The Disintegration of the Chief Rabbinate
by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
From the very beginning of the establishment of our Jewish state, it certainly was assumed that the institution of the Chief Rabbinate would have control over the religious services provided by the state: marriage and divorce, kashrut and conversion, at the very least. Certainly the chief rabbis would have the last halachic word in these areas. And so it was, until this past decade.
However, that is far from the case today. Tzohar’s rabbis are already the most popular rabbis sought for officiating over marriages in Israel, and the establishment of a new framework for halachic marriages has just been announced, for Israelis who cannot get married through the rabbinate, or who do not want to do so.
The monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate in the area of kashrut has been meaningfully challenged by alternative kashrut supervisors from Hashgacha Pratit as well as from Rabbanei Tzohar.
Giyur Ka’Halacha already has four private religious conversion courts throughout the country which have serviced many hundreds of inspired and inspiring converts from the former Soviet Union. Many of these would-be converts could not be processed by the Chief Rabbinate, because they were not yet Israeli citizens, and others were discouraged from turning to the Chief Rabbinate by stories of its harsh demands.
Just this past week, an aguna who had been chained for 23 years to a violently abusive husband was finally freed by a private religious court unconnected to the Chief Rabbinate.
All of these private venues adhere to Orthodox Halacha. Why this sudden rejection of the Chief Rabbinate?
Formerly, the chief rabbis were elected because of their superior halachic expertise and personal piety and humanity. Their identification was clearly with the Religious Zionist camp, but their election had much more to do with their personal halachic charisma and much less to do with their political (or familial) affiliation.
They understood that, as chief rabbis, they were responsible to the entire Israeli population – secular as well as religious – and even to world Jewry, since “from Zion shall come forth Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
Hence, the Torah that they express must be one whose “pathways are paths of sweetness and whose roads all lead to peace” (Proverbs 3:17, words proclaimed, generally in song, whenever we return the Torah scrolls to the ark). It must be a universal Torah of love, as the kohen-teachers of Torah declare every day in Israel when they rise to bless the congregation, and the Torah laws that they teach must be a Torah of compassion and loving-kindness, as Maimonides teaches in the context of his defining the task of the Oral Law (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Servants, chap. 9).
However, the present election of the chief rabbis was fueled by the haredi political parties, which have a clearly stringent and monistic view of applying Halacha.
Therefore, when, in the wake of perestroika and the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, with more than a million persecuted Soviet Jews finally coming home to Israel, it would certainly have behooved us to accept with a pro forma conversion and loving embrace the approximately 350,000 of them who, although recognized as Israeli citizens under the Right of Return, were Jewish only paternally (zera Yisrael), but not maternally.
Such was the position of the former chief rabbis (most notably Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, based on the views of Rabbi Moshe Isserles – the Rama – and the Pnei Moshe, Rabbi Moshe Margaliot).
The present chief rabbis, however, on the contrary, tightened their restrictions on conversion, refusing the possibility of converting children altogether. One chief rabbi even went so far as to suggest that those of only paternal descent return to the former Soviet Union!
Last year, the state comptroller found that many kashrut supervisors did little or none of the supervision they were paid for. And while Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, of blessed memory, would stay up nights in his search to find a halachic solution for every difficult aguna case that came his way, his son, the current chief rabbi, denounced a regional religious court’s decision to free a 34-year-old woman whose husband had been in a coma for nine years through a “get” zikui – a bill of divorce that is granted on behalf of a husband, reasoning that he would have wished to give his wife a get if he could.
Is it any wonder so many Israelis have lost confidence in the Chief Rabbinate?
Allow me to suggest a way forward for the future.
The glory of Halacha lies in the fact that it is not a monistic “my way or the highway” system, but, rather, a pluralistic system that admits multiple halachic possibilities for different situations, as long as there is a responsible halachic source on which to depend.
Hence the famous Talmudic dictum about the differences between the academies of Hillel and Shammai, “These and those are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b), and the well-known Mishna, “Even though the Academy of Shammai forbade certain marital relationships and the Academy of Hillel permitted them, nevertheless the House of Shammai was not forbidden from marrying into the House of Hillel, and vice versa” (Mishna Yevamot 1:4).
If a Chief Rabbinate were truly responsive to difficult halachic situations, there would be a multiplicity of responsible Rabbinical Courts, ideally helmed by city rabbis who have passed the Chief Rabbinate examinations for conversion or aguna issues, all functioning under the Chief Rabbinate – but with independence in the areas of psak. This was the situation even at the time of the Sanhedrin, and it allows for the pluralism within Orthodoxy to retain the Talmudic ideal that “this opinion and that opinion are both the words of the living God.”