Secular Jews and religious over get a say in who serves
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