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August 4, 2013 5:59 pm

Politics, Power, and Corrupt Chief Rabbis

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Incoming Chief Rabbi, David Lau. Photo: Wikipedia.

I have never been a fan of chief rabbis. Anyone appointed by committees, politicians, or bureaucrats is suspect in my eyes. Perhaps my antipathy is rooted in the days when both Napoleon and the czar appointed state chief rabbis, whom they approved of because they were likely to support their agendas. I can say with confidence that, in general, the greatest rabbis, whether intellectually or spiritually, have never been interested in public appointments.

I don’t mean to say that all chief rabbis have been duds. Israel’s Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Isaac Herzog, and Uziel were great men by any criteria. Chief Rabbi Goren was a dynamic overachiever and a fearless innovator. Some, like Ovadiah Yosef, have been great scholars but poor spokesmen. But there have been too many others who were undiplomatic, corrupt, or ineffective. The reason can simply be put down to politics. When appointments are made by groups of political appointees (or self-appointed grandees), they invariably make the wrong decisions. Public acclaim is also not a reliable test of the best person for the job. Those who seek or need public recognition are rarely willing or able to take the tough and controversial stands that are the mark of genuine leadership.

Israel recently appointed two chief rabbis, both the sons of previous chief rabbis. I do not know either of them. But remarks I have seen attributed to them leave me deeply depressed that they will reflect a xenophobic, narrow perspective and shrink from trying to humanize the rabbinate. The political maneuvering, the arm twisting, the deals behind closed doors all point to a corrupt system. And once again, the innovative and the exciting have lost out. If a good man ever emerges it is despite the system not because of it. Nepotism is a poor way of producing great leaders. Yet throughout Jewish religious institutional nepotism is the norm rather than the exception. Yeshivot nowadays are often big family businesses (as indeed are most Chasidic dynasties).

Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi. This in itself is evidence of how flawed the system is – that in a small religion such as ours, religious leadership cannot work together. In addition, in Israel there is a huge disconnect between the religious leadership and the common person, and between the state rabbinate and the Charedi world, which has its own authorities. Indeed, the Charedi world always rubbished and abused the state rabbinate until, in the desperate search for jobs and power, it began to infiltrate and then take much of it over. Once again, it has ensured that its candidates have gotten the jobs.

One of the first words in Ivrit I learnt was “protektsia” (yes, I know it comes from Russian). “Vitamin P” meant you could not get anywhere in Israeli life, from top to bottom, religious or secular, without knowing someone or having someone pull strings on your behalf. So it was and so it largely remains. When this disease infects religion, it loses its moral authority.

But surely, you will say, Judaism requires one to respect one’s religious leaders. In theory, this is so. The Torah commands respect for princes and scholars. Our liturgy is full of references to their importance. But there are two very distinct types of leadership in our tradition. The prophet and the judge emerged through merit. That’s probably why there were women judges and prophets. Rabbis as a rule were the result of meritocracy (the rabbinic dynasties that began with Hillel wanted to have their cake and eat it). On the other hand, the priesthood and the monarchy were both hereditary, and both failed. Most of the Jewish kings were idolatrous, evil men, and most priests showed more interest in money and power than Divine service.

Moshe typified the meritocracy. This was why he always defended himself by referring to his spotless record. It is true that we say that in each generation we must accept the leader, Jephtah in his generation as the equivalent of Samuel in his. But I believe that phrase  has another meaning, of the need to accept the best we can get.

“Pray for the welfare of the ruling powers because otherwise humans would swallow each other up,” says the Mishna. That very Hobbesian idea underpins our modern secular states. But as Locke argued, if the king failed to do his job, you could and should get rid of him. This is why we pray for the State wherever we live, even as we may try our best to vote out whoever the current prime minister is. We in the West have recently experienced the irrational hysteria over a royal baby. I have no interest in ordinary people being elevated to positions of power or even symbolic authority simply on the basis of birth. There are enough inequalities in life of rank and wealth. I like the fact that we can vote people out of office as much as in. If I choose to respect someone, it is on the basis of the respect he or she earns, not the position they have been given. The diploma should be greater than the diaper.

I look forward to Elijah’s arrival. I hope he will not try to reinstate the monarchy. But I am pretty sure he will not insist on two kings, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi.

One of the reasons for so much disillusion with religion is precisely this disconnect between how its leaders too often behave and speak, and their own purported religious values. The more we see how susceptible religious leadership is to money, power, and fame, the less good the religion they represent looks. I don’t care too much what politicians like Spitzer or Weiner get up to, and if people want to vote for them, that’s their problem. But when religious leadership behaves like political leadership, something is very wrong.

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  • Levi

    Political religious leaders…legislation rather than inspiration. My idea of a religious leader is someone who visits the sick and needywho lifts up the downtrodden and broken. But first of all, he or she should be someone who stand behind what they believe rather than a politically sensitive appeaser. I have not been to Israel, but I know that here in the US, around 70% of Jews are confessed athiests, which makes me wonder what exactly the rabbis are teaching.

    I really do not think that most Jews want Elyahu HaNavi to come to you. He will not bend for liberal ideas or annual gay pride parades. He will not respect your rabbis unless their hearts are towards the Lord YHVH and your Tanakh. He will not solve disputes of rabbincal Judaism over Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, or any of your other post-biblical writings. In fact, I think he may really upset many elitists and intellectual activists of secular humanism. If you want your prophet to come, I would suggest that you expect a fiery whirlwind. Shalom.

  • sydney

    Historically, chief rabbis of whatever locale did not necessarily have to be the greatest rabbis but had to combine their erudition with administrative ability and capacity to lead. This was true in Europe and the concept followed into Israel.

    There is a concerted effort to discredit the elected rabbis because they do not meet “your” criteria and political agenda.

    Having two chief rabbis was due to the need to satisfy the needs of both communities (including the full appreciation of nuances of halacha and custom).

    Your idea of chief rabbi is one who will bend halacha to what you desire. Of course, that would mean that the rest of us will ignore the chief rabbi.

    The desire to satisfy as many as possible lead to the weakness of the chief rabbinate in matters of kashrut and the strengthening of the “Eida Charedit–BADATZ.”

    Insofar as marriage is concerned (a major issue for the non-religious) one thing that Israel has maintained is the idea of the unity of Klal Yisrael–meaning theoretically anyone in Israel can marry anyone else. Once you open marriage to all forms, how do you maintain that–you don’t. And then you will be at the forefront complaining of rabbinic intransigence.

    • Jeremy


      Either you cant read or you are just lashing out for the sake of it.

      I precisely said I do not want there to be political agendas. That is what is wrong. Candidates beholden to and making promises to political parties and interests.

      I do indeed want the Rabbanut to adhere to halacha, to apply it fairly and consistently and to be sensitive to the needs of the people of the State, to be welcoming and sensitive rather than bureaucratic, distant and concerned with benefits, power, money and self interest.

      Mine are the values of Hillel. They are good enough for me.You should try them.


  • Yashar

    Jeremy Rosen stoops to a new low in this piece. The new Chief Rabbis of Israel have barely been elected and his headline blazes “…Corrupt Chief Rabbis”. No doubt he hoped he could grab attention and fill a post with smoke and flim-flam and that his readers would be too stupid to actually think about what he is saying.
    In one of the most common errors of the Jewish world, Rosen sees no problem with pontificating about Israel, even though he does not live in the Land. He plunges in, braying that he doesn’t like/trust any institutional rabbinate and states that the ‘greatest’ rabbis wouldn’t hold the difficult job.
    Rosen blithely calls Israel’s Chief Rabbis ‘duds’. He then finally gets on to the purported topic of interest: the newly elected Chief Rabbis. Clearly stating he does not know either of these scholars, he implies these men received their positions only through nepotism. For shame!
    He then goes on to slam the balance between an Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and a Sephardi Chief Rabbi, stating this shows the system is flawed. But he does not say how! Does he even know how the offices work together? Does he know the difficulties of administering kashrut throughout the nation, as a small example?
    Finally we are treated to a poorly connected set of thoughts about leadership. Rosen states meritocratic positions succeed and hereditary ones fail. He is off topic, of course, since his piece is about a meritocratic system electing the best candidates to the leadership positions of the rabbinate; why does he veer into hereditary? Because Rosen wants to tell us that it is we humans who should be the choice makers, voting people in or out of positions.
    But then he muddies it up again by stating he’s awaiting Elijah, but hopes he won’t be announcing the return of the ‘monarchy.’ Really? Does Rosen know anything about Judaism? Why else would Elijah appear except to herald the Messiah (not just any old king, btw, and certainly not Ashkenazi or Sefardi to respond to his cheap point)?
    Finally we are treated to the idea that the behavior and speech of religious leaders (which Rosen purports to be), are often at disconnect from their religious values. So does Rosen’s speech match his religious values or does it contrast to what he REALLY believes… and which would be worse?

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Once again the cheer leaders are out in support of the absurd notion that for all its greatness, there is nothing wrong with our religious life.

      We have seen two previous Chief Rabbis of Israel, both elected through political machinations by a body of people appointed for political affiliation with loyalties to different parties, both men accused and charged of breaking the law of the land. Indeed one of them had charges against him even before he was pushed into position to block someone else, as happened again this time.

      If a politician breaks the law, wrong as it is, it’s just par for the course. But when a religious leader does it is a Chillul HaShem.

      We know that the truly great religious leaders of our people did not put themselves up for election. Did the late lamented Rav Elyashiv or Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach or Rav Kedouri stand for the Chief Rabbinate or the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Of course not! Precisely because it is a political appointment.

      In general People who stand for these positions are standing for power and self-promotion.

      You might have read the reports even in the Haredi press of all the political bargaining and promises to vested interests the candidates had to make to win votes.

      The Chief Rabbinate is a discredited organization that has the respect neither of the Right nor the Left. But it is used.

      And I dont know where some responents got the idea that I am in favor of democratizing spirituality. Quite the contrary. Seeing how superstitious, credulous and easily bought most people are, don’t we say Der Oylam is a Goylem? Democracy may be the least bad form of government for civil institutions. It is not for religious ones. The last thing I’d be in favor of is referendum or a popular election. Great religious leaders are not appointed, they emerge and are recognized for their greatness.

      It was indeed yet another disservice of the British Mandate to introduce the Chief Rabbi position to Zion. The late Rav Sonnenfeld and his allies fought long and hard against it. And it was a greater disservice that Israel after independence continued with it and then over time allowed its political quagmire to degrade it to the point of farce.
      If some of my readers are happy with the situation, good luck to them. But I am not.


      • shloime

        a chief rabbi who states flatly that all orthodox rabbis in america are corrupt, is indefensible. it is a cliche to say that pointing a finger means that you are pointing three back at yourself, but maybe it’s true…

        what the chief rabbinate has said and not said over the past 10 years has done irreparable harm to its own prestige.

        but because it purports to be the *chief* rabbinate, it also harms am yisrael and medinat yisrael. kol yisrael areivim ze la’ze..

    Rabbi Rosen says: “I like the fact that we can vote people out of office as much as in.”

    LEV,I am satisfied with the article
    as R’Rosen closed with:
    “I look forward to Elijah’s arrival.”
    (that means the announcement and preparation of Mashiach)
    thatsums it all up.
    case closed.By the way Lev, the more you interact with Rabbis, the more you will see Mr Rosens view which I agree.

  • HaDaR

    The Chief Rabbinate is not a Jewish institution but a British Mandate institution.
    Here’s a note about it:

  • Finally some truth; the author admits he doesn’t know either of the men he is slandering. I’m surprised you printed so much negativity supported by so few (zero) facts. I see nothing that justifies the title ‘corrupt’ over the picture. Esp. when the only ‘crime’ he is suspected of being prone to commit is not ‘humanizing’ Judaism (which is exactly what the evil kings and priests (whoever they are) he mentioned did.

  • Levi Bookin

    Rabbi Rosen says: “I like the fact that we can vote people out of office as much as in.”

    Is the Rav saying that he thinks chief rabbis should be elected by popular vote? What sort of chief rabbi does he think we would then get?

    The corruption of the American judicial system shows that democracy can go too far.

    I have not yet seen it demonstrated that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has any useful function.

  • Rivka

    You say “nepotism is a poor way of producing great leaders”, yet provide no evidence for why you are asserting that this was a case of nepotism at all. They were elected out of a field that included other candidates that were not the sons of former chief rabbis. Perhaps the people electing them genuinely felt that they were the best men for the job, regardless of parentage. Then you say “I have no interest in ordinary people being elevated to positions of power or even symbolic authority simply on the basis of birth.” Are you implying that these men truly have nothing going for them but their ancestry? That they are not very learned, their smicha is a joke, and they have ridden to success by hanging on the coat-tails of their famous fathers? You are free to disagree with things they have said, and to disagree with the system of the chief rabbinate in general, but to make an accusation of nepotism simply because of their parentage (which is hardly their fault, though why shouldn’t a person be proud of being the son of Yisrael Meir Lau?) is hardly up to your usual standard of intelligent journalism.

    • shloime

      moshe rabbeinu’s sons were neither great leaders, nor were they allowed to follow in their father’s footsteps. so much for “yichus”.

      what is also certain about israel’s newest chief rabbis, is that we know less about who they are, than about who their fathers are. that does not speak very well for their being elected on their own merit. (the story of rabbi lau’s failure to pass his exam shouldn’t disqualify him, but it makes the claims of his great scholarship a little less credible.)

      the politics of this selection, including the disgusting display of lashon hara, might mean that nepotism will be the least of our worries for the next 10 years.

  • Shimon

    This article is totally inappropriate for an Orthodox sponsored site. Anyway it was the secularists who made two chief Rabbis over the objections of the Orthodox who wanted one Chief Rabbi. The secularist did it to divide and conquer. Rosen should learn some history.

    • Degel

      Thank you Shimon! You hit the nail to the point! Those who were born in Russia know how good dictatorship played with that principle. “Divide and conquers” is still work perfectly there. It’s sad that together with great literature and art, great achievements in science Russian immigrants smuggled to Israel slaverish mentality.