What the New Chief Rabbis can Learn from Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah

The Tractate of Berachos relates how Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi, was removed from his position by the other Rabbis of Yavneh after he embarrassed Rabbi Yehoshua three times.  Rabban Gamliel was the Gadol Hador, the leader of the generation, and a descendant of King David.  He came from a long line of leaders that included Hillel the Elder.

And yet the rabbis of his generation saw fit to depose him for abusing his power.  In his place they appointed the younger, more dynamic Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah.  Rabbi Elazar was a far more inclusive leader than Rabban Gamliel had been, opening the doors of the Yeshiva where the law was decided to the masses that had been banned from the Beit Midrash by Rabban Gamliel, an act which the Talmud approvingly states improved the quality of the learning and helped spread the Torah among Israel.

The Talmud also shows how out of touch Rabban Gamliel was with his generation, revealing how surprised he was to discover that Rabbi Yehoshua was a blacksmith in addition to being a Rabbi.  “Woe to the generation of which you are its leader, for you do not know the burdens of the Rabbis and how they must earn a living!” was the reprimand Rabbi Yehoshua gave to the deposed leader who was born wealthy.

Our new Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef and Rabbi David Lau, would do well to take this story to heart.  Many Israelis, including many orthodox ones, feel that the Chief Rabbinate has become out of touch, disrespectful, exclusive, blind to the true needs of the people, and corrupt.  The final charge is one that was never leveled at Rabban Gamliel, whose integrity was never questioned even as he was being stripped of his power.  He was never placed under house arrest as the outgoing Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi has been.

Rabbis Yosef and Lau have their work cut out for them if they wish to change the public’s perception of the Chief Rabbinate.  They will need to be dynamic, inclusive leaders like Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah.  They will have to inspire respect through deeds and not through tainted titles.  They will need to be aware of the needs of all Israelis, religious and secular, Hareidi and Dati Leumi.  They cannot serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many.  The gates of the Beit Midrash must be opened for all.  If they cannot do this, then the Chief Rabbinate will lose what little respect it has left, and like the Rabbis of Yavneh the Israelis disillusioned with the Rabbinate will seek alternative leadership.

The story of Rabban Gamliel’s fall from power has a happy ending, as he swallows his pride, apologizes to Rabbi Yehoshua, and learns from his past mistakes so that he is able to be reinstated and share the title of Nasi with Rabbi Elazar.  The story of the Chief Rabbinate can have an ending like that if the new Chief Rabbis can prove that they are men of the same caliber.

About the Author
Gary Willig is a researcher at the Center for Near East Policy Research and a student of communications at Bar Ilan University