Sec­u­lar Jews and re­li­gious over get a say in who serves

The Jewish Chronicle - - News - BY NATHAN JEFFAY AND SI­MON ROCKER

THE DEFIN­ING char­ac­ter­is­tic of the chief rabbi se­lec­tion process in Is­rael is that in­volves sec­u­lar as well as re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties.

In a coun­try po­larised be­tween sec­u­lar and re­li­gious, this has al­lowed the rab­binate, which is state-main­tained, to be re­garded as a na­tional and not just a sec­tar­ian in­sti­tu­tion.

Abra­ham Isaac Kook, the for­mer Ashke­nazi Chief Rabbi who was in­stru­men­tal in es­tab­lish­ing the in­sti­tu­tion, was par­tic­u­lar about this point, be­ing keen that sec­u­lar Jews should feel a sense of con­nec­tion to the rab­binate.

But the net has been cast so wide that in­stead of hav­ing a se­lec­tion com­mit­tee there is a panel that is larger than the Knes­set — and with al­most as much pol­i­tick­ing. There are 120 mem­bers of the Knes­set; the board tasked with choos­ing the coun­try’s two chief rab­bis, one Ashke­nazi and one Sephardi, has 150.

Within each cat­e­gory of mem­bers, whether the city rab­bis, the dayanim, the heads of re­li­gious coun­cils or oth- ers, there is horse-trad­ing — votes for this can­di­date in re­turn for sup­port on this is­sue or that, from mik­vah-build­ing to the ad­min­is­tra­tion of holy sites.

The sec­u­lar mem­bers on the pan­els are mostly politi­cians, na­tional and lo­cal — or their nom­i­nees — who them­selves have deals that they want to cut with each other.

The process en­cour­ages the se­lec­tion of can­di­dates who are po­lit­i­cally a c c e p t a b l e and in­of­fen­sive to all con­cerned, but not the coun­try’s true rab­binic lead­ers. This is true of to­day’s chief rab­bis, Yona Met­zger and Shlomo Amar, both of them rel­a­tively mar­ginal rab­binic fig­ures be­fore their elec­tion — and, some would cyn­i­cally re­mark, also to­day.

Is­raeli chief rab­bis serve a sin­gle 10-year term, af­ter which they can­not stand for re-elec­tion. This rule is in­tended to avoid a sin­gle rabbi mo­nop­o­lis­ing power, but there is wide­spread feel­ing in Is­rael that this has back­fired. They have state-as­signed power over many in­sti­tu­tions that are im­por­tant to Is­raelis, in­clud­ing mar­riage and di­vorce, kashrut and sev­eral as­pects of con­ver­sion, and the the­ory goes that chief rab­bis would be keener to im­press the pub­lic and aim for tan­gi­ble achieve­ments, if they felt that their fu­ture prospects rested on it.

While no di­as­pora cen­tre has as elab­o­rate a se­lec­tion process as Is­rael, some echo the highly po­lit­i­cal na­ture. In Prague, the stakes are high — as well as lead­ing the com­mu­nity on a day-to-day ba­sis, the Chief Rabbi has the pul­pit of the Alt­neu, the world’s old­est func­tion­ing synagogue. The com­mu­nity holds elec­tions to se­lect its lay lead­ers, who in turn choose the chief rabbi.

The po­si­tion has been the fo­cus of a power strug­gle be­tween the main­stream com­mu­nity and ChabadLubav­itch. In 2004 the then head of the com­mu­nity To­mas Jelinek sacked Chief Rabbi Karol Si­don and ap­pointed Lubav­itch rabbi Ma­nis Barash in­stead.

Many Prague Jews were fu­ri­ous, as

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