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Knesset Bill to Cut Number of Chief Rabbis by 50%


Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Baruch Lau during the Swearing-in ceremony of the Rabbinate Council at the president's residence in Jerusalem, in 2013. Does anyone in America feel the need for a chief rabbi? Then why should Israelis have to endure two, or even just one of them?

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Baruch Lau during the Swearing-in ceremony of the Rabbinate Council at the president's residence in Jerusalem, in 2013. Does anyone in America feel the need for a chief rabbi? Then why should Israelis have to endure two, or even just one of them?
Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted Sunday to approve the legislation to create one chief rabbi’s position instead of the current two, proposed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua Party, and co-sponsored by Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and lawmaker Eli Ben-Dahan of the Jewish Home Party.

The bill must be approved by the Cabinet and then pass three readings in the Knesset in order to pass. It would take effect after the ten-year terms of the current chief rabbis, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, expire.

That’s ten years from now. Ten years of double the expenses, double the needless waste.

The fact is, Israel has no need for a chief rabbi—check that, it has no use for a chief rabbi.

Imagine if you will, that someone in the U.S. were to appoint a chief rabbi. Who would listen to him? Not the non-Orthodox, because they either have their own take on halacha-Jewish law, or follow no halacha at all. Presuming the American chief rabbi would be Orthodox, that would eliminate half the Jews in America. Then come the secular Jews, and they would have no need at all for a chief rabbi, because there’s nothing he could say or do that touches on the reality of their lives.

Out of the Orthodox, all the Haredim, both Chassidim and Litwacks, would sneer at the idea that anyone would presume to replace the authority of their rebbe or rosh yeshiva.

So who’s left? Probably the RCA crowd, your everyday frumies, the Jewish Press readers. But the chief rabbi would be—because that’s how these things roll—a Haredi, and the moderate-to-liberal Orthodox won’t have much use for him either.

And that’s the situation in Israel. The chief rabbinate is a goiter on the neck of Israeli Jews, a remnant from a time when the Ottoman Empire, followed by the British Empire, appointed a religious chief over every ethnic group in Palestine. Even back in the 1920s that position bore little more than a symbolic value, depending on the chief rabbi. Today the situation is that Israelis are serving the chief rabbinate rather than the other way around.

Besides being entirely alien to the spiritual needs of the vast majority of Israelis, the chief rabbinate actually stifles the organic growth of religious communities. Siphoning off much needed budgets from social services to the needy, in a country where half the population is poor or near-poor, why spend money on an elaborate service nobody needs?

Local Jewish communities have always been very good at keeping records of marriages and burials. The burial societies, the “Chevra Kadisha,” don’t need a chief rabbi to monitor them – the state comptroller should be very good at that. Concentrating control over the Jewish life cycle in Israel in the hands of Haredi chief rabbis and judges with little or no relationship with the people under their domain is tyranny. Expensive tyranny at that.

So why wait ten years to cut this silliness in half? Cut it now, both halves. Give power back to the local Jewish communities. Let local rabbis decide halacha for their followers wherever they are, just as they’ve been doing in America, or, before the war, in Poland. Wherever we’ve had a thriving, magnificent Jewish community, we didn’t need a chief rabbi. Those were more likely to be state appointed than part of the people they were supposed to serve.

Just like in today’s Israel.

“In a state where there is only one president, one Supreme Court president, one prime minister and one chief of general staff, there is no way to justify the doubling of the position of chief rabbi,” Tzipi Livni said. “We have to rid ourselves of the old-fashioned division of ancestral congregations and start bringing the country together.”

No, actually, we must rid ourselves of state controlled spiritual services and bring our individual communities together, separately and happily. In a country that centralizes everything, from education to health to police to courts, at least let the people have their own local religious leader.

Incidentally, the new law would also make the rabbinical courts independent of the office of the chief rabbinate, rather than the current situation in which the two chief rabbis alternate serving as the head of the Rabbinate Council and as chief religious court judge, of the Higher Rabbinical Court.

Now take one additional step and let those rabbinical courts be formed and assembled wherever they’re needed, rather than by government fiat. Stop centralizing the Jewish State.

JTA content was used in this report.

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.


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11 Responses to “Knesset Bill to Cut Number of Chief Rabbis by 50%”

  1. Why didn’t this guy write this while HaRav Ovadia ztl was alive. Answer: He would have gotten blasted for these comments. Why don’t we do away with that shabby government if you’re going to throw out the chief rabbinet.

  2. I agree with you Aharon! But the Rabbis will remain always, they are the essentials in our culture!

  3. Moishe Pupik says:

    Whenever we had chief rabbis, they were always appointed by the Soviet government, or the Keiser, they were never part of the people. If Israel wants to live according to the Torah, they should adopt Torah law, not Torah clerks.

  4. One step closer to return Sanhedrin

  5. Violet Helms says:

    It can never be forgotten that this is a Jewish Nation. Rabbis are essential.As much as the Worl would like it to be a secular country and thus “Less Jewish”, that should never happen.

  6. Yechiel Baum says:

    if the chief rabbi does not order all able men to serve in the army, then they are useless as it shows the world they have self serving.

  7. Moishe Pupik says:

    We are not in Europe. We are in a free country, where every Jew is free to define his or her faith and not be indoctrinated, especially not by Haredi rabbis who have nothing in common with him. And I am very much observant. I mean, look at my picture, for heaven's sake.

  8. Dan Silagi says:

    First: The Knesset has absolutely no right being in the rabbi business at all. Second, Israel needs a chief rabbi like Silky Pitterman needs a second head.

  9. Moishe Pupik says:

    Judaism is not a tradition of rabbis, it's a tradition of God loving people who dedicate themselves to following the commandments. When we need guidance, we turn to the rabbi of our choosing. That hardly justifies two offices and gigantic staffs and millions of dollars. A phone call takes care of it. maybe a Skype.

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