The Chief Rabbinate has always been a rather odd institution. Formally, it has legal and administrative authority to deal with the religious needs of the state’s Jews, focusing on such matters of status as Jewish marriage and Jewish divorce, as well as Jewish burial, conversion to Judaism, kosher laws and kosher certification, Jewish immigrants to Israel (olim), supervision of Jewish holy sites, working with various ritual baths (mikves) and yeshivas, and overseeing rabbinical courts in Israel. Yet while this jurisdiction is recognized and commonly enforced by the Israeli government, the Israeli people’s attitude toward the office of chief rabbi is another story.
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Although they may find themselves, usually against their will, impacted by its power, the majority of secular Israelis generally dismiss it. For them, these rabbis and the office of the Chief Rabbinate in general is an institution they would prefer to be abolished. That includes even the power to certify kashrut. On the other extreme the Haredim, with their fraught relationship to Zionism and the Jewish state, likewise disdain its authority, answering instead to their own rabbis who most definitely reject the idea of the state serving as the ultimate legitimation and enforcement authority regarding their status. They deny laypersons and politicians the power to decide who is really a supreme rabbinic authority, nor do they think that great rabbis, once granted authority, could ever relinquish it, as chief rabbis are expected to do.
That leaves a relatively small sector of the Zionist Orthodox as the population that accepts the Chief Rabbinate as authoritative. However, since the rabbinate is divided into Sephardi and Ashkenazi domains, each with its own chief rabbi, even within religious Zionist circles there is not a universal agreement regarding the power of the rabbi’s pronouncements to serve as the true interpretation of Jewish law. Ashkenazi Jews must be guided by the Ashkenazi chief rabbi and Sephardim by the Rishon Le’Zion, and the two do not always see eye to eye.
Moreover, as the rabbinic selection process has become increasingly politicized, and in light of the presence of former chief rabbis, who have often been unable to relinquish their sense of entitlement and authority (most prominently the late rabbis Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef, but to an extent all former chief rabbis) and their engagement in party politics, the stature of the particular incumbents of the Chief Rabbinate has suffered even in the eyes of those who once might have accepted their authority.
Finally, the association of a number of chief rabbis with scandal and malfeasance – with one, Yona Metzger, now serving a prison sentence for fraud – has made even those few remaining Jews who want to maintain respect for the Chief Rabbinate feel they cannot.
Looking at the history of the institution, one could argue it has largely failed either to inspire respect for rabbinic authority among the people of Israel or to enhance the role of religion in Israeli public life. If some of the early incumbents of the office – Rabbis Herzog, Unterman, Uziel and Nissim – still retain the admiration of some (though this may be a case of “acharei mot kedoshim” – holiness comes after death), the state of the office today is greatly diminished, having experienced what some call “hitkatnut ha’dorot” – the decline of generations.
Yet neither this regression nor its limited appeal has tempered the hubris of the office of the Chief Rabbinate, which acts like the little dog that yaps the loudest.
The emergence in the office of the Chief Rabbinate of lists of acceptable and unacceptable rabbis regarding their testimony about the Jewishness of converts, or even their determinations of the authenticity of born Jews, represents an audacious assertion of its right to be the final arbiter of not only who is a rabbi, but also who is a Jew. Similarly, its role in scuttling the compromise over access to the Western Wall by non-Orthodox groups and by women wishing to pray there as a group reveals its willingness to divide and conquer the Jewish world.
The unity of the Jewish people is one of the myths of Jewish history: that such a tiny minority must remain a single people, undivided, in order to survive. It is a myth, for even under Moses' leadership there were divisions and rebellions. One might have hoped the people, once more sovereign in our own nation after two millennia as a minority and following our decimation in the Holocaust, might have learned from our history and started trying to live up to this ideal of unity. Or at the very least those who claim to be our chief rabbis might have tried to do so.
Instead, we find their actions have not only created and widened rifts within the Jewish state where they are chiefs, but that they are now working to separate and alienate the communities of the diaspora – Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike – from their attachments to Israel and its holy places. Not content with failing the Jews of Israel, they are now on the path to failing the Jews outside of it. History is not likely to look upon them with favor for having done this.
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.