When countries with diverse Jewish communities such as Israel, the United Kingdom and France established chief rabbinates, numerous controversies followed, leaving some Jews feeling that the chief rabbis failed to represent the Jewish community as a whole.
In early November, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, embarked on a Canadian speaking tour to Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, meeting with Jewish students, rabbis, community leaders and committed Jews.
Here in Canada – with at least three healthy, thriving Jewish denominations and countless Jewish community organizations that, in some cases, lobby the government on the community’s behalf – the question raised was would Canada benefit from a chief rabbinate?
For most of the people approached for their opinion, the concept of a chief rabbi was not even on their radar.
When Jane Farkas, an Orthodox woman who works for NCSY Canada, was asked whether she thought Canada needed its own chief rabbinate, she said, “Don’t we kind of [have one?]… I’m happy with the beit din and their system of decision-making. That’s pretty solid.”
For some rabbis representing the Canadian Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, the reaction was unanimously against the notion.
“Given the failures of the chief rabbinate in Israel, France and Britain, in contrast to the diverse vibrancy of North American Jewish life, why would anyone even contemplate such a ridiculous possibility?” Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, spiritual leader of the Conservative Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, asked.
“Look at the conflicts in France about who is the chief rabbi and what does the chief rabbi do,” Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said.
“In England, the former chief rabbi [Rabbi Jonathan Sacks], quite a great spokesperson, was pinned in by the ultra-Orthodox, and while he was a great representative of Judaism to the general community, he was not able to reach out to the Masorti [Conservative] and liberal Jewish communities, so he didn’t really represent them,” he said.
“In Israel, the chief rabbinate, which was a creation of the British Mandate, has not been successful and there has been even more talk of how do we find a way to get rid of the chief rabbinate?”
Recently in Israel, the two chief rabbis, the Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and the Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, boycotted a special Knesset tour of the Western Wall that was meant to address the controversy regarding the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space where men and women would be able to pray together.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, condemned “the disgraceful behaviour of the chief rabbis, who don’t feel right about sitting in the same room with Israeli men and women who finance their salaries. [It] serves to prove the importance of fighting for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.”
It is this kind of controversy that inspired Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, the spiritual leader of Vancouver’s Reform Temple Sholom Congregation to say that establishing a chief rabbinate in Canada “would be a horrible idea. I mean, it’s worked so well for Israel, right?”
He said the Jews are unique in that there isn’t a central Jewish authority.
“A rabbi of a congregation can’t even speak with unanimity for the views of his or her entire congregation. How could one individual speak with unanimity for the views of the Jewish community in Canada?” he asked.
“There is no Jewish pope. Our process has always been through consensus… When we have tried to put ourselves in a [different] position – going all the way back to biblical times when we insisted on having a king, and God said, ‘You don’t want a king.’ But they said, ‘We have to be like everybody else’ – we found ourselves, I think, as our own worst enemies.”
Rabbi Moskovitz said Canada is lucky not to have a chief rabbi because he believes it would cause division in the community.
“As much respect as I have for [the former British chief rabbi], Lord Jonathan Sacks, and for Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis now, I’m a Reform rabbi. He’s not my chief rabbi. He is a well-respected scholar, but it stops there,” he said.
“As a Reform Jew, we’re not part of a halachic movement. We’re an ethical movement. Halachah has a vote, but not a veto. In my life, morals and ethics are the guiding principles, and sometimes Halachah is out of step with those. A chief rabbi would be, I would assume, out of Orthodoxy. Would they accept a woman as a chief rabbi? If they wouldn’t accept a woman as a chief rabbi, then it is not for everyone.”
Isaac Essebag, an observant Toronto Jew, said when it comes to a chief rabbi, “I would prefer if the position was more symbolic, as opposed to being able to impose certain halachot on Orthodox institutions.”
Rabbi Reuven Poupko, spiritual leader of Montreal’s Orthodox Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, said Canada’s Jewish community is too diverse to ever agree on a single candidate.
“The places where it works, the communities are not as well-organized as we are in terms of our political representation. The role that [the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs], for instance, plays in Canada is often played by chief rabbis in South Africa, and even in Britain. They have more of a political role, but that role was diffused amongst others in Canada,” he said.
“A country like Britain is much more highly invested in ceremonial life than we are in Canada, and therefore, maybe there is a need for it… but Canadian Jewish communities are really modelled after American Jewish communities in how they interact with the public at large and how they interact with government. As someone who has chaired the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, the rich diversity of Jewish life in Canada is not conducive to having a single person anointed with that title.”
Rabbi Moskovitz said if a chief rabbinate in Canada deferred to Orthodoxy, those who identify with other denominations would become disenfranchised.
“The idea of a chief rabbi is that he leads all… It would divide us.”
Shlomo Buzaglo, a member of Toronto’s Sephardic Orthodox congregation, Petah Tikva Anshe Castilla, said, “When I think of a chief rabbi, I think of someone who is going to unite the Jewish community, but then when you Google chief rabbi in the simplest terms, it’s more of a political position and… in that sense, it goes against what my initial thought was.”
He said if the chief rabbi came from the Conservative or Reform movement, it would not be recognized by all Jews and vice-versa.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily missing out on anything… I don’t think there is a void in our community,” Buzaglo said.