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.”