Who Needs a Chief Rabbinate?

It's a totally useless institution. Why not do away with it? Or privatize it? Or turn it into an NGO that would have to compete with other NGOs from different denominations?

The Chief Rabbinate, and state-appointed rabbis in general, seem to be a prominent topic of discussion in the Knesset of late. The legislature has, for example, been debating a bill that would allow the current chief rabbis to run for a second 10-year term. Considering their respective records, one wonders why. At the same time, a member of Knesset recently proposed a law that would authorize the chief rabbi to dismiss a neighborhood rabbi who is not doing his work properly. That sounds like a good idea since, although there are some fine government-appointed rabbis, there are also many who are simply occupying an office and nothing more. This is inevitable since the criteria for appointing such rabbis are purely political, rather than based on their abilities or suitability for the post.

It seems to me, however, that even this second bill does not go far enough. It puts a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The real problem is not rabbis who don't do their work properly, but rather the entire concept of rabbis - whether the chief rabbi or a neighborhood rabbi - who get their salary from the state. It's a concept that is foreign to Judaism, appearing nowhere in either tradition or halakhic literature. It is the Catholic Church, after all, that has a hierarchy of clergy, running all the way from the pope down to the parish priest, with the churchgoers - the people - having no say in the appointment of any of them.

In our case, however, the situation is even worse because the entire institution, from the chief rabbi down, is appointed by political maneuvering. They are not selected because of quality but because of connections. They are subservient to the state and beholden to their patrons.

In Europe, the institution of the Chief Rabbinate came into being in the modern period not in response to Jewish needs but to satisfy gentile governments, whose leaders wanted a Jewish representative they could turn to. In a Jewish state, it is a totally useless institution. Why not do away with it altogether? Or privatize it? Or turn it into an NGO that would have to compete with other NGOs from different denominations, each with their own rabbinical authorities?

A prominent American rabbi was once asked to become Israel's chief rabbi. His reply was that in Russia his grandfather had refused the post of government-appointed rabbi, which was considered a shameful position, and he had no desire to accept what his grandfather had declined. Rabbis should be selected by the communities they are to serve. They should be supported by those communities and be responsible to them. A city may need a kashrut inspector, but it doesn't need an official rabbi.

American Jewry makes do without a chief rabbi. In the early 20th century, there was an attempt by the Orthodox to create such a post, and to bring in an outstanding European rabbi to fill it, but thankfully, that never materialized and American Jewry - Orthodoxy included - is by far the better for it.

Furthermore, in the U.S., Judaism is a respected religion. It is seen as an integral and positive part of the contemporary scene, with something to say about moral issues of the present day. Theologically, philosophically and morally it can hold its own with all other religions. This is as true for Orthodoxy as for Conservative and Reform.

In Israel, the usual perception of religion is either of a political entity aligned with the nationalist right, a religious establishment that causes problems regarding marriage, divorce and conversion, or an ultra-Orthodox group that stands apart and resists integration into the army and into the workforce, educating a new generation without providing it with the tools for making a living.

The control of the Chief Rabbinate over marriage and divorce is especially egregious, and the consequences are well known. Large segments of the Israeli population have no way of marrying in the country. The scandalous situation of agunot - women unable to obtain a divorce - requires no elaboration here. In addition, the existence of an "official" Chief Rabbinate discriminates against other rabbis and Jewish religious organizations, denying them governmental funding and recognition. Taxpayers' monies are distributed in a way that does not reflect the wishes or the beliefs of the taxpayers themselves.

The Chief Rabbinate today represents no one but itself and its overblown bureaucracy. It will not be missed, and the oppression that it casts over marriage, divorce and conversion will disappear to the glory of Judaism. Israel is the place where a true flourishing of Judaism could and should take place. If a new, nongovernmental, pluralistic rabbinate were to come into being, perhaps it would restore the image of the rabbinate and the image of Judaism to what it should be: a force for good in Israeli society.

Reuven Hammer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, lives in Jerusalem and is the author of several books including "Entering the High Holy Days" and "Entering Torah."