Forward Thinking

Why Two Chief Rabbis Is Better Than One

By Nathan Jeffay

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Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Blau speaks at a Jewish school in Berlin. / Getty Images

When you package it right, even a plot against pluralism can be made to seem progressive.

In Israel, government ministers spanning from left to right have advanced legislation that will end the country’s dual Chief Rabbinate, under which there are two religious figureheads, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi. Instead, if the Knesset approves the bill, there will be one.

“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,” reasoned Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Smooth talking, but this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The President, Supreme Court president, Prime Minister and army chief have set political, judicial and defense jobs. Religious leaders are an entirely different matter — they are meant to lead, inspire, and uplift. And to do that in a country where people come from a broad range of religious traditions, giving at least a nod to this by having more than one Chief Rabbi makes perfect sense. It means that at least the two main ethic groupings have a figure on the top level of the state rabbinate.

By Livni’s logic, perhaps a state with one President and so on should have only one religious figurehead. Maybe churches and mosques should be subsumed into her super-rabbinate? The absurdity of this underscores the weakness of her argument.

Now, the obvious point to make is that the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t succeed in doing any of the things I mentioned above — leading, inspiring and uplifting. Indeed, the rabbinate is remote from most Israelis, is receiving a barrage of bad press (much of it fair), and has rarely seemed less relevant. But that’s no reason to make the institution, constitutionally speaking, less representative. If there were a crisis of confidence in the United States towards the President and Secretary of State, it wouldn’t mean that it would suddenly become a good idea to merge the posts.

Ethnic pluralism is good for the Israeli rabbinate. Plus, it gives it the potential to become more relevant and responsive. And if the rabbinate looks in bad shape now, imagine what it would be like if its elections turned into bitter ethnic wars between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

The bill to create a single post is populist. It hints that fortunes will be saved, which they won’t, and that rabbinic power will be reigned in, which it won’t. Instead, it will create one mega-office that will only heighten political battles, and make Judaism in Israel ever more monolithic.


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