Chief Rabbi selection: how Israel does it

By Nathan Jeffay, August 11, 2011
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The defining characteristic of the chief rabbi selection process in Israel is that involves secular as well as religious communities.

In a country polarised between secular and religious, this has allowed the rabbinate, which is state-maintained, to be regarded as a national and not just a sectarian institution.

Abraham Isaac Kook, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi who was instrumental in establishing the institution, was particular about this point, being keen that secular Jews should feel a sense of connection to the rabbinate.

But the net has been cast so wide that instead of having a selection committee there is a panel that is larger than the Knesset - and with almost as much politicking. There are 120 members of the Knesset; the board tasked with choosing the country's two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, has 150.

Fistfights in Prague and near-war in French Jewish papers — but the voting goes on

Within each category of members, whether the city rabbis, the dayanim, the heads of religious councils or others, there is horse-trading - votes for this candidate in return for support on this issue or that, from mikvah-building to the administration of holy sites.

The secular members on the panels are mostly politicians, national and local - or their nominees - who themselves have deals that they want to cut with each other.

The process encourages the selection of candidates who are politically acceptable and inoffensive to all concerned, but not the country's true rabbinic leaders. This is true of today's chief rabbis, Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, both of them relatively marginal rabbinic figures before their election - and, some would cynically remark, also today.

Israeli chief rabbis serve a single 10-year term, after which they cannot stand for re-election. This rule is intended to avoid a single rabbi monopolising power, but there is widespread feeling in Israel that this has backfired. They have state-assigned power over many institutions that are important to Israelis, including marriage and divorce, kashrut and several aspects of conversion, and the theory goes that chief rabbis would be keener to impress the public and aim for tangible achievements, if they felt that their future prospects rested on it.

While no diaspora centre has as elaborate a selection process as Israel, some echo the highly political nature. In Prague, the stakes are high - as well as leading the community on a day-to-day basis, the Chief Rabbi has the pulpit of the Altneu, the world's oldest functioning synagogue. The community holds elections to select its lay leaders, who in turn choose the chief rabbi.

The position has been the focus of a power struggle between the mainstream community and Chabad-Lubavitch. In 2004 the then head of the community Tomas Jelinek sacked Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon and appointed Lubavitch rabbi Manis Barash instead.

Many Prague Jews were furious, as Rabbi Sidon is a former anti-Communist dissident. On one occasion a brawl broke out between supporters of the two rabbis in the Altneu. Community members started a campaign to oust Mr Jelinek and succeeded, leading to Rabbi Sidon's reappointment in 2005.

The Norwegian chief rabbinate was created in 1999 when long-time Oslo minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, who commuted from Israel, was elected to the Knesset and therefore unable to occupy a regular pulpit.

Instead, the Norwegians created a chief rabbi post - unpaid as Knesset members cannot have a second job - especially for Rabbi Melchior. Though he officially serves four-year terms, it is the consensus that he will remain in the post as long as he has time to continue visiting.

In France, the chief rabbi is elected by the Consistoire, the national body which oversees religious services to the mainstream Orthodox community. The actual electorate is small – just 300 rabbis. Lay representatives took part in the ballot in 2008 that saw Gilles Bernheim oust Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk from the post he had occupied for the previous 20 years. But the process is far more open than in the UK. The contest between the two men was a presidential-style campaign with adverts in the Jewish press, intense canvassing and viral marketing on social media.

At one point the campaign grew so heated that other Jewish organisations had to issue a statement calling for calm.

When it comes to real democracy, Turkey sets an example to larger Jewish communities. In 2002, the government changed the method of choosing the chief rabbi, regarded as the Jewish community's official representative, from appointment by a Beth Din, to national elections.

Any male or female member of the Jewish community over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. When Chief Rabbi Izak Haleva was re-elected last year, nearly 5,000 Turkish Jews cast their vote in synagogues around the country.

Italy does not have a national spiritual leader, but each city chooses its own chief rabbi. Riccardo di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, was chosen in 2001 by the 28-strong board of the city's Jewish community.

    Last updated: 1:03pm, August 11 2011