Rabbi Barry Schlesinger
Photo: The Masorti Movement in Israel

Involve clientele in choosing Jerusalem’s chief rabbi

Including people in search process will promote deeper respect and understanding of rabbi's today's world, create foundation for successful dialogue between rabbi and capital's Jewish citizens and Diaspora Jewry

It has been widely reported that rabbis identified with the Orthodox Zionist camp are busy working to choose a chief rabbi for Jerusalem. At the head of the search commission is a presidium made up of three prominent rabbis, none of whom are residents of Jerusalem.


I strongly recommend that the three rabbis – Yaakov Ariel, Aaron Lichtenstein and Chaim Druckman – listen attentively to Ms. Rachel Azariah, who called for involving women in the search process, and to Rabbi Yisrael Rosen who called for appointing more Jerusalemites to the search commission.


In addition I would like to suggest that the commission formally include representatives of the "clientele" in the process. Is it conceivable that in a country where the citizens have voted for the prime minister (at least once), vote for mayors and municipal council members, vote for their neighborhood leadership (as in Jerusalem), determine a good deal of the curriculum taught in their children's schools, the constituency, should be excluded from choosing their own chief rabbi?


All over the world, members of Jewish congregations choose their own rabbis. This is the case in all Israeli Conservative and Reform congregations and, to a certain extent, in modern Orthodox synagogues. This phenomenon will grow in Modern Orthodox circles in Israel, especially since, Yeshiva University pledged to assist the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization establish independent synagogues.


Throughout Israel, Synagogues function as non-profit organizations, operating budgets with fiscal responsibility, often employing their own rabbi and synagogue staff. The congregations know well what they expect from their Rabbi and are familiar with the Rabbinic search process. It’s about time that we abolish this very centralistic method of choosing the chief rabbi which totally excludes the residents of Jerusalem from the process.


Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, was quoted as saying, “It is most important that the candidate knows how to represent the Zionist Jerusalem community and be sensitive to the needs of the secular, the traditional, the national religious, women and Diaspora Jewry."


How could the candidate to be elected possibly know how to successfully represent all those in Barkat's list if he is clueless about what the Jerusalemites expect from their rabbi?


Dr. Aviad HaCohen, a law professor, relating to the legal authority of the Chief Rabbi, was quoted as saying that “the authority of the chief rabbi greatly influences many aspects of our lives.… The rabbi is expected to be concerned not only with the kashrut of food, but also with the salaries and conditions of employees, and in maintaining ethical standards of social justice. The rabbi of Jerusalem must be a great Torah scholar who doesn’t feel threatened by the need to elevate the status of women in Judaism."


Dr. HaCohen is absolutely correct. Yet, I would have liked him to emphasize that the chief rabbi of Jerusalem must be Halachically knowledgeable, socially conscious and sensitive, and brave enough to conduct open discussions and dialogues with non-Orthodox Jews and rabbinic leaders.


In Jerusalem today there are active and vibrant Masorti, Reform, Modern Orthodox, and other independent institutions that ordain non-Orthodox Rabbis. Is it logical that the members of the search commission should forget that the chief rabbi of Jerusalem must recognize the various streams of Judaism functioning in Jerusalem, and work with them as "everyone's" chief rabbi? How can one forget to include tax paying, loyal Jerusalem citizens in the search for the Chief Rabbi?


MK Nachman Shai, formally one of the leaders of UJC of North America, put it this way: "The chief rabbi together with the mayor and the city council must create a bridge between Jerusalem and Diaspora Jewry."


In this regard, the obvious question must be asked: How could the elected rabbi build bridges, if he totally ignores the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox strands of Judaism and if he continues the misguided tradition of the Chief Rabbinate, to avoid public dialogue with non-Orthodox rabbis? Is it possible to conduct a real and open dialogue with Diaspora Jewry and exclude the non-Orthodox ?


Symbol of Jewish unity and true bridge builder

The chief rabbi of Jerusalem has to know that like other elected officials he too is a civil servant, who receives his salary from the "federal shekel". The rabbi has to understand that he is accountable to all those he serves. If he is to be a symbol of Jewish unity and a true bridge builder he must be respectful to those with whom he disagrees.


It is expected of him to be and exemplar of tolerance and respect for those holding diverse halachic opinions. He must teach Jerusalemites how to agree to disagree, to part as friends while continuing to dialogue.


In order to stand up to the challenge and choose “everyone's" chief rabbi, the search commission must hear the clientele in order to define the character and role of the ideal chief rabbi for Jerusalem, a city with a diverse Jewish population. Involving the public in choosing the chief rabbi will work to effectively influence the rabbi's understanding that he is indeed accountable to those he serves.


Changing the method of choosing the rabbi and including the constituency in the process, will have a great effect on how neighborhood rabbis are chosen and teach the neighborhood rabbis that they too are accountable civil servants who are expected address the religious needs of all Jewish taxpaying citizens. It is incumbent upon the presidium and the members of the search commission to stop in their tracks and listen attentively to what the public has to say.


The public has an elementary right to be part of the process. It is totally inconceivable that this specific civil servant should be so distanced from the public he serves. The public ought get up, speak out, and demand to be an integral part of the search process which includes defining the job description, the qualities desired of the rabbi and what is expected of the candidate who will be chosen.


Involving people in the process will promote a deeper respect and understanding of the role of the rabbi in today's world and create the foundation for successful dialogue between the rabbi and the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem and Diaspora Jewry.


Rabbi Barry Schlesinger is the president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the rabbi of the Masorti Congregation 'Moreshet Avraham' in Jerusalem.


פרסום ראשון: 08.18.09, 12:38
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