Why it would be wrong to elect a Chief Rabbi

According to tradition, a rabbi should be chosen by his peers.


By Daniel Greenberg, November 10, 2011
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The search is on for a successor to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, who retires in September 2013 (Photo: Michael Donald)

The search is on for a successor to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, who retires in September 2013 (Photo: Michael Donald)

There has been a good deal of speculation how the next Chief Rabbi might be appointed. It seems likely that consultation within the community will be considerably wider than on previous occasions and it has even been suggested that an election might feature as part of the process. The Electoral Reform Society recently offered some well-intentioned advice on the practicability of organising such an election. Its advice, however, fails to take account of the nature of the position of Chief Rabbi, and of the Orthodox Jewish tradition regarding the appointment of rabbis in general.

To begin with, the notion that it will be possible to arrange for elections to the post of Chief Rabbi assumes that the appointment can be made from a field of rabbis who offer themselves for election and who are prepared, whether through hustings or otherwise, to publicise enough about their policies and beliefs for the electorate to make an informed choice.

This is, in itself, contrary to the traditional Jewish notion of how rabbinic appointments are made. The Chazon Ish (Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz 1878-1953) was regularly asked by communities throughout Europe to select an appropriate person to fill a rabbinic vacancy, despite the fact that throughout his life - for much of which he was regarded as the foremost European halachic authority - he did not hold rabbinic ordination himself.

The story is told that on one occasion he selected a student from his academy for a particular community: but when he approached the young man to inform him, the student begged to be excused. When pressed for his reasons, the student admitted to the Chazon Ish that he was terrified of the responsibility. "So what do you want me to do?" asked the Chazon Ish, "Do you want me to appoint someone who isn't terrified of the responsibility?"

Maimonides in his compendium of Jewish law records as follows: "It was the way of the original sages to run away from being appointed to rabbinic positions: they would go to great lengths in order to avoid being made to serve, until they came to realise that there was no one else as capable as them, and that if they continued to refuse there would be a deficiency in the available pool of serving rabbis; even then, however, they would not accept office until the congregation had pressed them very hard and their fellow sages had insisted" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 3:10).

The traditional method of ordaining rabbis has, in effect, been a matter of transmitted rabbi-to-rabbi appointment in what we like to believe is an unbroken chain from our first rabbi, Moses. Although, in reality, it is inevitable that there must have been many who asserted rabbinic authority without having been invested by someone who formed a link in that chain, we continue to use peer-appointment: we do so on the assumption that suitability for rabbinic appointment can be judged only by those whose learning and piety gives them the right, or rather the ability, to assess those qualities in others.

Although in many respects Judaism is a democratic system, in many ways it is not. The Cohanim form a hereditary class who wield considerable power in a range of ritual matters; and we believe in a hereditary monarchy in whom is vested an enormous degree of executive power. Although for many purposes the rabbinate was always open to anyone with sufficient learning, the emphasis on a combination of knowledge, wisdom and piety always suggested that it was likely to be composed only of people who had no particular ambition in that direction.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was for much of his life probably the closest thing to a world-wide Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish community, being generally recognised as the Gadol Hador, or greatest halachic authority of his generation. He was asked once how he had become the Gadol Hador. He replied that it had happened simply because people had started to ask him questions to which he had responded with his honest opinion, that they appeared to value the answers he gave, and that accordingly more and more questions were sent to him until he had become acknowledged as a universal authority. Yet although he never refused to answer questions put to him, he never sought authority or position and almost never held a formal rabbinic position.

Perhaps it is inevitable that in today's climate the Anglo-Jewish community will consider an election for Chief Rabbi inevitable, as the only way of legitimising the appointment and investing the office with workable authority. If that is true however, then it is also inevitable that, if the search for Chief Rabbi is to be confined to those who are sufficiently anxious for the position to offer themselves for election, we are likely to overlook those whose personal qualities make them most suited for the position.

Daniel Greenberg is a lawyer specialising in parliamentary matters.

Last updated: 10:49am, November 10 2011