Behind the Headlines What Next After the Election of the New Chief Rabbis?
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Behind the Headlines What Next After the Election of the New Chief Rabbis?

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The election of two new and relatively young chief rabbis was hailed in Israel as an opportunity–perhaps a final opportunity–for the chief rabbinate to become a meaningful force in the spiritual life of the Jewish people. The magnitude of the change is best expressed by the fact that the average age of the two chief rabbis has dropped by a generation: Rabbi Issar Yehuda Unterman, 86 and Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, 79, gave way to 56-year-old former chief army chaplain Shlomo Goren and 51-year-old Ovadiah Yosef, in that order.

The electors’ choice was welcomed by most Israelis. Goren and Yosef are vastly popular and respected In their respective communities, as noted halachic authorities and yet as men of the world; men of the sabra generation by upbringing if not by birth. As one army general told his former comrade-in-arms Shlomo Goren when he came to congratulate him: “At least we now have a chief rabbi to whom we can speak in Ivrit (Hebrew).” Not that Unterman spoke no Ivrit: he spoke it well–but with a diaspora accent, and, in the view of most people, a diaspora attitude.

What will the election results mean for Israel and for world Jewry? Within hours of his election, Goren announced that he would set up a Rabbinical Court to rehear the mamzerim case–the cause celebre which brought the election about. He also appealed to the Independent Liberal Party to give him a year’s grace before pushing the Hausner bill on civil marriages to a Knesset vote. Premier Golda. Meir too, is known to have appealed to Mapam not to support Gideon Hausner’s bill but give Goren a chance.

The ILP, however, has already rejected Goren’s plea and says it will seek a vote soon. The party claims with Justice that no change in the chief rabbinate can bring about a change–within the halacha–for the main body of “unmarriageable,” the Cohens and divorcees.


Goren may well solve the plight of Hanoch and Miriam Langer, the mamzerim brother and sister, by proving halachically that in their particular case the law of mamzerim does not apply–but he would never, could never abolish the law of mamzerim, nor the law banning Cohens marrying divorcees. No rabbi could do so and remain within the Orthodox fold, says the ILP. Goren himself believes that he can prove in almost all cases of mamzerim that the law does not apply, but he has never said anything about Cohens and divorcees.

At any rate, the election of Goren will certainly alleviate the tension, at least temporarily, between Orthodox and secular, which was threatening to reach dangerous proportions. While the outlook for the specific areas of potential conflict might not seem to have changed, the general atmosphere will doubtless be markedly Improved with the advent of the new chief rabbis.

The election last Sunday also produced a new chief rabbinate council. Gone are the more extremist rabbis of Unterman’s period–Bezalel Zolty, Eliezer Goldschmidt and Shaul Yisraeli of the Rabbinical Supreme Court–and in their place come younger men who Goren says will comprise a “Zionist” council. (The ten-man council has the power to legislate new halachic ordinances–provided they do not clash with existing ones.)

Zolty, Goldschmidt and Yisraeli are also contemplating resigning from the Supreme Court now that Goren heads it. The senior Judge, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, has already resigned, and if the other three follow him, Goren will have the chance to make a clean sweep in the court too.


In another immediate post-election statement, Goren said he intended summoning a synod of all the leading rabbis in the world to advise on questions of halacha. Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchlk of Boston, the leading American halachic authority, Monday cabled Goren his congratulations on the victory.

Other diaspora rabbis are still suspicious of Goren, since his detractors in Israel claim he has reformist tendencies. They will no doubt follow his early moves carefully. The election of Yosef and his harmonious work with Goren until now as joint chief rabbis of Tel Aviv will help Goren win the trust of other rabbis, since Yosef is accepted and respected in right-wing rabbinical circles.

Any hopes that Goren will be softer on non-recognition of Reform conversions are quite groundless. He is as hostile to the Reform and Conservative movements as any other Israeli rabbi. Thus too there is no chance that he will support the Conservative demand for official recognition for Conservative rabbis operating in Israel. Goren is on record as opposing the “Who is a Jew” section of the Law of Return in its present form and will press, along with Aguda and right-wing National Religious Party members, for its amendment to define conversion as only by halacha to the exclusion of Reform conversion.

On the other hand, persons seeking to convert to Judaism in Israel are likely to benefit from the new rabbinate: Goren and Yosef will work for speeding up the conversion process which at present can take months or even years.

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