For those engaged in the battle over the upcoming election for the next Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis in Israel, this is no doubt an intense and riveting contest. It is perhaps unprecedented in the degree of controversy and political brawling it has engendered. And yet, it is not clear how many Israeli Jews — a chief rabbi’s ostensible constituency — know who the contenders are, what the chief rabbis actually do or how they are elected. More importantly, it is not clear how many actually care.
For many, this is seen as a narrow struggle in the Orthodox world over which camp is the more worthy custodian of the tradition, in a state in which Orthodoxy is the established Jewish religion. In this model, the rabbinate is seen as an office essentially created to outsource the maintenance and safekeeping of Judaism for a people who don’t really know how it works, and the chief rabbi is the personification of that system.
Viewed in this way, the rabbinate functions, in the eyes of too many non-Orthodox or non-traditional Jews, a little like an authorized car mechanic. At certain intervals in the Jewish life cycle in Israel, we need a stamp of approval that our Jewish ritual is “roadworthy.” Just like we make our obligatory annual visit to the car mechanic to process our vehicle’s road test and registration, we turn to the rabbinate as a service provider — enforced by law — so that we have the necessary documentation in matters of personal status. This is not an encounter necessarily imbued with spiritual significance — it is a bureaucratic procedure before, if ever, it is a religious one.
There is a serious debate in the Jewish world about the legitimacy of the role of the rabbinate in Israel in institutionalizing Orthodoxy as the only authentic form of Judaism. It is generally cast by the opponents of the current rabbinate as a call for religious pluralism, and a demand for equality and respect for all Jewish denominations. But there is also a question to be asked about the core tasks any chief rabbi is entrusted to fulfill, and the personal attributes required to fulfill it.
When we think about successful rabbis in our own local congregations, we do not usually look merely for the “car mechanic” — the one possessing unique knowledge and authority in halachic matters that seem beyond us. What we seek is a person who makes Judaism accessible, meaningful and rich across a community. We seek a person of stature who serves as an example not only of piety but of decency, a person who can represent and cultivate a Judaism that we feel we can own and be a part of, a Judaism which we can incorporate into our core identity.
The rabbis who merely play the detached role of religious authority entrenches a Judaism that is distant from us. We engage them to get the seal of approval that we got married Jewishly or had the obligatory Bar Mitzvah, but they do not help make our Jewishness an organic part of who we are. We see them as some necessary technical requirement of religious life — to the extent we want a part of it — but not as a guide or mentor in the task of enriching our souls. As long as the chief rabbi in Israel is seen primarily as the guardian of Orthodox Judaism in the state, rather than as an ambassador of a Judaism that Jews of different convictions can be inspired by, we risk perpetuating a situation in which the institution itself lacks relevance and deeper meaning for the wider Jewish population.
It may be, as some argue, that the very institution of chief rabbi is inherently and irreparably flawed. That is a debate which may not be resolved quickly. The point here is a different one. Is it possible — until that larger debate is resolved — for the chief rabbi to belong to a particular stream of Judaism and yet be admired and respected by a wide swath of the Jewish world? Is it possible for us to view the chief rabbi as an exemplary representative of Judaism even if he does not represent our brand of it? Is it possible in a sovereign Jewish state to reimagine the role of chief rabbi in which a figure of faith, by force of personality, intellect and sheer greatness, plays a role in nurturing a Jewish public space that transcends the divides in the Jewish world?
Perhaps. But only if the chief rabbi is selected less for the capacity to protect the strictures of religious observance than for that rare blend of exceptional personal qualities that stir in us the desire to connect and engage with the beauty, depth and range of our Jewish heritage.
Tal Becker is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, an international associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior fellow of the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project.