Shalom Life | April 28, 2014

Op-Ed: One Rabbi too Many

If Judaism was able to thrive without a chief rabbi for thousands of years, then it can probably do the same today

By: Aviad Kleinberg

Published: December 6th, 2013 in News » Israel

Tzipi Livni and Eli Ben-Dahan's bill to cancel the ethnic division in Israel's chief rabbi position is a step in the right direction. Instead of two chief rabbis, one Sephardic and the other Ashkenazi, only one chief rabbi will be appointed – regardless of his ethnic group.

The ethnic split began during the British Mandate, when it was decided to appoint two rabbis instead of the "Rishon LeZion," who was responsible for presenting the affairs of the Jewish community to the Ottoman authorities (and was always Sephardic). There was a certain logic in this division, which reflected the rise in Ashkenazi power in the Yishuv (Jewish population in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel) due to the immigration from Eastern Europe. Afterwards, as is common with institutions, no one wondered whether this logic was still valid. The State of Israel continued what the Brits began.

The two rabbis established parallel entourages, appointed associates, reaped the benefits, finalized deals and seldom did what the authorities expected them to do – to adapt the Halacha to the reality in Israel. As time went by, the split between the Sephardic chief rabbi and his Ashkenazi colleague became even more unfounded.

The seculars don't really care anyway who it is that imposes the way of halachic Judaism on them. The others have become skeptical over the authority of rabbis appointed by the secular state and operating under its authority. They have created their own kosher permits and their own lists of people disqualified to marry and their own supervisors. Religious Zionism was the only group which took the Chief Rabbinate seriously, but the hostile takeover of the haredim in recent years drove even them away from the institution.

It is to the credit of the seculars, traditional and national-religious that the separation between the Sephardic custom and the Ashkenazi custom has become a pretty marginal question for them. This happened somewhat because outside the haredi world, where the separation remains stricter than ever, the communities became very close – one of the reasons being that the percentage of marriages between ethnic groups in Israel is very high and a large group of Israelis is no longer Sephardic or Ashkenazi.

Time to stop interfering in religious affairs

There is no point and no logic, therefore, in perpetuating the ethnic separation in a community which is not even interested in it. According to the new laws, any person interested can choose his own rabbi according to his inclinations. If he wants an Ashkenazi rabbi, he'll choose him; if he wants a Sephardic rabbi, he'll choose him. There is no need for two rabbis.

The big question is whether there is still a need for one rabbi. Why does the State of Israel even need a chief rabbi? A community rabbi's job is to issue halachic rulings to his congregation members. The chief rabbi does not issue rulings, and his halachic status is often very modest.

Indeed, it has happened that prominent "poskim" filled the role (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is the most significant example of such a case), but many of the chief rabbis were people whose influence in the world of Torah was extremely small.

The chief rabbi is an official responsible for the state kashrut system and Jewish burial. He is also responsible for the state rabbinical courts, which the State has put in charge of matrimonial laws and, to a great extent, also conversions. In all these areas, his authority does not stem from his status in the eyes of religious Jews, but from the power of coercion given to him by the State which sees itself as secular.

Why does the State even need an overstaffed office, whose entire role is to impose its way on the individuals who don't have a rabbi of their own – the seculars? Isn't it time for the State to stop interfering in religious affairs? It should provide all its citizens with civil union registration, religious registration according to reasonable and indiscriminating tests, and cemeteries which don't examine people thoroughly.

Those interested in kosher food, in a kosher conversion, in a kosher burial and in a religious marriage will choose a rabbi according to their preferences. It's that simple. Judaism managed without a chief rabbi for thousands of years. It can manage without one today.

This story is reprinted with permission from Ynet News

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