Last week, during the Seven Weeks of Consolation, the two Chief Rabbis of Israel were elected, Rabbi David Lau for the Ashkenazi community, and Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef for the Sephardic Jews of Israel, who also refer to this position as the Rishon LeTziyon. The timing could not have been more symbolic. This past election will be remembered for its rancor and discord. Accusations flew in every direction both in the court of public opinion and in actual court. All this activity seems to have raised the focus on these positions to new levels. This may be the unfortunate legacy of this past election.
The concept of Chief Rabbi is not unique to Israel. Throughout the Diaspora many nations have an official religious representative of the Jewish community whose title is Chief Rabbi. For example, Lord Jonathan Sacks was invited to attend the Royal wedding and other ceremonies as the representative of the Jewish community of Great Britain. Chief Rabbis around the world attend official state functions as the ambassador of the domestic Jewish community.
A case in point would be my friend, the former Chief Rabbi of Norway who was invited to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies during his tenure. Nice benefit of the position. But that is about it in the Diaspora. In Israel, however, the job comes with considerably more influence and benefits and that is why the role of Chief Rabbi in Israel is such a contested position.
The office of Chief Rabbi in Israel dates back to the Ottoman period when the leader of the Jewish community throughout the empire, including the Jews of Israel’s Old Yishuv, was called by the honorific “Rishon LeTziyon,” the “First of Zion.” The British victory in World War I led to the establishment of the British Mandate, and the appointment of a British High Commissioner for Palestine who established the Orthodox rabbinate by adding the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi to the pre-existing position of Rishon LeTziyon. The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi was Harav Avraham Isaac Kook, appointed by the British in 1921. Harav Kook remains arguably the post’s most notable and influential selection.
The chief rabbis are elected by an assembly comprised of 150 members: 80 rabbis and 70 representatives of the public. The group of rabbis includes the rabbis of major Israeli cities, towns and regional councils, as well as 10 religious judges. The second group is made up of two government ministers, five members of the Knesset and the mayors and heads of religious councils of Israel’s largest towns and regional councils. Their vote elects each chief rabbi to a 10-year term, split into two 5-year periods, trading places at the helm of the Chief Rabbinate Council and the presidency of the High Rabbinic Court in Jerusalem. During their term, they are Israel’s official religious emissaries to the world. They will, as mentioned, attend and serve in many ceremonial functions of state both in Israel and abroad. Last year, for example, when President Obama visited Israel, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar both were on the tarmac as part of the receiving delegation for the president.
The chief rabbi has a far more relevant and powerful role to play in Israel than merely serving on the welcoming committee for dignitaries. As mentioned, the chief rabbi will serve as the heads of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Grand Court, respectively. The chief rabbi who is not acting as the head of the Chief Rabbinate Council serves as the president of the Grand Rabbinic Court.
It is important to remember that rabbinic court judges, like all other judges, have judicial independence and freedom. The chief rabbi, serving as president of the Grand Rabbinic Court, can rule on appeals and determine Jewish law on various matters, but cannot issue guidelines for rulings or instruct judges. The chief rabbis also sit on the Judicial Appointments Committee, which appoints rabbinic court judges, so that in the long run they can bring in the judges they want.
By holding these positions, which they will trade after five years, the chief rabbis control all official institutions that run organized Jewish religious life in Israel, including major life cycle events. Their good office holds exclusive jurisdiction over all personal status issues such as Jewish marriage and divorce, Jewish burial, conversions to Judaism, determination of “Who is a Jew?” kashrut, supervision of Jewish holy sites such as the Kotel, mikvaot, and supervision of Israel’s Rabbinical court system. The rabbinic courts have parallel jurisdiction with district courts in matters of personal status, alimony, child support, custody, and inheritance and their verdicts are implemented and enforced — just as with the civil court system — by the police and other relevant agencies.
The influence of the office of the chief rabbi extends far beyond the halachic enforcement, deep into the bureaucratic, controlling senior appointments, large budgets and councils throughout the country. Ironically, the influence of the office of the chief rabbi has to date carried less gravity in halachic, religious, or moral pronouncements.
If the newly elected Chief Rabbis Lau and Yosef have familiar surnames, it should not be surprising. Each is the son of an illustrious former chief rabbi who remains amongst the world’s most prominent rabbis, retaining great name recognition internationally.
The father to the newly elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who served as chief rabbi from 1993-2003 and is the 35th consecutive rabbi in his family lineage. His son, the newly elected chief rabbi, is the 36th, truly an astounding fact considering the fact that virtually all of Harav Yisrael Meir Lau’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust.
The senior Harav Lau survived Buchenwald, immigrating to Israel at the age of eight. He is amongst the very few rabbis to have close ties with the chareidi, Modern Orthodox and Sephardi worlds. Harav Lau is respected internationally by Jew and Gentile alike. In recognition of these relationships, Harav Lau was awarded the Israel Prize in May 2005 for, amongst other accomplishments, “bridging rifts in Israeli society.”
Harav Ovadia Yosef, father to the newly elected Rishon LeTziyon, is regarded as the preeminent Sephardi halachic authority, the unquestioned leader of the Sephardi world internationally, and is the spiritual force behind the Shas political party in Israel, champions of the Sephardi political agenda. It was Harav Ovadia’s support that secured victory for his son and by doing so rejuvenated the Shas party, which did poorly in the last Israeli elections and presently sits amongst the opposition in the Knesset.
From the moment each was elected last week, Chief Rabbi David Lau and Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef have been promising to create “a Rabbinate for everyone.” Chief Rabbi Lau, who until his elevation to his new position was the chief rabbi of the religiously diverse city of Modiin, offered his city as an example of diversity that can work through respect and tolerance. He pledged the same sort of inclusiveness for which his father is famous. It is said that Rabbi Lau, junior, is the most liberal rabbi that the chareidim can tolerate and the most chareidi rabbi that the secular people can accept. Similarly, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef promises to follow in his father’s footsteps by taking a lenient approach in religious rulings engendering greater tolerance. Both are considered worthy sons and worthy material to be chief rabbi.
The newly elected chief rabbis have illustrious family reputations to maintain and, with Hashem’s help, enhance. Let us hope the proverbial apple does not fall far from the tree — in this case the Etz HaChaim, the Torah.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org