Elchanan Poupko

Ignore Israel’s next chief rabbi at your own risk

If you have not been enjoying the public humiliation Israel and the Jewish people have been subject to on the international stage since the various Israeli chaos agents began dominating the news cycle, it is time for you to start caring about the race for Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Sure, it is easy to write off the Chief Rabbinate and stop caring. With everything else going on and with previous frustration with the Chief Rabbinate, it makes sense for this upcoming election to enjoy such a noteworthy lack of interest and apathy, but it is an apathy we will all pay for and regret.

Let us begin by appreciating where this all began. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate began as the most widely appreciated and respected Rabbinic body the Jewish people have known in a long time. The reverence and the broad consensus over the body’s respectability were hardly disputable. Names like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Yaakov Elisher, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, Rabbi Unterman, and other great rabbis were the ones to hold these positions. It was fair to assume that if someone served as Israel’s Chief Rabbi, they were also on the frontline of Torah scholarship. Their distinguished scholarship and service to the Jewish people brought them to a political position, not the other way around. These Chief Rabbis could walk into any respectable Beit Midrash and Yeshiva filled with the greatest Torah scholars and immediately delve into a Talmudic conversation on the heights level on whatever topic was being learned. Simply put, the Chief Rabbinate was mostly merit, with some politics involved. 

Where are we today?

After being stripped of his license to serve as the rabbi of a city in 1998 following allegations of violations of halacha and Israeli law and corruption charges, Rabbi Yonah Metzger was elected to serve as Israel’s Chief Rabbi. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron condemned this move as a “Chilul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name. Following the widespread knowledge of his misconduct, Metzger was…. well, appointed to be the Chief Rabbi of Israel. After serving as Chief Rabbi from 2003-2013, Metzger was sentenced to three years in prison in 2017 for using his position for personal gain, money laundering, tax evasion, and more. This breathtaking corruption from someone who held a position no less important than the Chief Rabbi of Israel spoke more to the state of his office than to his personal shortcoming. Slowly but surely, Israelis, rabbis, and the Jewish people came to expect less and less from this office. 

As of today, with all due respect to the individuals filling the positions of Chief Rabbis, both Chief Rabbi David Lau and Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef are serving in positions their own fathers have once filled. Desiring the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, a scholar of his own merit but also the son of a former Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Shapiro. 

As the elections to the position come close, the two leading Sephardic candidates are lining up to be Rabbi Yehuda Deri–Shas’s Aryeh Deri’s brother–and Rabbi David Yosef, whose father Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has already served as Chief Rabbi, and whose brother Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef is currently serving as a Cheif Rabbi. 

Looking at the reality of the position of a Chief Rabbi being filled with someone from the same family for a third term, every term being a ten-year term, the case for a merit-based Chief Rabbinate is looking bleaker than ever.

While Judaism mandates for the roles of priesthood and monarchy to follow a family line, Torah leadership is specially mandated to be one that is based on merit. 

Maimonides famously states in his laws of Talmud Torah (chapter 3): “Three crowns were conferred upon Israel: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Aaron merited the crown of priesthood…David merited the crown of royalty…The crown of Torah is set aside, waiting, and ready for each Jew…Whoever desires may come and take it.”

With Israel’s chief Rabbinate looking at a third generation of nepotism and politically driven appointments, it risks earning the complete disregard of Torah scholars, rabbis, laymen, and, frankly speaking, anyone with knowledge of what has gone into this process. 

The cementing of nepotism, politics, and outside influence on Torah leadership can also have a corrosive impact on Torah scholarship as a whole. If proper leadership and scholarship are never recognized, rewarded, or promoted and are always reserved for the related and well-connected, the chance that aspiring Torah scholars will rise in the leadership ranks will sharply decline. Individuals like Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (The Chafetz Chaim), Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and other rabbinic luminaries that have changed history for the better will not shine in our midst if we lock up the Mimonidean “Crown of Torah” and reserve it for the rich and well connected only. 

Through two millennia in which the single most important predictor of success in life was what family you were born to, the Jewish people could shine and bring forward spiritual and intellectual giants because scholarship remained the key to upward mobility in the ranks of our community. The more scholarly meritocracy eludes us as a people, the fewer leaders we produce. 

The Talmud famously (Nedarim 81) states in a way that is ominously understandable:

be careful with regard to the education of the sons of paupers, as it is from them that the Torah will issue forth…And for what reason is it not common for Torah scholars to give rise to Torah scholars from among their sons? Rav Yosef said: This is so that they should not say the Torah is their inheritance. 

Rav Sheshet, son of Rav Idi, said: This is so that they should not be presumptuous toward the communityMar Zutra said: Because they take advantage of their fathers’ standing to lord over the community and are punished for their conduct. Rav Ashi said: Because they call ordinary people donkeys.”

It is hard to read this passage with each and every reason given as to why Torah leadership comes most often from those who come from humble backgrounds and not think about the major alienation and frustration the Israeli and Jewish community has been feeling from the Cheif Rabbinate and much of its rabbinic leadership. Ignoring the Chief Rabbinate altogether will not solve this problem; working hard to make sure the choice is merit-based rather than political is key to bridging the growing gap between the Rabbinate and the Jewish people. 

Yet nepotism is not the only issue to contend with in this cycle of elections to the Chief Rabbinate—policy matters. The currently leading candidate for the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is Rabbi Micha Halevy. While being a highly achieved, knowledgeable, respected, and well-liked rabbi on his own merit, Rabbi Halevi enjoys strong ties with the Har Hamor faction of religious Zionism, a faction known for its extremist appetite for culture wars which has also produced militant MK Avi Maoz.

It is easy to ignore the race for Chief Rabbinate. It is easy to write off the issue and focus on a great deal of other news coming our way. Yet we cannot afford to ignore a position that sets policy for the entire state of Israel. We cannot ignore a position that, whether we like it or not, will represent our people to the entire world. We cannot afford to ignore a position that will make decisions about conversions, Israel relations with the diaspora, Kashrut agencies, marriages, and divorces for Jews worldwide. If you are an Israeli taxpayer, you will be funding this individual, and that individual should be able to answer some of your most basic questions. Now is the time to get interested, ask questions, find out how Chief Rabbis are elected and which of your local officials will be part of choosing your next Chief Rabbi, and make sure the position is given proper public scrutiny. If there is anything the political turmoil in the US and inside Israel have taught us, it is that no official position is too small to care about. Ignoring what goes on in public office will come at our own peril.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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