The Chief Rabbinate: My Beloved Turned Away
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The Chief Rabbinate: My Beloved Turned Away

Twenty years ago, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which was founded by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the father of religious Zionism, was taken over by the ultra-Orthodox world view. This past week, with the election of two haredi Chief Rabbis, it emerged that ultra-Orthodox control of the Chief Rabbinate is going to continue for the next decade. This is a failure on three levels: political, religious, and cultural.

Politically, the defeat of the Religious Zionist candidate, Rabbi David Stav, is a farce. The number of Religious-Zionist Knesset members is both greater than the relative weight of the Religious Zionist community in Israeli society and greater than the number of ultra-Orthodox Knesset members. There is no doubt that had Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of Religion, thrown his full weight behind the Religious Zionist candidate and had presented the elections for Chief Rabbi as a test of the coalition government, the results would have been reversed. Unfortunately, his failure was not just because he is a political novice; it reflects a faulty value system. The disappointment is great.

Religiously, this was a missed opportunity. The main factor that distinguishes Orthodox Jews from ultra-Orthodox Jews is the differences in their interpretive traditions and approaches to Jewish law. As in the time of Hillel and Shammai, today there are religious disputes that stem from different world views, and “these and these are the words of the living God.” A Religious Zionist Chief Rabbinate may have preferred interpretations that would free agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce) from their chains, and may have respected the rights of women both in and out of religious courts. A Religious Zionist Chief Rabbinate may have adopted lenient views that see non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union as “the seed of Israel” and may have recognized their potential for conversion rather than relating to them as a plague. Such a rabbinate may have ascribed social significance to the laws of the Sabbatical year, respected secular Jews as “brothers” rather than “sinners,” and seen the State of Israel as the most important Jewish development of our generation, rather than merely a technical mechanism. With ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbis in place, however, there is reason to believe that such changes will not occur in the next decade. 

Culturally, the loss is a tragedy. Anyone who is interested in having the Jewish dimension of the Jewish and democratic state imbued with spiritual content must seek a Chief Rabbinate that is relevant to today’s society. God-fearing Chief Rabbis who are scholars with a pleasant demeanor are simply not enough. The Chief Rabbinate is a state position and accordingly must deal with issues on the national agenda. In their capacity as halakhic authorities, the Chief Rabbis must not only engage in traditional halakhic decision-making, but also must be involved in creating a Zionist halakha, which will incorporate the meaning of sovereignty into religious discourse. The Haredim, however, true to form, are opposed to innovation, invoking the halakhic principle of “the new is forbidden by the Torah.”

More importantly, the Chief Rabbinate must deal with the moral and spiritual issues of political sovereignty. If the ancient prophets Amos, Jeremiah, or Isaiah were to be appointed as Chief Rabbis in our generation, they would stress issues of morality and justice on the national agenda. With the existence of the State of Israel, for the first time in some two thousand years, Jews can express Judaism’s moral sensitivity in dealing with issues that affect the state, such as questions of social justice, human rights, and the ethics of war. The Chief Rabbis are supposed to repair Israel’s national reality, not just issue religious rulings.

When the selection committee chose to leave this important institution in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox, it distanced the Chief Rabbinate from a position of influence on the Israeli public domain. The vision of a responsive rabbinate that can address crucial issues facing the State of Israel, which began with Rabbi Kook, is on the edge of a breaking point from which there may be no return. Israel’s secular Jews look askance at the Chief Rabbinate, but they are the ones who are perpetuating the perversion of this institution through petty political deals. The ultra-Orthodox regard the Chief Rabbinate with cynicism and contempt, but they are the ones who control it. Ironically, it is the Religious Zionists, who see the State’s Judaism as their raison d’être, who have been left empty-handed.

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University. This article was originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon on July 26.

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