If you follow Israeli politics as they relate to religious affairs, then you know that the Jewish state has itself two new chief rabbis.
David Lau was elected the new Ashkenazi chief rabbi last week. At the same time, Yitzhak Yosef became the new Sephardi chief rabbi. Both men will serve 10-year terms.
If their names sound familiar, they should. Both rabbis are sons of past chief rabbis of Israel. The average Israeli can be forgiven for thinking that this very closed voting process (only 150 electors — religious and secular officials — got to cast ballots), was really just a coronation of the heirs of two rabbinic dynasties.
They can also be forgiven for thinking that these two men who exercise near-total control over religious affairs in Israel, but don’t have to face the voters, will change virtually nothing during their extended terms in office.
It’s not like the chief rabbinate is a time-honored Jewish institution. The British established it during their mandated rule of Palestine from 1918 to 1948. In a political arrangement, the complications of which are still being felt, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, allowed the chief rabbinate to continue exercising its authority following independence.
It’s hard for American Jews to understand why such an institution is even necessary. No such office exists in this country where Jews of all denominations — or no denomination — are free to live, marry and worship according to their own consciences.
But make no mistake, the existence of the chief rabbinate affects American Jews as well as Israelis. American Jews who either converted to the faith, married out of the faith with their spouses converting in, or whose parents converted in, are most vulnerable. The chief rabbinate can challenge their very identities as Jews.
American Jewish comedian Joel Chasnoff ran into this meat grinder himself, and he didn’t find it so funny.
In his acclaimed book, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” which is about his experiences serving in the tank corps of the Israel Defense Forces, Chasnoff also recounts his efforts to marry his Israeli girlfriend. A rabbi assigned to his case discovered that his mother, who converted to Judaism, had studied with a Conservative rabbi. That, of course, meant Chasnoff — who was raised Jewish, had a bar mitzva, fell in love with Israel and became a Zionist — was not a Jew.
Chasnoff could fight, and possibly die, for Israel, but he could not be called a Jew, or marry his love in a Jewish ceremony in the Jewish state — not unless he converted himself, which he did.
His story is not unusual. Other Jews from the United States, Russia and many other countries who love Israel and want to be connected to it, have similar tales to tell.
It’s no wonder that the chief rabbinate as an institution is under fire from many Israelis. To make matters worse for the institution, the outgoing chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yona Metzger, is currently under house arrest for money laundering.
Judaism is not a hierarchical faith; we have no pope or Archbishop of Canterbury. But in Israel, a hierarchical institution continues to govern religious life in the country. It is, of course, for the Israelis to decide if that situation will continue. To be sure, though, their decision will affect American Jews, too.