Opinion // The Israeli Rabbinate: The Origin Story
by Elli Fischer
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the British military and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, all played a role in creating the powerful chief rabbinate.
“The Rabbanut will have an impact by virtue of its constant efforts to bring people together, to inject a spirit of harmony among all parties and factions, and to strengthen the Torah and its honor in the Holy Land and throughout the world.”
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first chief rabbi of Israel, penned this idealistic vision of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, or Rabbanut, when he was appointed to lead it in 1921. British Mandatory authorities had adapted the institution from Ottoman Turkish structures. A century later, the institution Rav Kook viewed with such high hopes is more frequently associated with politicization, nepotism, crushing bureaucracy and outright corruption. Although some still believe the rabbinate can be restored to its former glory, most acknowledge that this is a pipe dream and would settle for a reformed chief rabbinate that is more effective and limited, if not inspiring.
Although it appears to embody the status quo, the rabbinate and its powers actually evolved over several centuries. In the Ottoman Empire, each religious community had an ecclesiastical court for regulating internal matters: Jews were governed by halacha, Christian communities by their canon law and Muslims by shari’a. These courts, called millets, handled taxes and had jurisdiction over any proceedings involving only their members, including marriage and divorce. The political and religious head of the Jewish millet in Ottoman Palestine came to be known as the Rishon LeZion (“First of Zion”).
When the British replaced the Turks after World War I, they implemented elements of British common law but continued to grant autonomy on matters of personal status to Mandatory Palestine’s eleven ethnic-religious community courts. The Rishon LeZion became the Sephardic chief rabbi and served alongside Rabbi Kook, his Ashkenazic counterpart, establishing a pattern that has continued.
David Ben-Gurion chose to keep the millets largely intact even after the establishment of the state in 1948, partly because of four key concessions he had already made to the main haredi faction, including marriage and divorce. Scholars such as Yüksel Sezgin have demonstrated that Ben-Gurion’s perpetuation of the Ottoman system was a key element of his unique brand of state-building, which sought to create a Jewish Israeli identity out of ethnically and religiously diverse Diaspora Jewish identities. Because most Israeli Jews were from communities that had never undergone denominational schism, “Judaism,” even when observed in the breach, was synonymous with Orthodoxy. The rabbinate was thus Orthodox by default.
Three developments in the 1970s accelerated dissatisfaction with the system. First, in 1970, the Knesset amended the Law of Return to include anyone, even a non-Jew, with a Jewish grandparent. This amendment removed de facto control of immigration from the rabbinate, but it also made possible the immigration of halachic non-Jews who, according to the rabbis, could not legally marry Jews in Israel. This possibility became reality with the mass influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Second, in 1972, a controversial and divisive candidate, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, was appointed chief rabbi through dubious political machinations. Although never as apolitical as Rabbi Kook hoped, the rabbinate till then had largely remained above the political fray. Since then, it has been the site of a perpetual tug-of-war between various religious factions.
Finally, the ascendancy of Menachem Begin’s Likud Party in 1977 ended the era of domination by a single party, Mapai, in Israeli politics. Under a two-bloc system, small parties have much more leverage to demand a high price for joining the governing coalition. For haredi parties, cushy jobs within a large and well-funded rabbinate were a way to reward party hacks. As Israel’s population grows, an encounter with the rabbinate’s burgeoning bureaucracy becomes increasingly Kafkaesque.
Are the rabbinate’s problems systemic, or can they be solved by changes in personnel and governance? The present chief rabbis—by all accounts sincere, well-meaning, and competent—have tried the latter. They have streamlined citizens’ encounters with the rabbinate, published more transparent guidelines and appointed rabbinical judges who are more sympathetic to the wives of recalcitrant husbands. Perhaps they can transform the institution, but skepticism is warranted.
Another rabbinical organization, Tzohar, has attempted to rehabilitate the rabbinate from within, working for halachic change and a more friendly and open approach, while still vehemently defending the rabbinate’s power and opposing civil alternatives. They have won some small victories—most notably, passing a law that allows local rabbinate branches to compete with each other to register marriages—but by supporting the institution and its prerogatives, they actually strengthen their haredi opponents.
As for systemic reforms, proposals fall into three groups. Some critics want to abolish the rabbinate and make rabbinic services in Israel completely private, as in the United States; some advocate for a model in which religious communities compete for adherents and consequently for tax monies, based on the existing system in Germany; still others want to leave the rabbinate largely intact but create civil alternatives. None of these would eliminate the rabbinate overnight; under all of them, the rabbinate would retain jurisdiction over couples it had previously married.
Of these options, the creation of civil alternatives seems most promising and—since 25 percent of Israeli Jews and of Knesset members are Orthodox—politically achievable. Putting a civil option in place would automatically encourage alternative religious ceremonies, since the rabbinate would need to persuade citizens to marry under its auspices. This solution is less than ideal for anti-establishment Madisonians, but it would afford Israelis religious freedom—the freedom to live their lives without ever having to encounter rabbinic officialdom.
Elli Fischer has rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and is a member of the American Jewish Committee’s Jewish Religious Equality Coalition.