What is a Chief Rabbi?
A Chief Rabbi is a government-appointed official – nothing more, nothing less. There are chief Rabbis of the country, of cities and of regional councils, in much the same way that there are mayors and policemen in them. The Chief Rabbi is in charge of the religious clerks and bureaucrats below him in the same way the police chief is in charge of his policemen.
The Chief Rabbi is responsible for the oversight of certain legal public services such as marriage and divorce, conversion and maintenance of religious places in his legally defined area. As the head of the government office in his area, he also appears at ceremonial events on a local, regional or national level and gives a speech.
Those who complain about the biased way in which judges are chosen in this country are invited to read the process by which Chief Rabbis are elected. There they will see that the majority of people on an electing committee are Chief Rabbis or other such functionaries who are part of the religious bureaucracy.
Like all other government departments, the Rabbinate is susceptible to political influence and patronage. It is no secret that many Chief Rabbis and functionaries thereof are elected not based on merit, but on their political ties to powerful religious politicians and leaders. The old party of Mafdal was no different in its desire to put “its” people in key positions in the Rabbinate. Anyone who doubts this is invited to learn of the underhanded manner in which Rav Shlomo Goren and Rav Ovadia Yosef, both genuine Torah giants, were elected.
This alone should put the lie to the idea that the Chief Rabbi is somehow ‘independent’. He is merely not dependent on the public and frankly cares little for it. No, the Chief Rabbi is merely beholden to others – to the government and politicians who write his check, to the cloistered yeshiva who taught him Torah and to the principles and rules of his chosen bureaucratic institution. If there are Chief Rabbis who genuinely see themselves as public servants, they are the exception – they are true Rabbis in spite of the office of the Chief Rabbi, not because of it.
There are two primary justifications for the existence of the Chief Rabbinate aside from ceremony: services and kiruv levavot. It fails miserably on both counts.
As a government monopoly staffed by bureaucrats, the Rabbinate suffers from no real competition or need to become more efficient and user-friendly. It is no accident that many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews eschew Rabbinate services or do everything they can to bypass it. This is true in terms of kashrut, marriage and everything else that does not require the official stamp of the Rabbinate. For individual Orthodox Jews of all stripes, the Rabbinate is the last place to look for religious guidance or services.
What of kiruv levavot? Certainly, there were many who were hopeful that the Chief Rabbinate would be a great unifier, an institution that would bring Jews closer to Torah and Mitzvot. Indeed, much effort is expended to ensure that ‘public-friendly’ Chief Rabbis are appointed in various locales.
The truth is vastly different. I can scarcely think of a religious institution that has done more to make Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Jews more repulsive and noxious than the Rabbinate. Whether it’s the indifferent and obtuse clerks or the ‘chumra-only’ dayanim, the Rabbinate could not have done more to make religion disgusting if it had been openly funded by Richard Dawkins.
In my opinion, the Chief Rabbinate does not deserve to exist in its present form, as a large government bureaucracy enjoying a monopoly on so many crucial religious services. The ceremonial functions which Chief Rabbis provide can either be provided by private Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva, or by a much smaller office of a National Chief Rabbi, a sort of ceremonial Religious President.
But what of the services it provides? More on that in later posts.