Unorthodox Choice

For Israeli Chief Rabbi: Nobody

Gershom Gorenberg says there's only one good candidate for Israeli chief rabbi, even if none of the 150 electors will make this choice: No one.

The election will take place next Wednesday. Just 150 electors, most of whom lack the slightest claim to represent the public, will choose two new chief rabbis for the state of Israel. The winners—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi rabbi—will become the heads of the state rabbinic bureaucracy and will officially speak for Judaism in the State of Israel. If there's anything more painfully absurd than the way the chief rabbis are chosen, it's the idea of official state Judaism.

The politicking has gone on for months. Political parties tried crassly to make deals to amend the Chief Rabbinate Law, aiming to help particular candidates. The deals all failed. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, master of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, dithered about which of his sons to run for Sephardi chief rabbi. Last week police questioned his son Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of the city of Holon, on corruption charges, so the Shas leader named his son Yitzhak Yosef instead. Since a majority of the electors are state-salaried religious functionaries, a great many tied to Shas, Rabbi Ovadia's choice could be decisive. Attacking the favored Ashkenazi candidate of relatively liberal religious Zionist politicians, Rabbi Ovadia said that electing Rabbi David Stav would be akin to "putting an idol in the Temple." On Saturday night, another leading Shas rabbi, Shalom Cohen, declared that all religious Zionists are "Amalek," the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. "Anti-Semites" would be much too soft a translation.

None of this has added any honor to Judaism. But the most disturbing part of the campaign may be the candidacy of Shmuel Eliahu for Sephardi chief rabbi.

There are modernizing streams within religious Zionism, and streams that take nothing from modernity but extreme nationalism. Eliahu is a harsh representative of the latter. In 2010, he published an open letter saying that Jewish religious law bars selling or renting land to non-Jews anywhere in the Land of Israel. Anyone who did so, he wrote, should be ostracized. This was not a theoretical ruling. Eliahu is the chief rabbi of Safed, a Galilee town with a college that attracts students from surrounding Arab communities. To avoid criminal charges for racist incitement or disciplinary measures against him as a state official, Eliahu signed a clarification—or obfuscation—saying that the original letter was aimed only at "hostile elements." Settler rabbis and politicians from Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home party) reportedly support Eliahu.

Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein has demanded explanations from Eliahu, saying that "it is possible that your election to high office could…raise legal difficulties." Leading jurist Ruth Gavison, in an article published yesterday, argued on free-speech grounds that Eliahu shouldn't be legally barred from running. But that was only a preamble to her case against electing him: The chief rabbi of Israel, Gavison wrote, "is the face of the Jewish religious establishment on behalf of the state, not on behalf of one or another religious or political community… His views are one face of the state." He has to be able to harmonize the demands of Jewish law and the "ethos of the state," with includes the rights of the Arab minority and the religious freedom of non-Orthodox Jews—and of Orthodox Jews who deeply object to Eliahu's interpretation of Judaism. (That was the point in the article where I sighed a deep "thank you" to Prof. Gavison.) He has to "respect the right of Jews to… Jewish self-determination, which includes a variety of approaches to Judaism."

I don't know if this was Gavison's subtle intent, but her words are a powerful case for dismantling the institution of the chief rabbinate altogether. What business, precisely, does the state have in choosing a rabbi, or two rabbis, to represent Judaism on its behalf? Given the "variety of approaches," the multiplicity of interpretations, it is impossible that any rabbi could perform this function. The state certainly should not give its imprimatur to Shmuel Eliahu's racist reading. But it also shouldn't give that imprimatur to Ovadia Yosef's designated son's interpretation, or to David Stav's teaching, or even to the universalism of Rabbis for Human Rights. Replacing Sephardi and Ashkenazi with one male and one female rabbi wouldn't help. The right of "Jewish self-determination" is not the right of one Jew to determine for another what Judaism is, but the right to an open, public and unending debate. The chief rabbinate in this piece of land, I should add, was originally an invention of the Ottomans for managing the local Jews. It is a vestige of subjugation.

There's only one good candidate for chief rabbi, even if none of the 150 electors will make this choice: No one.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said, "Among the electors are exactly two women." About 10 percent of the 150 electors are women.