Schechter Logo for Print

Why the State of Israel Should Abolish the Chief Rabbinate

(This article was written at the request of The Jerusalem Report; To read that version click here)

This week we will celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. According to the Second Book of Maccabees (chapters 4-6), the decrees of King Antiochus were brought about by endless infighting among the High Priests who constantly overthrew one another via bribery and even murder. Finally, one of the deposed High Priests tried to capture Jerusalem by force. As a result, Antiochus thought that the Jews were revolting against him. He captured Jerusalem, killed 80,000 Jews, plundered and defiled the Temple, and outlawed Jewish practices – all on account of the lust for power among the religious leaders of the Jewish people at that time.

I was reminded of this tragic episode during the unsavory election campaign for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel which ended last July. It was a lengthy political campaign which included curses, newspaper ads, and political deals between candidates and political parties. Yehudit Yosef, the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef z”l, invited the 150 electors to his home in order to receive personal blessings in return for voting for his son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. The only thing missing from most of the campaigning was a religious message. Indeed, the election was not about bringing Israelis closer to Judaism but about political power – who would control the vast and highly lucrative mechanism of kashrut supervision and who would bestow rabbinic appointments on relatives and fellow party members.

Rabbi David Stav — one of the only candidates with a religious message and the one whom the public-at-large was rooting for — thinks that the Chief Rabbinate is in need of serious reform. After closely observing this corrupt institution for forty years, I believe that it is way beyond reform and needs to be abolished as quickly as possible.

The Chief Rabbinate was founded in Mandatory Palestine in 1921. The first Chief Rabbis were the revered religious Zionists and Torah scholars Rabbis Kook and Uziel, followed by Rabbis Herzog, Nissim and Unterman. Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef, who served from 1972-1983, were widely respected for their Torah knowledge and courageous halakhic decisions, but they spent a great deal of time fighting with each other. As a result, the politicians got involved and limited the Chief Rabbis’ terms to ten years in order to depose them. In retaliation, Rabbi Yosef established the Shas Party and, since 1983, Chief Rabbis are chosen not for their merits but rather for political reasons – an Ashkenazic rabbi could only be elected if he was supported by the Ashkenazic haredi rabbis and a Sefardic Chief Rabbi could only be elected if he was supported by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Shas party.

This sad state of affairs reached its nadir when Rabbi Jonah Metzger, Chief Rabbi from 2003-2013 and a puppet of the Ashkenazic haredim, was arrested in June and again in November 2013 on suspicion of taking bribes, fraud, money-laundering, obstruction of justice and suborning witnesses.

Finally, there is the recent election in July 2013 of Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef because he is the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef; and of Rabbi David Lau, the son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, both of whom are beholden to the Ashkenazic haredim.

As a result, the Chief Rabbinate is no longer a religious Zionist institution but rather a haredi institution opposed to all leniencies in Jewish law. This is evident from the following examples:

–  The Chief Rabbinate holds a monopoly on conversions. For years it did not recognize Conservative and Reform conversions not because it actually checked what was done in those ceremonies but because they did not accept the officiating rabbis as rabbis. In recent years, it is doing the same to most Orthodox rabbis. It decided in 2008 that only 15 “Rabbinical Council of America” Rabbinic Courts and only 40 rabbinic judges in the entire United Sates could perform conversions and the RCA gave in to this dictate. Thus, the conversions performed by most Orthodox rabbis in theU.S.are no longer automatically recognized inIsrael.

– In May 2008, the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel ruled that the many thousands of conversions performed by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman and Israel’s National Conversion Court from 1999-2008 are retroactively annulled and that Rabbi Druckman – one of the most respected religious Zionist rabbis in Israel – and his fellow judges are disqualified judges. Although this decision was repealed after four years due to intervention byIsrael’s Supreme Court and theTel Aviv Rabbinical Court, it certainly serves as a deterrent to thousands of Russian immigrants who are considering conversion.

– The Chief Rabbinate holds a monopoly on marriage. When young people make aliyah, it demands that they bring a letter from their local rabbi that they are Jewish and unmarried. For years they would not accept a letter from a Conservative or Reform rabbi. We now know from an article published in October by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a prominent modern orthodox rabbi fromNew York, that it no longer accepts his letter either. Apparently he is no longer on the ever-shrinking list of approved rabbis.

– Since the Marriage and Divorce Law of 1953, all matters of marriage and divorce have been in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate or of haredi rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate. On the other hand, a civil license from abroad is recognized by the Ministry of Interior. This law forces thousands of couples who are not halakhically Jewish or who wish to be married by Conservative and Reform rabbis or who simply refuse to get involved with the Chief Rabbinate to get a civil license abroad every year. Indeed, the number of couples being married by the Chief Rabbinate has been in steady decline for years. For example, in 2010, 25% of Israeli couples married inCyprus, Burgas andPrague.

– The Chief Rabbinate holds a monopoly on kashrut. I recently asked the owner of a pizza shop why he did not have a kashrut certificate. He replied that the kashrut supervisor shows up once a month for five minutes and he has to pay him thousands of shekels. More and more Israelis who care about kashrut are looking for alternatives.

The sad fact of the matter is that the Chief Rabbinate of Israelis a coercive bureaucracy without a constituency. It is disliked by haredim, religious Zionists, Conservative and Reform Jews, and secular Israelis alike, and many of its actions are a hillul hashem or desecration of God’s name. It only exists at this point so that political parties can use it as a tool of influence and patronage.

This is not something that can be fixed. The Chief Rabbinate needs to be abolished as soon as possible for the sake of Judaism in the Jewish State. Or, to use the Mishnaic phrase, “Rabbi Nathan says: they have transgressed Your Torah; it is time to act for the Lord” (Berakhot 9:5).

What is the alternative? I do not have all the answers, but here are a few general guidelines:

Civil marriage and divorce must be legalized not because they are ideal but because a democracy must provide these options for some 330,000 Russian immigrants who are not halakhically Jewish.

There are a few areas where the State of Israel must provide religious services. For example, there must be kosher food in the IDF so that all soldiers can serve in the army.

But most other forms of Judaism should be privatized entirely or partially funded. Three rabbis from any religious movement should be able to perform conversions recognized by the State. Any rabbi should be able to perform a marriage. Any rabbi should be able to provide kashrut supervision. Any synagogue that has more than a certain number of members should be able to get a subsidy for the rabbi’s salary and in order to construct a building. In short, it is not the State of Israel’s job to decide who is a “real” rabbi or which form of Judaism is more authentic. Let the public decide just as they do in the Diaspora.

One could argue that this will lead to disunity but, unfortunately, disunity already exists. Haredi Jews do not recognize the kashrut and conversions of the Chief Rabbinate, the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize the conversions of most rabbis, and so on and so forth. The Chief Rabbinate might have served as a force to unify the Jewish people. Since it has failed miserably at that task, it is time to try something radically different. Let every Israeli Jew choose his or her rabbi for kashrut, marriage, divorce and conversion. Let the rabbis compete in the free market place of ideas. The result will be that more and more Jews will love Judaism and respect rabbis.

May the light of Hanukkah enlighten our eyes so that we can spread the light of Torah throughout the State of Israel, not through coercion but through love of God, Torah and the Jewish people.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone

    Skip to content