Among the recent articles on the election of Israel’s Chief Rabbis, the Los Angeles Times’ piece by Edmund Sanders did the best job of explaining why a seemingly ceremonial position has political importance. As Sanders rightly notes, the Chief Rabbis, one for the Ashkenazi community and the other for the Sephardim, control thousands of jobs at state-run religious institutions. They also have legal oversight and control over marriage and divorce, women’s rights, conversion, and kosher certification. Rabbinical control over marriage means that possibilities open to American Jews– civil marriage for one, are closed to their relatives in Israel. As a result, notes the NYTimes, “as many as one third of Israeli couples marry abroad or live together without marrying rather than follow the rabbinate’s strictures.” Earlier this summer, another example of the Chief Rabbis’ power–this time over the right of women to pray at a holy site –resulted in a melee at the Western Wall when ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to break up a monthly women’s prayer service. Also at issue is “who is a Jew?” and therefore entitled to citizenship. For many Russians, Ethiopians, and other immigrants who claim to be Jewish, the rabbinate demands proof of lineage which is not always available. While some well-off Russians can hire detectives, that’s not a possibility for most.
Both the LATimes and the NYTimes end their articles with kickers about the viability of a Jewish and democratic state. Next time that should be the nut graf.