The election for Chief Rabbi of Israel is over and the candidate I was rooting for–Rabbi David Stav–did not win. Then again it was foolhardy for me to have hoped that Rabbi Stav would win. You see, in contrast with other candidates, Rabbi Stav actually stands for something other than the status quo, nepotism and doing back-room deals. He stands for making Judaism more appealing to the non-religious community. He stands for reforming the way the rabbinate operates in Israel. Above all he stands for integrity and fairness. None of this seems to matter in terms of the Israeli rabbinate. Here is an anecdote the underscores this sad and shameful state of affairs.
I arrived in israel earlier this week and was talking with a friend about a business dispute he was having. I asked him what the local rabbi’s opinion was. “The rabbi is too busy to deal with it this week because he is involved in the elections for chief rabbinate,” he told me. Immediately interested, I asked what particular involvement the rabbi had in the elections.
“The rabbi is using his influence to ensure that his candidate wins so that the interests of his sons and sons-in-law are protected,” my friend explained to me. It is important to note that this was not said by someone who dislikes this rabbi or in malice, it was just said matter of factly.
Obviously, I was stunned. One would have thought that this very prominent rabbi would be involved in the election to ensure that the interests of the Jewish people, or the interests of his community at the very least, are protected. Yet instead the word on the street in his own community is that this local rabbi is using his influence in the elections for chief rabbi to ensure that his family will get good rabbinic jobs in the future.
The cynicism that the average Israeli has about the office of chief rabbi runs deep. Yet the cynicism starts at the local level. When the local rabbi is seen as peddling influence to ensure that he own family get plum jobs, and that is what seems to interest him most about who wins the election for chief rabbi, how can we expect a rabbi with integrity to win? In such an environment it is impossible for a rabbi such as Rabbi David Stav to garner enough support to win.
Rabbis are supposed to be the moral compass of the community. When two of the previous holders of the office of chief rabbi of Israel have been the subject of serious criminal investigations, what does this say about the moral compass of the nation and the rabbinate as a whole?
Ultimately, the Jewish people are charged by God through our prophets to be a light unto the nation. The prophets begged us over and over to retain our moral integrity. In the Book of Samuel, when the sons of Eli the High Priest became corrupt they were subject to death by the hand of God. Judaism sees corruption within the ranks of religious leaders as reprehensible and entirely intolerable.
Corrupt religious leaders are beyond redemption in our tradition because the desecration of God’s name they cause is irreparable. With all due respect this is a message that many rabbis in Israel have failed to learn. Sadly, they need to understand that no amount of medieval dress and outward acts of piety will ever make up for corruption that exists in the heart.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that the status quo changes and that this systemic corruption is rooted out of what should be a hallowed institution. In the final analysis there are good people in the rabbinate and if they work together they will be able to restore the integrity and respectability of the rabbinate.