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How Should a Rabbi be Chosen?

The new bill for the appointment of city rabbis is inconsistent with Torah guidance * According to the Torah, the public should have a key part in determining the character of the local judges and rabbis * The local rabbis today are similar to the priests and Levites who had an educational and Torah role wherever they lived, and merited receiving their gifts according to the satisfaction the public had from their performance in their place of residence * Until the situation is corrected, the solution lies in the rabbinates of the communities

The Community Should Choose the Rabbi

Q: What is the position of halakha in relation to the new bill for the election of city rabbis that passed a preliminary reading? According to the proposal, the Minister of Religion has a decisive influence on the election of the rabbis, since he appoints many of the members of the electoral body. In addition, the members of the Chief Rabbinate Council also have a lot of influence, since they are partners in the electorate. Also in the proposal, all rabbis will be subordinate to the Chief Rabbinate Council. One of the claims underlying the bill is that the eminent rabbis (members of the Chief Rabbinate Council), led by the Minister of Religion, who is supposed to represent them, should be the ones who have the main influence on the election of rabbis throughout the country.

A: This proposal is contrary to the guidance of Torah, according to which, it is the members of the community who should choose their rabbi. It is imperative for a rabbi to be independent, and as long we do not have the Sanhedrin Ha’Gedolah (The Supreme Sanhedrin) with full powers, it has no authority to impose its opinion on the local rabbis. I will briefly clarify the sources of the key position members of the communities have in the election of members of the Beit Din HaGadol (The Great Rabbinical Court), and their exclusive position in the selection of their local judges and rabbis.

The Method of Appointing Members of the Supreme Sanhedrin

The Supreme Sanhedrin has the greatest Torah authority, and as the Rambam wrote: “The Supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem are the essence of the Oral Law. They are the pillars of instruction from whom statutes and judgments issue forth for the entire Jewish people. Concerning them, the Torah promises (Deuteronomy 17:11): “You shall do according to the laws which they shall instruct you….” This is a positive commandment…” (Mamrim 1:1).

The Beit Din HaGadol was established by Moshe Rabbeinu at the command of God, as the Torah says: “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people… and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone” (Numbers 11:16-17).

How were they chosen? Ostensibly, Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest of the prophets, in his ruach ha’kodesh, should have been the one to determine who the seventy elders would be, based on their fear of God and wisdom, regardless of their tribal origin. However, since the Sages are representatives of the nation of Israel, it was necessary for each tribe to be represented equally. And therefore Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to choose “whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people”, in other words, those consented to by the tribes. And as our Sages interpreted, and quoted in Rashi: “Those whom you know, that they were appointed as officers over them in Egypt to oversee the rigorous labor, and they had mercy on them, and were beaten on their account, as it says, “The officers of the children of Israel were beaten” (Exodus 5:14). Now they shall be chosen in their greatness, just as they had suffered in their [Israel’s] distress.” (Numbers 11:16), i.e., the representatives of the most distinct tribes, those who gave their lives for Israel.

Not only that, but since the number seventy is not divisible by twelve, Moshe Rabbeinu had to cast lots to determine which tribe would get five representatives, and which would get six (Rashi in Numbers 11:26), otherwise, the Sanhedrin would not be agreed upon by all the tribes.

From this we learn that today as well, the Beit HaDin HaGadol should represent all of Israel equally, and even when the Gadol HaDor (the most eminent Rabbi of the generation) is Moshe Rabbeinu himself, and everything he said was with ruach ha’kodesh, each tribe and group should be represented in the Beit Din HaGadol (incidentally, we can learn from this also for the selection of judges in the Supreme Court).

The Appointment of Judges in Each City from Members of the Tribe

We have been commanded for generations: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Our Sages said: “There is an obligation for every tribe to judge his own tribe” (Yerushalmi Makot 1:8), “It is a mitzvah for a tribe to judge the sinners from within its tribe, and not to delegate the responsibility to other tribes” (Bavli, Sanhedrin 16b).

The most fundamental meaning of choosing judges from the tribe and the settlements, is that the judges must be familiar with the customs of the people of the locale and their values, and be acceptable to them. If even members of the Supreme Sanhedrin were chosen from among the tribes and with their consent, kal ve’chomer (all the more so), judges of each locale should be chosen by consent of the people of the community.

Similarly, when rabbis are to be appointed to cities and neighborhoods, the rabbis should be local residents, or at the very least, the local residents should be the ones to choose them.

Independent Rulings for Rabbis of Various Locations

Even when there was a Sanhedrin, headed by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (Rebbe), the editor of the Mishnah, he did not use his authority to impose his opinion on the other Sages. Therefore, in Rabbi Eliezer’s community, they would cut down trees on Shabbat and carry them in the public domain for the purposes of a brit milah, contrary to the opinion of the other Sages. And in the locale of Rabbi Yossi HaGalili, they would eat chicken with milk, contrary to the opinion of the other Sages. When Levi asked Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi why he does not excommunicate them for acting contrary to the opinion of the Sages, he replied that they act in their locale as their Rabbi instructs them (Chullin 116a).

Thus, despite the existence of the Sanhedrin, and even though its members had received semikha (rabbinic ordination) from another who had received semikha in an unbroken chain from Moshe Rabbeinu himself, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi did not use his authority to decide halakha and impose it on all the Sages, and the people. Because according to the national-religious situation, when the Sanhedrin did not sit in the Lishkat HaGazit (the meeting place of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple period), the Sanhedrin had no authority to force their opinion.

The Kohanim and the Levites were Considered Members of the Tribe among whom they lived

The Kohanim (priests) and Levites were given cities within the tribal estates, and apparently, they were considered in the matter of appointing judges, as members of the tribe, since they lived among it, were fed by it, and identified with it, and therefore, could be chosen as local representatives to the Supreme and local Beit HaDin. Therefore, even though the Supreme Sanhedrin represented all the tribes, it included many Kohanim and Levites, as the Torah says about the Supreme Sanhedrin: “If a case is too baffling for you to decide… you shall promptly repair to the place that your God will have chosen, and appear before the Levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that God chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you” (Deuteronomy 17:8-10; see, Sanhedrin 32a; Rambam, Sanhedrin 2:1).

Rabbis are More Similar to Kohanim and Levites

So far we have dealt with judges, however, the status of a rabbi nowadays is more similar to the status of the Kohanim and Levites who dealt with the instruction of halakha, and education. In order for them to be free to fulfill their duties, the Torah commanded that they would not be given an estate in the land, rather, each and every tribe would assign cities to them in its estate, and support them from the terumot and ma’asrot (tithes) they would set aside from their crops (see, Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 7:3).

The Israelites chose who to give Their Tithes

The owners of the fruits had the right to choose to which Kohen they would give their terumot, and to which Levite they would give their ma’asrot, as written: “And each shall retain his sacred donations: each priest shall keep what is given to him” (Numbers 5:10).

It was forbidden for the Kohanim and Levites to take the gifts without permission, and they were also forbidden to help the owner of the fruits in his work so that he would give them his gifts, because by doing so, they would be depriving their brother Kohanim and Levites, and desecrate the Name of God. And those who do so, dishonor their sacred task, and can be presumed they do not teach Torah correctly. About them, the Prophet said: “But you have turned away from that course: You have made the many stumble through your rulings; you have corrupted the covenant of the Levites—said God of Hosts. And I, in turn, have made you despicable and vile in the eyes of all the people, because you disregard My ways and show partiality in your rulings” (Malachi 2:8-9).

It is also forbidden for the Kohanim and Levites to ask for the terumah or ma’aser in an undignified manner, because these are God’s gifts, and He commanded that they be given to them in a dignified way, so that they could teach Torah with dignity (Bechorot 26b; Tosafot 51b, s.v.’hilkach’; Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 7:4).

Only the Local People Should Choose the Rabbi

In a similar way, today, the members of a community alone should choose their rabbi, and the choice has to be done in a dignified manner. True, today, when the rabbis’ salary is paid from general taxes, the Minister of Religion has the ability, in exchange for various political agreements, to control the rabbis, but this is contrary to the guidance of the Torah. It would be fitting for all the local Jewish residents to have the right to elect the rabbi of the city, and the neighborhood.

The Meaning of the Choice of the Community

The right to choose to whom to give their terumot and ma’asrot created a personal connection between the Israelites and the Kohanim and the Levites, and compelled them to devote themselves to their sacred work among their communities, so that the members of the community would want to give them their gifts. Thus, a Kohen or Levite who went out of his way to teach Torah to children and adults, and the members of his community benefited from his good advice and resourcefulness, was given preference in receiving their gifts. On the other hand, a Kohen or Levite who alienated himself from the community, condescended them, or were lazy and did not teach Torah, received similar treatment during the distribution of gifts. Furthermore, the needs of the community affected their rabbi.

Let’s go back to the Kohanim. If, for example, there was a man whose son went to serve in King David’s army, and there was a Kohen there who thought it was better for every young man to study in yeshiva if he could, and refused to say the prayer for the peace of the country and the soldiers – the owner of the field could say, I prefer to give my terumot and ma’asrot to a Kohen who encourages my son to fulfill the great mitzvah of serving in the army, and prays for his safety.

Similarly, nowadays, if the members of a community want their children to learn Torah as well as science – and as the Gaon of Vilna said, whoever lacks the knowledge of a portion of the secular sciences, lacks a hundred portions of knowledge of the Torah, because Torah and wisdom are interrelated – they need to seek out a rabbi who will strengthen their Torah position.

The Solution in the Meantime

Unfortunately, the chance that the situation will be corrected is not great. However, from a fundamental point of view, a real solution can be proposed, that each synagogue will choose its own rabbi, and he will be responsible for increasing and glorifying the Torah among the worshipers of the synagogue, and the surrounding area. Admittedly, he will not find a regular salary. However, the rabbinate does not depend on a salary. The rabbi can make a living from teaching, and perhaps be a pensioner of the educational system; and maybe his wife holds a senior position, and she can support the rabbi of the community. And perhaps he can make a living from being a doctor, as the Rambam did. The main thing is, he be a Talmid Chacham, and dedicated in heart and soul to the strengthening of Torah, so that it will have a blessed effect on all members of the community.

If there are responses or questions from various communities on the matter, I will continue to expand on this important topic.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated

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