Why America has no chief rabbi: the blessings of free-market religion


The public face of world Jewry will change this summer. Come September, both England and Israel will install new chief rabbis.

Jonathan Sacks, the brilliant and widely published chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, is retiring to be succeeded by the

affable Ephraim Mirvis, currently rabbi of the Finchley Synagogue in North London. Yona Metzger, the chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Israel, is completing his 10-year fixed term, to be succeeded by whomever a special 150-member electoral assembly selects — a subject of intense speculation and backroom maneuvering.

The position of chief rabbi dates far back in Jewish history. In the Middle Ages, when Jews were treated as a corporate body, the chief rabbi served not only as the judge, scholar and supreme religious authority for his community but frequently bore responsibility for collecting its taxes as well. Many a chief rabbi, as a result, was appointed or confirmed directly by the king.

Chief rabbis today confine their authority to the religious realm, but their role is never purely ceremonial. Inevitably, they must also devote themselves to promoting their own brand of Judaism (usually some variety of Orthodoxy) over all the others. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate in recent years has sought to undermine more liberal approaches to conversion and taken a hard-line stance on women’s issues and on the thorny problem of who is a Jew. Rabbi Sacks alienated liberal Jews early in his tenure and promoted a centrist form of Orthodoxy that was disdained openly by those to his religious right.

America is unusual in never having had an official chief rabbi. In 1888, a short-lived Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations imported Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Vilna to serve as chief rabbi of New York, but that effort ended disastrously. Consumers soon balked at the extra charges imposed in return for the rabbi’s supervision of kosher food. Competing rabbis, some of whom also styled themselves “chief rabbi,” offered supervisory services at lower rates.

Without its projected income stream, the association of Orthodox congregations that had brought Rabbi Joseph to America defaulted on its obligations to him and went out of business. The unfortunate rabbi spent his last years as an impoverished invalid. No successor was ever appointed.

A few Orthodox rabbis in other American cities carried the title “chief rabbi” for a time based on their learning and status. One or two even pretended to the title “chief rabbi of the United States.” But none ever achieved recognition outside their own Orthodox circle.

As a matter of law, the First Amendment precludes the government from recognizing one religious authority as “chief” over another. Just as America introduced free-market capitalism into the economy, so it created a free market in religion. Contrary to expectations, this has had the paradoxical effect of strengthening religion in the United States. As Thomas Jefferson observed as early as 1820, religion thrived under the maxim “divided we stand, united we fall.”

In this environment, the creation in America of a government-protected form of Judaism under the authority of a chief rabbi was clearly impossible. Instead, American Jews accommodated themselves to the nation’s competitive religious marketplace, which by and large has served them well. Rabbis, like their Christian religious counterparts, win or lose status through their individual activities and accomplishments, exemplified by Newsweek’s annual listing of the 50 most influential rabbis of the year.

American Jews have nevertheless been reluctant to recommend their free-market approach to religion to Jewish communities abroad. A recent conference hosted by the prestigious American Jewish Committee, for example, heard a litany of complaints concerning the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and its maltreatment of non-Orthodox Jews, Russian Jews, women and converts. But in the end, AJC called for “significant modifications” to the Chief Rabbinate rather than the embrace of the religious free market. A paper by former Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim, delivered at the conference, argued that “what is needed … is not the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate, but rather its transformation into a much more circumscribed, yet relevant and all-inclusive authority.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, America’s foremost 20th-century Modern Orthodox thinker, was wiser. Soloveit­chik, who exercised vast influence on American Jewish life without ever having been selected chief rabbi, turned down the invitation to serve as Israel’s chief rabbi because, he explained in 1964, he “was afraid to be an officer of the State.”

As England and Israel prepare to install new chief rabbis, Rabbi Soloveit­chik’s decision deserves to be remembered. “A rabbinate linked up with the state,” he warned, “cannot be completely free.”

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chair of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. He is also the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His most recent book is “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” [Schocken/Nextbook]. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily [www.jewishideasdaily.com] and is reprinted with permission.