Never before in Jewish history has there been a chief rabbinate that has sought to impose its views upon the entire Jewish world.
The position of chief rabbi was created in medieval Europe largely for secular purposes, such as collecting taxes and compiling statistics, and in order to provide an intermediary between the government and the Jewish community. During the period of the British Mandate of Palestine, the High Commissioner established the Chief Rabbinate as the religious authority for the Jewish community.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is a particularly problematic institution. First of all, there is not one chief rabbi but two — one for the Sephardim and one for the Ashkenazim! Its incumbents are not chosen on the basis of their knowledge or piety, but rather as a result of political wheeling and dealing. It is not by chance that the current holders of the office are the children of their predecessors.
One former chief rabbi was charged with bribery, money laundering and income tax violations, while another was accused of corruption in financial matters and of sexual harassment.
Yet, in spite of its shady history, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has pretensions of being a Jewish Vatican. It has just released its proposed criteria for the recognition of rabbinical courts around the world for the purposes of conversions to Judaism and divorce.
Venice’s chief rabbi protested in the Knesset last week against the Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize his Orthodox rabbinical court and converts.
Some 160 rabbis, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, appear on a list of rabbis whom Israel’s ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.
The Jewish world has always consisted of diverse streams with variant views as to how Judaism should be interpreted. There were the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes in the period of the 2nd Temple. There were the Karaites in the Geonic period, while Maimonides was accused by his opponents of misleading Jews into heterodoxy and placing the integrity of the community in danger.
The Vilna Gaon launched a systematic campaign against Hasidism and denounced the movement. Accusations of espionage were made by his opponents against Chabad’s founder and first rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, as a result of which he was jailed by the Russian government.
History shows that pluralism was always an integral part of Judaism and that the religious establishment never failed to do everything in its power to subdue opposition.
Prior to modern times the principle that operated in the Jewish world was marra d’atra marra, or recognition of the local religious authority. However, what we are witnessing today in our global village is a power grab.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is using the political power at its disposal to discredit many of the legitimate religious leaders of Diaspora Jewry by questioning their authority, thereby driving a further wedge between the State of Israel and world Jewry.
We cannot claim to be one people while at the same time alienating Jews who do not conform to the values and standards of a Haredi Chief Rabbinate. World Jewry is not going to allow Israel’s chief rabbis to disenfranchise them; nor will they submit to the demand that they pledge allegiance to a Jewish Vatican.
What will transpire, as is already happening in Israel, is that there will be a growing disconnect between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Jews throughout the world. Jews are voting with their feet.