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The Chief Rabbinate Is 100. Has It Fulfilled Its Goals?

To mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, let us return to the original intentions of its founder, Rav Kook – who knew that bridging the gaps between the vision and its implementation would not be easy.


Rabbi Abraham Wasserman

Sivan 30 5781
Translated by Hillel Fendel

Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the modern-day Jewish entity in the Land of Israel, always knew that the Sanhedrin – the Great Rabbinical Court during the times of the Second Temple – would be re-established for the soon-to-be State of Israel. He also knew that it would play more than just a judicial role, as he wrote on the occasion of the First Zionist Congress in 1897:

"Our first obligation will be to establish a religious center, crowned by a great Sanhedrin from which Torah and instruction will go out to all of Israel… This is above all dispute and doubts, and even the free-thinkers will acknowledge that a nation must have a religious center – and especially our nation, for which the Torah is the life of our spirit."

However, the article was published only in 1920, when he began serving as the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem – and just before he founded the Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel.

Rav Kook was well aware of the gap between his sublime vision and the reality on the ground:

"If many parts of the various aspects of our visions are made smaller when they actually meet the reality, that's not bad. The reality does not have as swift wings as does the vision. Our great national revival gathers all our eternal ideals and stores them at first in small deeds" (Orot HaT'chiya 3).

Returning the Soul to the Body

Rav Kook expressed similar thoughts in more than ten years of correspondence preceding the founding of the Chief Rabbinate. In 1910, Rabbi Aharon Mendel HaKohen, Rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in Cairo, proposed the idea to re-establish the Sanhedrin, in keeping with the nation's return to its land and its renewal as a nation. But Rav Kook answered him that the time for this had not yet come, and that such initiatives would meet up with solid opposition – "because in our generation there are barely any rabbis of stature worthy of sitting on the Sanhedrin."

Furthermore, he wrote, raising this idea before the time is ripe would actually ruin the chances of carrying it out at a more appropriate opportunity.

Rav Kook did suggest some intermediate goals along the way to a genuine Sanhedrin. He proposed the establishment of a Rabbinical congress that would convene in Jerusalem every few years, and that would gradually remove the factors preventing the renewal of genuine rabbinic ordination (s'micha; see Igrot HaR'ayah, Letter 303). He also proposed that a Great Court be established, with the consensus of the entire nation, and that it be authorized to train Torah scholars expert in all fields of Jewish Law and Thought – and then, when its influence would become recognized and strong, it would be able to renew the s'micha, leading to the establishment of the Sanhedrin in the future (Letter 402).

Fulfilling these ideas in practice led to the founding of the Chief Rabbinate of the Holy Land in the year 1921, so as to insert a bit of "soul" into the secular revival of the nation. Divine Providence could be seen in how, shortly after Rav Kook's appointment as Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the British authorities themselves sought the establishment of a central Jewish religious body that would serve as the central religious leadership of the Jewish populace. And so, Rav Kook's supreme vision and aspiration, and the British governor's demand, fortuitously convened in one time and place.

In his speech at the founding conference of the Rabbinate, Rav Kook described the national revival as raising tendons and flesh on the dry bones of the nation (in accordance with the prophecy of Yechezkel), and the establishment of the rabbinate as a "call to the spirit… A call to revive the rabbinate." It was thus seen that the function of the Rabbinate was to restore the soul to the national body that was being formed. This is why Rav Kook strove to have the institution he was establishing serve as a rabbinic authority for the entire Jewish world, and not just for the inhabitants of the Land of Israel. (Not all his colleagues agreed with him on this.)

Rav Kook's proposal was that the rabbinical assembly number 71 members (just like the Sanhedrin), and that a central board of 23 members (like the smaller rabbinical courts aside the Sanhedrin) would convene every three months. The rabbis were to be of the highest stature, so as to serve as a spiritual authority for the entire worldwide Jewish nation. Rav Kook specifically did not call the body a "Sanhedrin," but it was clear that he was doing whatever he could, given the situation, to prepare the ground for it.

Rav Kook insisted that the Chief Rabbinate be given absolute independence, under the aegis of the 71-member rabbinical assembly.

As expected, the secular establishment did not like Rav Kook's ideas. When the founding conference convened a month before Purim in 2021, left-wing circles called Rav Kook's aspiration to head the national revival enterprise "Vatican-like policy." But he insisted that though there was no desire to "rule over" the secular population, he did want the Rabbinate to have "influence" over all aspects of life. He declared that he wished to see

"the raising of the stature of ideal spiritual Judaism, just as it was during the period of the Prophets – and then, naturally, the power of holiness would 'grab' all aspects of secular life with brotherly love and natural affection, stemming from the depths of the Israelite soul common to all children of Israel."

Not Quite as Planned…

In practice, the body that was established was very different. The council numbered only eight members, including the two Chief Rabbis (Sephardic and Ashkenazi). Not only that, but the body also included secular advisors, though without voting rights. Despite this, Rav Kook issued an optimistic declaration when the Rabbinate was founded:

"The main rabbinical force in Eretz Yisrael will be the supreme religious-spiritual center of the entire Jewish world, which will turn to it and consider its opinion on every issue. The day will come when the people will not accept any religious book that is lacking the approbation of the Chief Rabbinate of Eretz Yisrael" (emphasis added).

Many difficulties and much opposition faced the new Chief Rabbinate: The British Mandate reneged on its promises and cut down on the body's authorities; the leadership of the Yishuv was not happy with any rabbinic intervention in non-religious affairs; the hareidim demanded, and received from the British, the right to run a separate court system (and ritual slaughter arrangements). All this, of course, detracted from the prestige and status of the Chief Rabbinate even before it had a chance to prove itself.

Despite these difficulties, Rav Kook worked tirelessly to ensure the strength and viability of this new body, and to continue to strive to fulfill the vision. He used the flowery imagery of the "pangs [lit.: ropes] of Messiah" to describe the situation:

"It is as if a rope is tied around the Messiah's neck, blocking off his air supply – fresh mountain air of sanctity and vision, which should certainly accompany the return of the nation to its land – and this air is lacking and practically non-existent among the pioneer workers, whose goals are small and sometimes even problematic, even though in practice they are advancing the Redemption process."

Rav Kook was optimistic and wrote that these

"tortures of suffocation are the very final tortures [of the Redemption process]… Only the spirit of G-d upon His nation, the light of inner Torah will appear to restore the spirit of the Messiah - and from within the darkness he will bring a great light." (Orot HaT'chiya 14)

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