Jews need rabbis, not chiefs

Matti Friedman is an Israeli journalist and author. David Stav is an Israeli rabbi, yeshiva head and the current chairman of Tzohar, the organization of moderate Orthodox rabbis in Israel. 

Last month, Friedman published an interview with Rabbi Stav in the Times of Israel and republished in The CJN. He asked this pertinent question:  “I grew up in Toronto in a largely religious neighborhood that was part of a thriving Jewish community. There was no rabbinate. The same goes for anywhere else in the Diaspora. Why does Israel need one?”

Rabbi Stav seems to aspire to the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel when it becomes vacant next year. Though he’s critical of the way the present incumbent and his Sephardi counterpart stifle religious life in Israel, he’s in favour of the institution and asserts that the Jewish state needs a religious hierarchy as “an elementary common denominator around which the society can unite.”

He chooses to ignore the fact that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is the creation of the British mandatory powers in Palestine, modelled on the one in Britain, where the chief rabbi is a kind of Jewish counterpart to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Until the middle of the last century, he was called “the very reverend” and wore an Anglican clerical collar. Nowadays, like several bishops, he sits in the House of Lords.

The institution has little to do with Jewish tradition. Although there have always been leading rabbis around the world, their authority was invariably founded on their personalities and sustained by the depth of their learning. It had little to do with the office they held.

Tzohar promises to change Israel’s Chief Rabbinate by making conversion easier and marriage ceremonies more acceptable to secular Israelis. Its chairman points to the more than one million Israelis, mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their offspring, whose Jewish status is being questioned by the current hierarchy. And one-third of secular Israeli couples marry abroad in civil ceremonies to escape the punishing bureaucracy of the rabbinate at home.

Rabbi Stav admits that Israeli rabbinic officials don’t minister to the religious needs of Jews. He told Friedman that they treat Jews “like the income tax department does, as people who owe us” and blames the secular political parties for selling out to the haredim in exchange for cynical support on other matters. The avowed aim of Tzohar is to de-politicize the Chief Rabbinate and restore its integrity and flexibility as it was in the days of its first incumbent, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

The intention may be genuine and noble, but it’s unrealistic, because every central rabbinic authority, even if less rigid, has proven to be harmful to normative Judaism.

The main reason why the United States is the most religious country in the western world is because Christians don’t have an established church, nor do Jews tolerate ecclesiastical hierarchies. Americans know that faith thrives in a climate of pluralism and diversity.

All shades of Judaism, including Orthodoxy, benefit from it. Yet it seems that even this moderate Israeli exponent wants a hierarchy, probably in the vain hope that in its quest for hegemony, the state-sponsored institution will keep out non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Hunger for power in the guise of moderation and in the name of Jewish unity seems to overrule the alleged commitment to Jewish values. 

An Israeli Chief Rabbinate, even if it’s more lenient than at present, will continue to satisfy the craving for a franchise on Judaism at the expense of the growth and depth seen in America, where – unlike in Britain and some European countries – rabbis have to make their case on merit, not through administrative rule.

Orthodox rabbinic power in Israel disenfranchises women – i.e., more than half the country’s Jewish population. If Rabbi Stav wants to earn the respect of the Israeli mainstream, he must commit himself to equal rights for women and their full recognition in all religious matters. He’ll also have to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that the non-Orthodox streams deserve equal rights in Israeli society because of their capacity to enrich Jewish life – just as in the Diaspora.

A good way to achieve this is to heed the implied challenge in Friedman’s reference to his Toronto experience and to seek to abolish this corrupting and traditionally questionable office. As the head of a yeshiva, Rabbi Stav should know that Jews need rabbis, not chiefs.