These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Turkey 2016: Hail to the Chief

Posted on January 19, 2016 by Binyamin Cohen

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The Hahambashi, Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Rabbi Yitzchak Haleva, is quite a character. He’s not a big man, but his jutting beard, bright eyes, and fireball personality make him unforgettable. We had the honor of meeting with him on Friday, and were honored by his presence throughout shabbat.

We stepped into his office on Friday, and it felt like entering an office of state – which I suppose it is. There was a long conference table, a wall of books, assorted pictures of himself with important personages (the Pope, several Presidents of the USA), and his desk. Hanging above his desk, overlooking the proceedings, was a lifesize portrait of Ataturk.

The Hahambashi met with us for forty five minutes: he spoke to us, engaged us, questioned us, told us about his community and some of the issues it faces. The most interesting thing that he told us about was the Purim of Sarasoga. In 1422, the Jewish community of Sarasoga in Spain experienced a Purim-like miracle, and they wrote a special megillah about it, in the style of megillat Esther. He showed us a copy of the megillah, and it is truly remarkable story, tradition, and artifact.

The Hahambashi’s presence throughout shabbat injected a certain feeling into everything we did. He sung along to Carlebach kabbalat shabbat. He gave a Dvar Torah about not acting like a pig when drunk. He dozed off during shacharit. He said “shkoiach” to me when I shook his hand after getting an aliyah. He danced with us when we sang mazel tov for the Chatan whose Shabbat Chatan it was. He made surprise appearances and cracked off topic jokes.

All in all, the Hahambashi is an enlivening character. He has a certain presence and power that stems from both his personality and charisma, as well as his high office. My brief encounter with him this weekend, while certainly not a wide cross section of his work and activities in the community, impressed me, commanded my respect, and, truthfully, made me jealous. Gone are the days when North American Jewry had chief rabbis. While we don’t necessarily need then anymore, there is something to be said for the officialness, power, and respect that such an office commands. It centralizes the community in a way that no CEO of a Federation president can. It takes the leadership position of the body of governance and ties it inextricably to the tradition, to the religion, to Judaism, not just the Jewish people. It binds our culture and peoplehood with our faith in a powerful way, and it is a connection that is sorely missing in many of our communities. To have a man of such charisma holding that office is a blessing.

I’m sure the Hahambashi is not perfect. I’m sure that no Chief Rabbi is. But the potential inherent in the position, the power to reconnect our People and our Faith, is a tremendous opportunity.

Binyamin Cohen