Chief Rabbinate in Israel: The Meaning of Leadership/ By Adam E. Chanes

Do values compromise leadership? Is rabbinic leadership even needed?

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which held elections for the new chief rabbis of the state on July 24, is historically known as an institution of “leadership”: But what is a leader? He can be one who guides people, who exerts control; or in the more abstract, leaders can be merely faces and figures, symbols of obedience and order. But these qualities beg the question: is there one philosophy of leadership that all leaders must maintain?

Does rabbinic leadership follow such guidelines?

Ten years after they commenced their terms as Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbis of Israel, respectively, Rabbi Yona Metzger’s and Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s official religious leadership roles are nearing an end.


Among the rabbis who submitted their candidacy by July 17 for the new ten-year chief rabbi terms is Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who ran for the Sephardic chief rabbi’s role, a position also known as the Rishon LeZion. As a prominent religious figure in Israel, Eliyahu’s eminence has been caught up in a mire of controversy in light of his allegedly racist beliefs.

Israeli lawmakers and officials, under the auspices of Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, deliberated incessantly over legal grounds for blocking Shmuel Eliyahu’s candidacy and eligibility to be elected, claiming that his persistent racism, his 2010 diktat to cease selling rental homes to Arabs, and especially his 2002 appeal towards the expulsion of Arabs in Safed could all sully his eligibility. Eliyahu has also allegedly broken laws of incitement by virtue of his notorious homophobic statements. Despite all efforts to the contrary, Eliyahu successfully submitted his candidacy and ran, although he lost to Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the famous spiritual leader of the Sephardic community in Israel and worldwide.

It’s evident that the candidacy of rabbis known as extremists has been cause for public uproar; however, to see officials taking political action to block such candidacy is indicative of genuine mistrust in the controversial figures who had good chances of being elected. According to Tzipi Livni, who worries about a chief rabbi’s image both at home and internationally, Eliyahu’s candidacy was “intolerable,” and his later apologies for his actions did not sufficiently justify his candidacy.

Journalist Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot did not see viable leadership in any of the leading former Sephardic candidates, neither Eliyahu nor his former potential contender Rabbi Avraham Yosef (knocked out of running because he is currently the subject of police investigations). According to the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, Yosef has been considered even more racist than Eliyahu—and even ostensibly anti-democratic!—not to mention Yosef’s background of “ambivalence” towards Zionism, contrasted with Eliyahu’s Religious Zionist outlook. To replace Rabbi Avraham Yosef, his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef thrusted Rabbi Avraham’s brother Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef into the candidacy race. It is difficult to ascertain whether the new Sephardic chief rabbi’s values differ from his brother’s, the former candidate, to any material degree.

On the Ashkenazic front, the more progressive Rabbi David Stav fell in second place to Rabbi David Lau, the son of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who preceded Metzger as chief rabbi.

One statement from Stav’s June interview with Haaretz encapsulates Stav’s ethos: “When I have a free moment, I am busy with Torah, not just because I am commanded so, [but because] I love it. But I understand that there are other people in the world and one needs to relate to them.” While Stav’s platform was premised on a commitment to social justice, societal change, and increased inclusiveness (although some argue that a shift away from Haredi power is not “inclusive” as it could alienate them religiously and politically), not to mention a renewed discussion of marriage laws in Israel, liberals and progressive Religious Zionists alike are concerned that Lau will not institute any reform or encourage new dialogue on pressing issues, such as public desire for civil marriage, private Haredi kashruth agencies, and Agunoth (women trapped in Jewish marriages); like Metzger, Lau is not especially concerned with social issues and will likely maintain the status quo of Israel’s religious environment. Journalists and other experts predict that he will be under the thumb of Haredi, or “ultra-Orthodox,” rabbis, as was apparently the case with Metzger.

Rabbinate History

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate was founded in 1921 during the days of the Yishuv in Palestine as both a function of British willingness to allow Jews to manage their own affairs and of the Zionists’ desire to have a religious body representing and endorsing their undertaking.

Both chief rabbis are elected for ten-year terms by a public council that is purportedly comprised of a variegated group representing different factions of the public.

This year, the council had 150 members representing certain sectors in Israel, both political and public, and was noted for only including two women.

The Existence of Rabbinate Leadership

Traditionally speaking, the Haredim, who have the virtue of being heavily represented by the Rabbinate—and have a forceful influence on Chief Rabbinate policy, to some degree—would disapprove of the concept of a government sponsored religious body. They notwithstanding enjoy the upper hand they receive in social affairs implicating religion, including marriage and kashruth, according to Brandeis University professor Yehudah Mirsky. “They have managed to turn the Rabbinate, the creation of the man and the Religious Zionist movement whose beliefs they reject, into their own massive patronage mill,” he said. This trend identifies the stake that Haredim truly feel they have in the election process, and specifically in the type of leadership initiated as the outcome. Accordingly, a moderate, modern candidate such as the Ashkenazi Rabbi Stav, a proponent of social change in Israeli society, received virtually no support from Haredim, who want resolute—and of course, “black-hat”—leadership that will uphold their status quo.

Chief rabbis aren’t always “top dog,” religiously speaking, and thereby are often subject to indifference by Israelis, religious and secular alike. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has a more significant role as a religious leader than the Rishon LeZion, according to journalist Gershom Gorenberg, also an author of numerous Israel-related books. Gorenberg believes that the only religious faction that can be relied upon to say that the Rabbinate is significant is the Dati Leumi (national Religious Zionist) community, and they have had no significant role in that Rabbinate for many years.

Is the Chief Rabbinate—or at least the chief rabbi—indeed, needed in Israel?

In an interview, Mirsky expressed ambivalence with respect to the necessity of a Chief Rabbinate in Israel. “The chief rabbi is important as a factual matter because of the apparatus over which he presides. Whether he should be is an ideological question on which different people have different views,” he said prior to the elections.

Referring to the Rabbinate’s supremacy over social societal functions such as marriage and divorce, Gorenberg said,“It’s not a leadership position. It’s the head of a religious bureaucracy that rules many peoples lives. As a religious or moral authority, [the Rabbinate] has long ceased to fill the role that Religious Zionism assigned to it.” According to this view, in addition to not representing Zionism in its historic religious sense, the Rabbinate only deals with religion-related politics and social concerns—while often not even responding to such concerns.

Many modern Jews and Israelis—in fact, 67 percent of the “Jewish public,” according to Uri Regev, civil rights and religious pluralism advocate, in his Jerusalem Post op-ed—believe that on a philosophical level, the Chief Rabbinate cannot or should not hold it’s role as it always has.

“The idea that the state will choose two rabbis that will define Judaism in the name of the state, thereby giving the state’s stamp of approval to particular strands of Orthodoxy, treats Orthodoxy as if it were monolithic,” Gorenberg said. In the case of the newly elected Chief Rabbi Yosef, “the son is speaking for the father,” Gorenberg said, referring to spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. A chief rabbi has classically gone to others with more religious authority for piskei halakha, authoritative rulings on Jewish law; Yosef would refer such matters to his father. Before the elections Gorenberg believed that if Yitzhak Yosef becomes the chief rabbi, as is the case, people who don’t see Rabbi Ovadia as defining their kind of Judaism will be dissatisfied by the state’s ostensible “stamp of approval” on readings of halakha not considered mainstream by all of Orthodoxy. Similarly, if Eliyahu were elected, the state would have seemingly made a statement that Judaism can be or is racist.

Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Bar-Ilan University Talmud professor and expert on Israeli Orthodox sociology and Jewish religious custom has strong misgivings regarding the Rabbinate’s role in society. Speaking dubiously of the institution’s necessity, but with reverence and nostalgia towards the days of “tremendous leadership” in the Chief Rabbinate, Sperber said, “In the past it was essential, it was deeply respected. As soon as the Chief Rabbinate went on its downward path, it became less essential.” It’s “downward path,” Sperber believes, has taken place throughout the past two decades. In addition to his disbelief in the Rabbinate’s necessity, Sperber asserts that over the past two decades, certain political agendas have been behind the appointments of chief rabbis.

Sperber describes the Rabbinate as a “public relations institution.” According to him, David Lau is a media personality who speaks well and represents Orthodoxy to the community and abroad. “As a halakhic authority, there isn’t such a person. It’s a question of how you define the position.”

Leadership Value

The question of current religious leadership in Israeli society and the Jewish world is academic: such leadership has continuously manifested itself in multitudinous ways, from corruption to indifference to virtuous commitments to social justice.

The important question is what should religious leadership look like?

After consulting numerous experts, the consensus is that there is no consensus.

Mirsky, who had conflicted feelings about the necessity of the Rabbinate, said that leaders must be “people whom others are willing to follow, out of respect, trust and good feeling.” But Mirsky is convinced that mutual trust between leaders and followers is not enough; leaders must have certain leadership qualities. “They need to strike a balance between faithfulness to their traditions, and adaptability to change.”

Gorenberg, who also would respect a leader who is willing to adapt, places greater emphasis on values. Within religion, an essential threshold one must pass to be a leader is representing values with which a community can identify. “I think values are part of leadership qualities,” he said. But Gorenberg provides a nuanced twist: a leader need not change his values in the slightest to fit those of his community; rather, the leadership-community relationship must be dynamic, with values that are potentially compatible with one another. However, Gorenberg said, “A rabbi who taught you nothing but what you already believed would be a bore. He wouldn’t be inspiring. You want someone to challenge you.”

Providing additional nuance, Sperber supports rabbinic leadership that has the ability to relate to all people, irrespective of upbringing, Jewish affiliation, or creed. Such a leader, Sperber said, must have also commanded authority with “demanding presence” because of his “learning,” a term that in the religious world means the study of Torah and a serious competence in Judaic studies. Sperber looks back at former chief rabbis such as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who was willing to make difficult decisions and was not manipulated by political pressure, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first pre-state Ashkenazic chief rabbi, who was a “giant of Torah” and spoke to all Jews, religious and secular, liberal and conservative. Goren and Kook, Sperber said, were “fearless,” embodying the maxim “Lo taguru mip’nei ish,” “be not afraid of any man,” as he quoted from Deutoronomy.

Who Feels Included?

Ahead of leadership qualities, a deep concern of those who are critical or disapprove of the Rabbinate is that the leadership role in such an office carries with it the weight of divisiveness within society.

Gorenberg believes that “[chief rabbis] are liberated from responding to the needs of the public because the state supports their opinions.” This view proposes that by and large religious Jewish Israelis are likely to be alienated by the Rabbinate’s bureaucratic institutionalization of religious authority. Additionally, although the chief rabbi’s position has never and will never add any substantive authority within Israel’s Orthodox movement, it could be seen as making external statement of what is “the real thing” in Jewish observance.

Although much of the progressive Dati Leumi community favored him for his commitment to social justice and modernity, if Stav were elected, his leadership would have similarly alienated the Haredi perspective. “The state is giving lesser validity to their way of interpreting Judaism. Having a rabbinate flies in the face of how Orthodox Judaism works,” Gorenberg claimed.


Israel has lately been rife with debates over the Chief Rabbinate, mostly leading up to the elections, as numerous candidates were perhaps more controversial than even the most difficult characters in Israeli politics. But looking forward, to diagnose the new Rabbinate, Israeli society and the wider Jewish world must investigate the nature of the Rabbinate itself: its leadership, its role in society, and its respect for Israel’s inhabitants.

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