By Ariel Finkelstein
The ingathering of the Jewish people during the 20th century has led to a significant change in the role of the rabbinate. Up until that period the custom had been for one rabbi, called the Mara D’Atra (lord of the place), to be appointed for each community or city. The 1911 appointment of two rabbis – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi – for the city of Jaffa and the 1921 appointment of two chief rabbis created the ethnic-based duplication customary to this day in the chief rabbinate and in many cities, townships, and regions.
This position paper surveys the historical development of the laws, regulations and legal rulings dealing with ethnic-based duplication in the chief and local rabbinates and raises three main problems caused by the duplication:
- Maintenance of the ethnic-based split: The basis for the duplication rests in the need of different ethnicities for a rabbi identified with their own group, but from the very foundation of the chief rabbinate it was hoped that the need for ethnic-based duplication would rapidly disappear. It is difficult to find any indication of whether the need still exists, but from claims made by committees which have discussed the issue, by members of Knesset from all parts of the political spectrum, and by important rabbis, it seems clear that in the year 2014 there is no longer any real need for two rabbis from different ethnic groups. The increased number of inter-ethnic marriages creates a situation in which the Supreme Court will be forced, in the not-too-distant future, to decide who is to be considered Ashkenazi and who Sephardi. At the same time, the ethnic-based duplication ignores some ethnicities, such as the Yemenites who see themselves as neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. From the very founding of the country representatives of the Yemenite community argued that the duplication should be eliminated and that a single rabbi be appointed without consideration of his ethnic background.
- Reduced functionality: In both the Jewish and the democratic traditions it is accepted that there cannot be two kings sharing the same crown, and therefore each role which includes a decision-making component is filled by only one person. Experience shows that in many cities – and often even within the chief rabbinate – having two rabbis serve at the same time leads to disputes and even to discord between the rabbis, a situation which negatively impacts the religious services given to residents (for example, in kashrut divisions).
- Financial burden on religious councils: Religious council budgets are set with no thought to the number of rabbis serving in the city. In 2001 the State comptroller noted that religious councils in local authorities and in the smaller cities are finding it hard to shoulder the financial burden of two rabbis’ salaries. Statistics show that rabbinical salaries in jurisdictions with two rabbis run more than a million NIS on average. For more than 60% of such jurisdictions this represents more than 30% of the religious council budget.
The State comptroller, a number of professional committees over the past two decades, former chief rabbis, and many Knesset members have called for a substantial reduction and even the complete elimination of ethnic-based duplication of rabbinical positions. In 2003 the government issued a decision on the matter, but nothing practical came of it. An analysis of the issue shows that as far as local rabbinates are concerned, the central force for leaving the matter as it stands is sectarian calculations of political parties, who have an interest in appointing as many partisan rabbis as they can. Therefore the situation persists despite the relative consensus amongst the various professional bodies.