year terms by an “electing body” of 150 people, roughly half of whom are rabbis and half of whom are local and national political figures. The religious parties try to make deals with each other and with the other political parties to assure the election of their candidates. This is important to them because the chief rabbis are senior religious functionaries in a system that involves a great deal of patronage and that includes town rabbis, kashrut officials, military rabbis, etc.; no other industrialized democracy has a religious bureaucracy even approaching the size of Israel’s.
Most Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, pay no attention to the election of Israel's chief rabbis – non-observant Jews because they don’t care and observant Jews because they see the chief rabbis as political hacks. But interest is higher this year.
In America, the Anglo-Jewish press has been filled with stories about the election. And in Israel, the election’s fierce political wheeling and dealing has drawn more attention than usual. My friends in Israel offer a variety of explanations. First, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, non-religious but the second largest in Israel, has been actively involved in the election. Second, corruption in the Chief Rabbinate has received much coverage. (Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger is known to the public mostly for his arrest record.) And third, an election process that in the past has produced mostly undistinguished candidates this year has produced some deeply problematic ones.
Prime examples are two leading candidates for Sephardic chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu and Avraham Yosef. Nahum Barnea, writing in Yediot Ahronot on July 5, provides a compendium of Eliyahu statements. Some samples: “If someone rents an apartment to Arabs, this is against halakhah” (from an Eliyahu speech in Safed, 2010). “Someone should tell consumers not to make use of a hotel that employs Arab workers. If they are as careful about the cleanliness of the food as they are about the cleanliness of their villages, then the condition of the food will be very bad” (from an Eliyahu responsum). At the same time, Barnea notes that Yosef’s statements are not really any better. Yosef on non-Jews: “It is forbidden to rent an apartment to non-Jews. It is forbidden to sell them land” (from a Yosef responsum).
While I am pleased that the Jewish world is getting the facts, I am aware that the facts might make no difference. Thus, despite the outcry, it is entirely possible that Rabbi Eliyahu will be elected. I wonder what it would be like to have an outspoken Arab-hater as an official religious representative of the State of Israel. I shudder at the message that would be sent to the international community and, far more important, to Jews everywhere who look to Israel for inspiration and guidance.
Of course, there are also moderate candidates, and most of Israel’s rabbis – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – emphatically reject a racist reading of Torah. But that is beside the point. The poisonous combination of politics, religion, and money that is at the heart of the Chief Rabbinate is corrupting Judaism from within. And no matter who is elected, Israel’s religious establishment will never have the standing to deal with Israel’s real religious challenges – such as the collapse of the system of conversion, the treatment of women by religious authorities, and the inability of so many Israelis to marry legally in the Jewish state.
The unchallenged leader of modern Orthodoxy in the 20th century was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In 1959, the Rav (as Soloveitchik was known) was asked to be a candidate to succeed the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. He declined, explaining that “I was afraid to be an officer of the State. A rabbinate linked up with the state cannot be completely free." In 1972, he noted that “when I refused to accept the position of chief rabbi, I explained that one of my reasons was that the rabbinate has been institutionalized there. Willy-nilly, such a rabbinate will disintegrate. I am sorry that my prophecy was correct. It is now in a state of disintegration.” (From The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff.)
The Rav was right. In 1972, the Chief Rabbinate was in a state of disintegration. We can only imagine what he would say about it today. He clearly believed that an independent rabbinate, severed from the suffocating embrace of government, was necessary to address the problems of Jewish life. For that to happen, the Chief Rabbinate must be dismantled, and this year’s government-sponsored election must be the last.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.