When the Chief Rabbinate was created in the 1920s, two rabbis were placed at the helm — one representing Jews of Ashkenazi descent and the other those from the Sephardi world. After Israel declared its independence, the situation remained. However, recently the Knesset has started the process of removing this very problematic arrangement, which did little good and much bad.
True, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is far from perfect. Some say the idea of moving to one chief rabbi is a cover for ignoring the rest of the problems that need to be dealt with; that chief rabbis are chosen by their political affiliation and that the rabbinate doesn’t know how to deal with non-ultra-Orthodox traditions. I don’t think this move will solve these problems, but I do believe it’s important to Israel as a Jewish state.
The biggest problem with the status quo is that it encourages two opposite forms of discrimination: on the one hand, it forces Judaism’s two largest traditions to remain distinct and prevents them from merging, and on the other hand it doesn’t allow other traditions to be elected to the highest state-sponsored religious post.
Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, and as such it allows and encourages Jews from various backgrounds and traditions to make aliyah and call it their home. Whether one practices the traditions shaped in Yemen, Iraq, Russia, Brazil, Poland or Ethiopia — everybody is considered Jewish. (Indeed, as in other countries, new immigrants are often treated poorly — those issues must also be addressed and fixed.)
Throughout the history of Zionism and the State of Israel, there have been two main visions regarding the Jewish state: David Ben-Gurion’s “melting pot” approach from the first decades of the state, which sought to unify all Jews and cancel the differences created during the nation’s 2,000 years of exile, and the more recent, multicultural approach highlighting the beauty and good of many traditions and faces.
While the argument over these opposing views continues, we must acknowledge that having two chief rabbis is problematic for both sides in the debate. There are those who support Israel as a “melting pot” where traditions are stirred together until a single way of life emerges and they cannot accept the idea of two chief rabbis, since it contradicts their vision of unity. On the other hand, there are those who wish Israel to be multicultural and accepting of different traditions, and they do not want to enable the state to decide which two traditions are labeled as important and given seats as chief rabbis — while pushing other traditions away.
Yet, despite the fact that both Zionist visions should support having only one chief rabbi, there are two main arguments sounded by people opposing the idea. Both of these arguments are problematic for those who believe Israel should be a Jewish state that is welcoming to all Jews.
Firstly, some argue that the solution of having only one chief rabbi is good for those supporting the “melting pot” theory — while it pushes the idea of multiculturalism even further away. This is a misleading argument, because it assumes the one rabbi will continuously be either Ashkenazi or Sephardi, as is the case today.
However, if such a change were made it would be another step toward making sure the most learned and accepted rabbi led Israel’s chief rabbinate. Whether the elected rabbi was Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, Sephardi, Yemenite or from another tradition would no longer matter. Having one chief rabbi would be like having one chief of staff in the army — his skills and knowledge would matter while his ancestry would have no significance.
The second question, usually thrown into the discussion by the more observant, has to do with the fact that different people practice different traditions and one can’t expect everyone to listen to the rulings of a rabbi from a different tradition than his own.
Like the first argument against one rabbi, also this question assumes little knowledge or thinking from the person asked. No one today thinks those from a Yemenite background need to forgo their traditions because there is no chief rabbi from their sect, and no one thinks the chief rabbi is the only religious authority in Israel to whom people listen. (In fact, for many Jews who seek rabbinical guidance, the chief rabbi isn’t relevant — since he’s the least approachable. Rather, educators and neighborhood rabbis are those who people turn to with day-to-day questions.)
In addition, having two chief rabbis costs twice as much as having one, forcing the state to allocate two salaries, drivers, offices, aids and the rest of the expenses to the unneeded post instead of supporting other projects. I could understand these expenses if the second rabbi were justified. In this case, as I have explained, it’s harmful.
Not everyone knows, but ever since its establishment the IDF has had a chief rabbi (who is also a member of Israel’s chief rabbinate’s executive council) — and his family’s traditions or heritage have never been an issue: Gad Navon was a Moroccan rabbi while Shlomo Goren went on to become the Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Both led the IDF rabbinate.
The army functions perfectly well with one chief rabbi, while allowing the soldiers to each practice their unique traditions. Also at the state level, the chief rabbi’s job is first and foremost to head the rabbinical council (that outlines policies and rules on rare and sensitive issues,) and to head a very large organization.
It’s about time Israel made the move to one chief rabbi. Just like a boat needs a single captain, the Jewish state needs one rabbi — chosen on the basis of knowledge, merit and skills, not his ancestry.