What is the Chief Rabbinate's role in the Jewish State?
What is the Chief Rabbinate's role in the Jewish State?

Rabbi Amichai Eliash of Carmei Tzur co-authored this article.

There has been much criticism of the Chief Rabbinate of late, from Israeli organizations such as ITIM and the leadership of various Jewish movements abroad. Open Orthodoxy's Rabbi Marc Angel, Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorf,  Non-denominational Rabbi Pamela Frydman, Reform Rabbi Uri Regev and  Reconstructionist Rabbi Deborah Waxman recently posted a letter calling for " the State of Israel to revoke the powers of the Chief Rabbinate, which allow it coercively to undermine the wholeness of the Jewish People," accusing it of "rejecting diversity and inclusiveness."

The letter, however, is a misleading way of describing the situation in Israel, because it does not mention the existing acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness that allows anyone who calls himself a Jew to become an Israeli citizen by means of the Law of Return. 

That charge settled, the Chief Rabbinate's mandate from the establishment of the state is very much an inclusive one and it very much guards the wholeness of the Jewish people. It all depends on how one defines inclusivity and wholeness – and whether the future counts as much as the present.

The Chief Rabbinate is in charge of preserving the symbols that make Israel a Jewish state.  making halakhic decisions on national issues (such as whether and how Ethiopian immigrants would be accepted as Jews, under what conditions a heart can be transplanted from a dying person, etc.) and, above all, ensuring the continuity of the Jews as one people in that State.

So whence the charges? And what lies behind the Zionist religious philosophy that created the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel? How does the concept of  Chief Rabbinate differ from the diaspora mindset regarding the rabbinate?

In the opening chapter of his book Netsach Yisrael, the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of all time, writes that in order to understand the meaning of redemption we must understand the meaning of exile - because the good is often understood better by experiencing its polar opposite.

Later on in the book, he explains that the essence of exile is the destruction of national life (ejection from one's homeland, dispersion and subjugation) while redemption is the renaissance of national life (a return to one's homeland, ingathering and independence.)

That is why he maintains that exile is an abnormal situation and a terrible tragedy for the Jewish people, while redemption is the attainment of longed-for completeness.

G-d chose the entire people of Israel, not only the observant Jews who sanctify His name, but the whole nation, calling it "a kingdom of priests and a nation of holiness". He did not give the Torah to the Patriarchs, holy as they were, but to the newly freed slaves whom he took out of Egypt and forged into a nation in its own land..

For millennia, Israel's exile and the resultant lack of national expression limited that status..

There is no question that righteous, observant, idealistic Jews who want to bring about tikun olam were and are to be found in the diaspora, but G-d's complete Will is attained only through the rebirth of Jewish national life. That is one of the great miracles of our becoming a nation in its land once again. That is the idea meant by this period being one where we walk "in the footsteps of redemption."

The late Torah luminary Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook once compared the status of the Jewish people in the Diaspora with its status in the State of Israel. It was clear to him that the differences were in the public sphere and the area of Jewish continuity, made necessary by the very definition of a Jewish State and made possible by the opportunities for Jewish life on a national scale that independence affords.

He explained that in the diaspora, in both holy and secular spheres, Jews were a collection of groups, a spectrum of different flocks – who did not function as a nation because there was no way they could do so.

As a people in its own land once more, however, the Jewish nation has become active in many new areas that are national Jewish challenges– aliya, building the land, strengthening the IDF, expanding the economy and more. Tiny Israel is known for its help to disaster-stricken areas, for its medical breakthroughs, food-producing technology and hi-tech. No less important, however, is the obligation to turn our thoughts to building a national spiritual life that is discernible and different from that in the Diaspora.

We have to be on a level above the division into flocks, the ethnic groups with varied customs, individual communities with their own leaders, becoming the unique nation we are meant to be in spheres that affect the entire nation. We must bring the."Torah of Eretz Yisrael" back to life.

It is that idea that led to the founding of the Chief Rabbinate, While in exile, we consisted of individual communities, or several communities allied together, with each congregation and its spiritual leader acting autonomously on every level, since there was no national level. Now that we have a national life once again, he said, both in secular areas and even more so in matters of holiness, we must create a national public and sovereign existence.

That is why Rav Kook demanded that everything that has to do with  marriage and divorce, which affect the unity of the nation, as well as matters of public religious observance be decided upon by a Chief Rabbinate "supervising the organization of all matters pertaining to religion in a regular, unified manner for the entire nation, defining a national aspect to the Torah of Israel."  In this way, he said, the House of Israel would be rebuilt on its land as a strong and superior entity.

However, in addition to the fundamental national value of unified halakhic decisions in the public sphere and national sovereign organization of religious life, there was and is an existential reason for a Chief Rabbinate. We cannot interfere In personal lifestyles, nor, when it comes to halakhot and minhagim (Jewish customs),  can we mandate unified decisions, due to the variegated longtime traditions, halakhic differences and  prayerbooks  of the Jews who returned to Zion. However, in the public sphere, it is imperative to have unified decisions or we will not be able to continue as one nation.

What is meant by the public sphere?

Conversion is a striking example. Imagine a different status for every convert:  converts with a specific rabbi's hechsher, converts of the Chief Rabbinate, converts with a Badatz hechsher etc. Some would be considered Jewish by one group, others by another.  Some would not be considered Jewish at all.  There has to be a unified standard – and at this point in time, for that reason conversions done in Israel are accepted by the entire Jewish world.

Another example would be privatization of marriage and divorce procedures. With one rabbi  believing in annulling marriages, with other rabbis considering the children born to a woman whose marriage is annulled (rather than ended with a halakhic divorce, a get)  mamzerim –  we would not be able to marry one another within a generation.

This is not a farfetched stretch of the imagination. Today the Mavoy Satum organization (an organization dedicated to freeing agunot whose name literally means 'dead end') has turned to the Supreme Court to recognize the annulment of kiddushin (halakhic marriage) perfomed by a private religious court. That, despite our empathy for any man or woman in a get refusal situation, spells disaster for the children born to the woman after the so-called "annulment," as annulment is an extremely rare and limited procedure under Jewish law.

The above examples are problematic enough without taking into account the Reform movement's attempts to infiltrate its watered down connection to Judaism as a recognized religious stream in Israeli society. Obtaining Israeli citizenship for Reform Jews is not an issue, the Law of Return covers that, all Jews are welcome in Israel, but halakhic personal status - conversion, marriage, divorce etc. – are crucial issues that must be unified in a way that allows for all Jews in Israel to marry one another.  One cannot insist rabbis recognize procedures or lenient decisions because we want them to.

When we hear the ongoing complaints about the Chief Rabbinate's decisions, especially from rabbis who came from the Diaspora and  are unfamiliar with the concept of national spiritual institutions, we must remember that the creation of a national rabbinic body means that  no group gets it own way.

They are not the first to face this problem. Our greatest religious leaders, knowing full well how crucial unified halakhic decisions by the Chief Rabbinate in matters that affect everyone are for the Jewish nation, agreed to major compromises on many issues in order to achieve this unity. Rabbi Kook agreed to establish a religious court of appeals despite the halakhic difficulties involved, the Sephardic and Yemenite rabbis agreed to accept Rabbenu Gershom's ban on more than one wife, Rabbi Uziel agreed to outlaw levirate marriage although Sephardic customs and halakhic court decisions had practiced it for centuries.  They did not find it any easier.

All national institutions, from the IDF, police, health ministry to many others , find themselves in the midst of serious conflicts about their procedures, conflicts that often reach the public eye. The Chief Rabbinate is no different. Every rabbi can attempt to have his opinion the  deciding one, rabbis can disagree vehemently with its decisions, but let us not go back to the diaspora reality of individual flocks. We are one nation with one Torah and one Chief Rabbinate.