Friday, July 31, 1998

Why an American Chief Rabbinate is No Joke

The Jewish Week 2000

This idea came to me as a joke, but before I had the chance to tell it to anyone, I let it bounce around in my mind for about a month, more than enough time for a crazy idea to begin to make sense. So now, here goes:

We need an American Chief Rabbinate.


You can get up off the floor now.

Please, please, sit in this chair and let me explain.

You see, I was attending the recent national conference of Boards of Rabbis arranged by the New York Board of Rabbis. Several dozen chairmen (all happened to be men) of local, multi-denominational rabbinic councils got together and we were pleased to discover how well Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis get along on the local level, once you get away from the national limelight. While the group decided not to expand this effort for the time being, I couldn't help but think how nice it would be to take this to the next level. We then heard Eugene Fisher, a bishop whose job it is to dialogue with Jewish leaders, complain that Catholics never know which Jewish leader to conduct national dialogue with. So why not send 'em our champion, I thought, a Rabbi's Rabbi, one who can represent us all, and the Torah, at the same time. Great Britain has a Chief Rabbinate. Israel has one. Why not us?

Yes I know that as a democratic country with a separation of religion and state, we have never needed a head rabbi to speak for the Jewish religious minority, as in England. And yes, I know that a Chief Rabbinate is susceptible to corruption, especially when allotted huge chunks of political power and tons of money, as in Israel. Why would I want to create that type of mess here?

Because the fact of having had corrupt individuals in office shouldn't mean that the office is inherently bad (we didn't get rid of the Presidency because of Richard Nixon).
Because in America, the Chief Rabbinate would not control the political balance of power, as in Israel.

Because we need a Chief Rabbinate not so much to dialogue with Popes and Presidents as to be an example of moral and spiritual excellence to our own people.

Because we can create a system that would minimize the potential for corruption and enhance our unity.

Because we've got a mess here already, and the current system of choosing leaders has failed to correct it.

One objective of the grand merger now taking place involving the U.J.A, U.I A. and Council of Federations is to create a "single voice, a single message, and a common vision for the future," according to Richard Wexler, a co-President of this new Partnership. But that single voice remains elusive. At the same time, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is having trouble clearing its collective throat.

How many of the top leaders of these superagencies are rabbis -- and if any are, is that by design or by accident? If rabbis want to be major players on the American Jewish scene right now, the choices are either to shout from the wilderness or spout the party line from the inside. True rabbinic influence is mostly indirect and diffuse: a spoken word from the pulpit here, a leadership seminar there, maybe a column or two in the local newspaper. We're expected to stay above politics. If our first rabbi, Moses, had opted to stay above the fray, we'd still be building pyramids. The U.J.A. Rabbinic Cabinet is a perfect example of how the current insider model doesn't work. While that group, of which I am a member, supports many worthy causes, it is as much involved in true leadership as the House of Lords. It's a certified Kavod Committee that never is allowed to stray from the party line assigned from the lay leadership above.

That's not good for any of us. American Jewry needs a division of power, one that allows for substantial rabbinic involvement at the very top. A rabbi, to be a rabbi, has got to lead. American Jewry, to be truly Jewish, has got to be led by those who understand Judaism best.

Keep in mind that since the destruction of the Second Temple, the prime leaders and spokespeople for the Jewish communities of the Diaspora have been rabbis -- until America became the first large Jewish community where rabbis were reduced to a secondary role. This stems both from Americans' strong democratic instincts and even stronger distrust of clerical leadership. Many of our grandparents left Europe precisely to get out from under the yoke of rabbis. But we have suffered because of this aversion.

No wonder we have had so few great leaders recently. In the previous generation, when we did have some giants, most were rabbis. For every Brandeis there was a Heschel, a Soloveichik, a Silver and a Wise, each at the center of the action. We have some notable rabbis now, but the system we have in place marginalizes them at a time when we need their vision more than ever.
The ideal rabbinic leadership model for our purposes is the prophet Nathan, who had the vision and courage to call King David to account for his terrible sins of adultery and murder. Nathan was an insider, very much part of the system, yet independent enough to have his say publicly, revered enough to be heeded and respected enough to keep his job afterwards. What we need is a Nathan-al Chief Rabbi, someone who unlike King David and Prince Wexler, must answer to a Higher Authority.

My hope is that a National Board of Rabbis will eventually grow out of grass roots efforts such as the conference I attended. Then, with the active support of the Conference of Presidents and U.J.A. - Federation, but not under their umbrella, this National Board would establish guidelines to set up a Chief Rabbinate of maybe half a dozen rabbis representing the major denominations. Its mandate would be to build on our common interests, achieve constructive dialogue on stickier inter-denominational matters and speak out independently and with recognized authority on all issues. From this group a single Chief Rabbi would serve, on a rotating basis, to represent American Jewry as its primarily national spokesperson. One would hope that enough checks and balances would be put into the system to ensure that power wouldn't be abused and that our most talented rabbinic leaders would rise to the top. If I had my druthers, someone of the caliber of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg would be the first to hold that esteemed office.

So, you're asking, how in my wildest dreams do I think it possible that the religious leaders of different denominations would be able to get along?

Because we already do. In communities all across this country, we do. We get along because we have to and because most rabbis are good, moral people who care about the Jewish future -- we wouldn't have become rabbis otherwise. We need to elevate rabbinic leadership to the point that when a chief of state wants to check the pulse of American Jewry, the person we send will represent the best of who we are, what we've been and what we hope to become, a person of the highest moral standards, humility and wisdom. Some crazy ideas turn out not to be so crazy after all.