Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – Part 2

As we mentioned in our last post: here, some suggest that the Rabbanut has the right and responsibility to weigh in on Halachic issues.  Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli took this one step farther, arguing that the pesak of the Rabbanut is binding.  This piece is printed in Amud HaYemini, chapter 6 (available here) and is summarized in the Warhaftig article mentioned in the last post.

He first relates to the reasons why a individual pesakim are binding, or at least another posek is not allowed to permit what another posek has forbidden (chamam echad she’aser, ein chacham acher yachol lehatir – Avodah Zara 7a).  Three positions are generally presented.  1) It is a matter of kavod hachaham – once a posek has ruled on a particular issue, it is disrespectful to go to another posek for another opinion.  2) The person asking the question committed himself or herself to the answer.  3) The process of pesak creates the Halachic reality.  All of these reasons explain why pesak is binding in a particular situation but not to a similar situation that occurs later.  [This was my quick summary of the issue – for a fuller discussion, see Shut Benei Banim 3:8.]

Rabbi Yisraeli embraces the third position, which is presented most extensively by the Ritva to Avodah Zara 7a.  He connects the position of the Ritva to another famous position of his (Eruvin 13b) arguing for a multiple legal truths theory of Halacha.  As such, Rabbi Yisraeli argues that as there are many possible Halachic truths, the posek creates the Halachic reality that must be followed in the situations he rules on.  There is some question as to whether this position only works to explain why a machmir pesak is binding or even a mekal one.  Rabbi Yisraeli understands the Ritva in a more limited fashion, though Rav Henkin in the above cited Teshuva in Benei Banim points out that Ritva himself takes a more expansive view.

At any rate, Rabbi Yisraeli assumes that the reason the posek has the ability to create the Halachic reality for those asking him the question is because they accepted him as their Rav and posek.  He then uses this to explain why there is a unique status to a Mara DeAsra – the local rabbi, who has actually been accepted as the posek.  As the Gemara mentions in many places, it was legitimate for people to rely on unique leninecies offered by their own rabbis.  Similarly, poskim are not supposed to weigh in on Halachic issues in others’ jurisdictions.  [For an extensive analysis of this issue, see Rabbi Helfgot’s article in Milin Havivin 4 on the topic of Psikat Halacha Bishaat HaDechak which includes a section on the power of Mara DeAsra.]

Rabbi Yisraeli concludes that the Rabbanut is the accepted authority of Israel and therefore their rulings create the Halachic reality in Israel and others cannot challenge their authority.

The Problem

As mentioned, the problem with this is that it does not accord with reality.  Mori VeRabi Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein deals with this issue in an article that has been republished many times (Tradition, Summer 1992, Leaves of Faith, in Hebrew in the Volume on the Chief Rabbinate, etc.).  I will summarize a few of the salient points.

1)       The Chief Rabbinate is by no stretch of the imagination, the Sanhedrin.

2)      It practically is helpful to have centralization for some issues, such as Kashrus.  However, that is a practical issue, but does not necessarily have Halachic weight.

3)      Furthermore, not all issues are benefited by centralization.

4)      If in fact all of Israel had accepted the Chief Rabbinate, it would have been plausible to assume it has the status of one Halachic place (See Horayos 3a, Rambam Peirush HaMishnayos to Bechoros 4:3, Shut Avnei Nezer Orach Chaim 314), and that the chief rabbis were the marei deasra.

5)      This has not happened.  Here I quote Rav Lichtenstein

… as we turn to examine the current state of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, one wonders how much of the foregoing is truly relevant. The contribution of the rabbanut harashit to the administration and supervision of areas crucial to Halakhic existence is obvious. Equally self-evident, however, is the fact that, as a quintessential rabbinic authority—whether as spiritual leadership in the broader sense or with regard to the specific area of pesak—it now carries relatively limited weight. Secularists and haredim largely ignore it, while the non-Orthodox actively fight it. Its status in the dati-leumi community is more secure, but, even there, many offer it little more than honorific lip-service, having recourse to it only at their convenience. Moreover, as it has become increasingly regarded as the virtual patrimony of a dominant faction, its base of support has narrowed and the number of those who truly look to it for guidance has dwindled. Even within the world of yeshivot hesder, there are not many who, confronted with conflicting pesakim of the rabbanut harashit and, say, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, would routinely prefer the former…. When there is reasonable consensus about the appointive procedure, the status can be readily conferred and assume Halakhic force. In its absence, however, the title rings hollow. As previously noted, it is entirely possible that even if the choice of a central authority be optional, if a community has decided to create the post, decisions of its occupant may become binding. That only obtains, however, so long as the institution, and whoever is invested with its power, is truly recognized….There is little doubt that the Chief Rabbinate is not presently master of what it regards as its own domain. To its proponents, it is a proto-Messianic precursor. To many, however, it is either anachronistic or premature. One may celebrate this fact or lament it; but I don t see how it can be questioned.

Questions I will not relate to:

Much of Warhaftig’s article deals with what the rabbinate should ideally do.  The end of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s article deals with some of the changes must be made.  The discourse in the public arena right now relates to these questions, and I will not be presumptuous enough to offer my opinion in this context.  See also Aviad HaKohen and Eliav Shochtman’s articles in the Volume on the Rabbanut  for further discussions of the legal issues as well as the relationship between the Batei Din and the Rabbanut.

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