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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld Headshot

Chief Rabbi or Corrupt Pol?

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In September 2012, a successor to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the current Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, will be appointed. The new rabbi will begin his tenure in September 2013. If the post will not undergo a major transformation and become purely one of spiritual and educational leadership, then it is far better to leave the post empty than to continue the institution of a chief rabbi.

Right now the position of chief rabbi of the United Kingdom has tremendous institutional and bureaucratic power. It needs to be divested of all power in order for it to be truly successful and inspirational. The same goes for the chief rabbi of Israel. These institutions must move from a model of religious coercion to religious persuasion.

The Torah tells us that Moses gathered seventy elders to his tent and that God placed the spirit of prophecy upon them (Numbers 11:25). But there were two other prophets who refused to come: Eldad and Meidad.

Instead of gathering with all the other elders at the "tent" they remained back in the "camp".

But two men remained in the camp. The name of one was, Eldad and the name of the other, Meidad. They did not go out to the tent. They remained in the camp. (11:26)

Why didn't Eldad and Meidad want to gather at the tent with the other seventy prophets?

It is my belief that Eldad and Meidad did not want to centralize the power of prophecy, and thus preferred to remain on their own instead of going to the central tent. They felt that centralized religious power leads to corruption. Their primary contention was absolutely correct: a centralized religious power leads to corruption of the name of God and a distortion of spirituality. Some religions have a history of centralized power. Judaism marches firmly in the other direction.

We Jews don't do well with centralized rabbinic power. We believe that centralized rabbinic power leads to corruption. The rabbinate is supposed to be a check against the corruption of political power, not an adjunct to it.

On the other hand the chief rabbi's office, both in Israel and in the U.K. have tremendous bureaucratic power and this has led to a cheapening of our holy faith and an increased disregard for the rabbinate.

In Israel, the chief rabbis are personally inspiring figures, and in many cases great Torah scholars. But on an institutional level, the office of the chief rabbinate in Israel represents bureaucracy, not spirituality. When it works "best," it represents intentionally infringing on the religious freedoms of many non-Orthodox Israelis which has the result of turning off many Jews from the path of the Torah. When it works worst it represents a corrupt rabbinate that in recent years has led to many scandals.

Similarly, the chief rabbi of the U.K. is an institution which must evolve if it is to remain a force for good. Consider this about Rabbi Sacks: With all the great writing and work that he has done, what many will remember about him is that he never went to Limmud -- an interdenominational gathering of Torah study -- during his tenure as chief rabbi for fear that publically interacting with liberal streams of Judaism would offend the right wing elements of Orthodoxy, and cause him to lose his political base. So he turned his back on Limmud for purely political purposes, in spite of the fact that this is what Rabbi Sacks himself said about Limmud:

We do things in Anglo-Jewry today that are not done anywhere else in the world [...] we have something called Limmud where almost 3,000 young people come together to study for a week at the end of the year, studying 600 different courses. Now Limmud has been exported to 47 other places in the world from Moscow to New York and Los Angeles and almost everywhere else, so we have a very vibrant cultural life, which we didn't have before.

But despite the fact that he loves Limmud, he never went while he was chief rabbi. Similarly, he refused to attend the funeral of a prominent Reform rabbi in order not to offend the ultra-Orthodox.

Furthermore, as a consequence of his political power the chief rabbi is in charge of certifying new synagogues, even non-Orthodox ones, and deciding who is Jewish enough to go to the free Jewish state-run schools. Since the British courts have found that it violates race laws to declare someone Jewish in accordance with Halakhic standards, this leads to the now-highly awkward and farcical situation of deciding who is Jewish on the basis of a point system depending upon who shows up to synagogues.

These legal rights place the chief rabbi in an impossible position. It is his duty to give Halakhic guidance to his community. But when the government extends his authority over those who do not accept him freely as their spiritual leader, the result is a disaster for the man, the office and for Judaism.

The very notion of a rabbinate conjoined with the government is antithetical to our tradition. This is what Eldad and Meidad understood. As recently as the previous century, this is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik understood when he turned down the position of chief rabbinate of Israel.

It seems that this is what Moses understood as well. Immediately after the Eldad and Meidad story, the Torah tells us (Numbers 11:30) that Moses gathers the elders again. But this time he did not gather them in the tent -- the symbol of bureaucratic power. This time they gathered in the camp! This time they followed the example of Eldad and Meidad.

When religious folks gather, our power is in prayer and education, and we should never lose that power by sullying it with the trappings of political strength.

 
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