In the spring of 1921, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook became the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel in modern times. This was almost 30 years prior to the formation of the State of Israel. Rabbi Kook was a visionary and inspirational leader who understood like very few others in his generation the currents of his time. He understood the revolutionary period of Jewish life that he was a part of and courageously and boldly responded to it. Rabbi Kook envisioned a Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland that would be, like him, courageous and visionary in charting a course for the Jewish people in the brave new world of Jewish sovereignty and self-expression. He imagined that it would become an entity that would positively and profoundly impact the entire “national rebuilding process” of the Jewish homeland.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Kook and for us this dream was not fulfilled. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has become an impediment to the re-invigoration of Jewish vibrancy. Instead of bravely charting a course for modern Jewish life, with its unprecedented entrance into national sovereignty and the restoration of Jewish political freedom, it has resisted that course and insisted on old paradigms from the period of Jewish exile and diaspora. There are exceptions, of course, like Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l’s work on behalf of the wives of missing Israeli soldiers after the Yom Kippur War or his halakhic (Jewish legal) stance on the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, but they are few and far in between. Rather the organization of the Chief Rabbinate seeks to coerce through legal and political force the State of Israel to adopt its decidedly non-Zionist views of Jewish theology and practice.
This coercive influence has begun to extend across the Atlantic into the United States as well. Several years ago the Chief Rabbinate sought to impose its heavily bureaucratic and highly centralized system of conversion unto the North American Orthodox rabbinate. Many in the American Orthodox rabbinate acquiesced to the demand and created a strictly centralized system of conversion courts in major American cities and imposed uniform non-halakhic standards on all rabbis part of their system. For example, a couple living far away from the Jewish centers of the United States would find it very hard to convert themselves and their family because one of the requirements is enrollment in Orthodox Jewish day school for all the children, which is impossible for anyone living in a city that does not have an Orthodox Jewish day school. This newly created requirement for enrollment for all 12 years of schooling in an Orthodox Jewish day school as a prerequisite for conversion is not be to be found in any code of Jewish law simply because it was invented as part of this capitulation to the Chief Rabbinate.
Recently, the aggressive posture of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has taken another sharp step. One of the most common activities any rabbi does is to write letters for congregants attesting to their Jewishness for the purpose of making aliyah to Israel or getting married in Israel. This is highly common. The community rabbi knows the congregation better than anyone else and thus can write a simple letter stating that they know the people in question to be Jewish. This was never questioned until now. Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a powerful essay at the Times of Israel describing the rejection of a letter he wrote for a couple. He is not alone. The continued move towards centralization of power and the imposition of an unnecessarily complex bureaucratic system has and will continue to lead to abuses of that power.
Two years ago while I was working as a campus rabbi at Harvard, I had the great privilege to welcome Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was at the time the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom to campus for a visit. He spoke on a panel with Professors Alan Dershowitz and Noah Feldman. On that panel, Rabbi Sacks was asked about the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the damage it has brought unto Israeli society. I will never forget his reply to that question. Rabbi Sacks argued that a Chief Rabbinate ought to forge its influence through persuasion and not through coercion. The Chief Rabbi must be able to articulate his vision and desires through the power of words not through the power of law. The Chief Rabbinate of the United Kingdom, and Rabbi Sacks in particular, is a prime example of that persuasive influence and the good it can bring. People may disagree with some of the approaches of the British Chief Rabbi and they are free to do so while the Chief Rabbi does not have the power of the state to impose his will on them, only the power of his words.
The time has come for those who care about the future of the Jewish people to stand up and be counted as those not willing to give in to the demands of a power hungry and corrupt Chief Rabbinate. I generally do not advocate for diaspora Jews to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the State of Israel but this is a powerful exception. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel impacts all of us and is continuing its attempt to further its reach into our communities. Ending the power of the Chief Rabbinate is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people worldwide and together we can make that happen.
As an ex-pat British Jew, living and working in the USA, I’ve been following the press coverage on the search for a new Chief Rabbi in the UK with interest. The Times of Israel just recently published an update on what is becoming quite a lengthy and arduous search, raising a number of poignant issues in its coverage. Its been nearly two years since Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced that he would be stepping down from the position come September 2013. British commentators have noted that the Anglican Church managed to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury in a mere 8 months.
For those less familiar with the British religious landscape, that comparison was not just plucked out of the air. Rabbi Herman Adler became the first, self-designated ‘Chief Rabbi’ from 1891-1911, and promoted this role as the Jewish equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. With a much more centrist Orthodox rabbinate, the fledgling progressive communities were content with this singular spokesperson for the UK Jewish community for quite some time.
However, the official title is actually ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,’ and the preciseness of this label has become more pertinent over time. The United Synagogue, as it is often referred to, is the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox communities only. As the rabbinic authorities in the UK – the Dayanim – (judges that sit on the Beth Din – the Jewish Court) have played an influential role in moving the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue further and further to the right (in part, no doubt, responding to pressures felt from their counterparts in Israel), and as the Progressive movements have grown in number and strength over the decades, it has become virtually impossible to conceive of one person who can represent and speak on behalf of the British Jewish community. Here, the parallel with the Archbishop of Canterbury breaks down. The archbishop only speaks for the Anglican Church. The fact that this is still somewhat of an influential voice in British culture is not because he speaks for any of the other Christian denominations to be found in the UK, but because of the UK’s own political history, by which the Anglican Church is the official State religion of the country.
And, in fact, there has been an official spokesperson for the Sephardi Jewish community, the Reform and the Liberal Movements of the UK for quite some time. Over the past 20 years or so, the British government has become much more attuned to this plurality of voices and representatives, ensuring that they are all invited to the appropriate State events.
Even before the current dilemma on who to appoint as the next Chief Rabbi came into being, I’ve found my American counterparts to be quite amused by the whole system in the UK. Here, the land of rugged individualism and autonomy, the thought that one would even attempt to find one spokesperson for the Jewish community is seen as laughable. Aside from the enormous diversity of Jewish expression to be found here that is movement-based, there is also a great deal of independence within each and every community.
In today’s cultural milieu, more than ever, when a congregation finds that its’ members values and practices are at odds with the official positions of the movement to which they affiliate, we are seeing more of them choose to go independent. While something is lost from being part of a larger collective, most intently felt when the movement brings people together from across the country or speaks up in the public sphere in a way that makes us proud, there is a growing feeling that communities are willing to let go of those larger affiliations if they perceive the restrictions laid upon them to be too great. Likewise, while rabbis still have great capacity to teach and guide a community, if they are perceived as being too out-of-step with the community, they are likely to find themselves looking for new work.
In truth, these are not new phenomena. This was very much the way of things for many Jewish communities across the world, prior to the communication and travel technologies that enabled geographically spread and diverse congregations to find each other and gather under the banner of a common label. But let us not be fooled – the desire to do so was in the fulfillment of larger communal needs as Jews sought full emancipation and inclusion in the larger societies of which they were a part. They provided a means to gather with other like-minded communities as we found ourselves responding to modernity and figuring out how to keep our religious traditions and practices relevant and meaningful within this new world.
Those needs still exist. And I am certainly making no early pronouncement that our movements no longer fulfill those needs. But what is clear, in the age of social networking and crowd-sourcing, is that they no longer remain the only way for separate communities to explore those questions together. Organizations like Darim Online, and CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership) – the creators of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program – demonstrate that speaking across and beyond denominational and movement-based lines can enable all of us to move forward in the ways we create and run spiritually purposeful Jewish communities today.
And we, the Jewish people, continue to do what, in fact, we have always done – we speak for Judaism whenever we engage, act, celebrate, and live our lives through a Jewish lens.