Thursday, February 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Chief Rabbinate!

The 93rd anniversary of the establishment of the modern Israeli Chief Rabbinate is this coming Sunday, the 16th of Adar Rishon.

Long before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish community in then-Palestine was represented before the Ottoman Empire by the Chacham Bashi at first, and then later by the Rishon l'Tzion, Sephardic rabbis. When the British Mandate began, High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel faced complaints by Ashkenazi Jews who wanted each community to have its own leadership and representation. Samuel's response [at the suggestion of Yehuda Leib Maimon, and working with Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook and British Mandate Secretary of Justice Norman Bentwich] was to create a Chief Rabbinate comprised of an Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and a Sephardic Chief Rabbi, who headed a rabbinic council with an adjunct lay council. Further, some communities opted out, because they did not accept the religious leadership of the Chief Rabbinate. That system, with some changes, was grandfathered into the State of Israel under Prime Minister Ben-Gurion.

I think about this history when I hear the complaints voiced regarding Israel's current Chief Rabbinate, over issues from conversion to heter mechirah to certifying Jewishness to customer service to representation of different parts of the religious community. The institution was not created as an ideal government for a nation's religious needs; it was a band-aid barely covering serious community fractures.

It's just a dream, but wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be a re-imagining of the position, to strip away the elements that came from Jew vs. Jew strife and replace them with the elements needed to inspire a nation

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