Who Should be Part of the Body that Selects the Chief Rabbi?

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Bemidbar 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


When Maran Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook founded the Chief Rabbinate almost everyone – religious and secular - was in favor. Even the secular understood that having a country includes having religion, and that it was important for there to be a Chief Rabbi for both internal and external purposes. There were only a handful of religious Jews who did not want there to be a Chief Rabbi. People quote Ha-Rav Chaim Zonnenfeld, the head of the opposition, as having said, “At first he will be a traditional Orthodox Rabbi, then he will be a Rabbi-Doctor, and after that he will be a reform Rabbi.” It was this he feared, and indeed, Rav Kook and the rest of the Rabbis feared this too.

It all depends on who picks the Chief Rabbi.

The Rabbis said that the ones who would chose the Chief Rabbi should, themselves, be Rabbis. The secular public refused, however, and said that the decision should be a public one. Ostensibly the Rabbis were right. I have pointed out with regards to Bezalel, the architect of the Mishkan, the Desert Tabernacle, that holiness takes precedence over wisdom, and wisdom takes precedence over the public’s opinion. Yet the secular said that throughout the generations it was the community that chose the Rabbi, and that was what should happen now as well. The Rabbis responded that there can be no comparison. At one time, the public had all been G-d-fearing, whereas now, in Eretz Yisrael, there was nothing like that. Why were they choosing a Rabbi? What did they need a Rabbi for? As stated at the start, the Mara De-Atra, Rabbinic head of the community, is the one we trust and whose word we obey, yet the secular have no intention of obeying him anyway. If so, why should they have a say in deciding? As stated, they were in favor of having a Chief Rabbi, but not in order to obey him, but to meet political needs.

In the end, a committee was set up, with the British, the Rabbis and the Jewish People equally represented. That committee in turn decided that the make-up of the voting body should be two-thirds Rabbis and one third representatives of the communities. Two-thirds of Rabbis makes a majority, and some of the communal representatives were G-d-fearing people as well. With this decision, all doubts that could have arisen were quashed, and the Rabbis prevailed.

It should further be stressed that secular individuals who choose a Chief Rabbi do not want him in order to heed his halachic rulings. They want a Chief Rabbi who will heed what they say. We can understand this desire, but that is not what a Rabbi does. That is what Ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik called “the new idolatry, idolatry to public opinion” (Divrei Ha-Rav, p. 52). In that system, public opinion determines what you must think and what you must do. You are enslaved to public opinion.

Yet, as Socrates said, public opinion can be wrong. There is no need to have learned in yeshiva to understand this. You need intelligence, just as Socrates had.  What he said, however, did not curry favor with public opinion, and he therefore was sentenced to death. He was given three options: exile, silence or execution. He said, “If I am unable to say what I think, or if I go into exile and can no longer have an influence, my life is no life.” He drank poison, continued speaking, fell asleep and died. His point was: public opinion should not be the deciding factor in moral/philosophical matters.

It is certainly forbidden for public opinion to take precedence in the selection of a Chief Rabbi. It is a tertiary factor that should come only after the primary factor, which is holiness, and the secondary factor, which is wisdom, as Rav Kook explained (Ein Aya, Berachot, Chapter 9, Letter 28).

Indeed, first and foremost comes holiness. Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Avraham Shapira, ztz"l, related that one time there was uncertainty over who should be the Chief Rabbi - Rav Herzog or Rav Charlap. In the end, Rav Herzog was chosen. Rav Shapira said, “It was a shame, because Rav Charlop was on a supreme level of holiness.” He immediately added, “Rav Herzog was holy too, but Rav Charlop was more so.” Rav Shapira grieved over what occurred.  We look back nostalgically to a time when the choice was between Rav Herzog and Rav Charlop. In the end, because Rav Herzog had been the Chief Rabbi of Ireland and was more accustomed to the Rabbinate, he was chosen. That is the sort of selection process that there needs to be.

First you need a holy man.