Is there currently or has there ever been historically a chief Rabbi of the United States? If not, why not?

  • +1 I don't think there is but I'm wondering why not. – Hacham Gabriel Dec 18 '12 at 14:38
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    IIRC I've heard Rabbi Silver, head of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, described as the chief rabbi of the United States, but that was never an official title (or practical power) of his. – msh210 Dec 18 '12 at 15:55
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    Legend has it Rabbi Eliezer Silver was being driven someplace when the car was pulled over for speeding. The chauffeur tried to explain to the cop "but this is the chief rabbi of the whole United States!" -- and from the back of the car, Rabbi Silver shouted -- "and Canada!" – Shalom Dec 24 '12 at 14:40
  • @Shalom, that's probably what I was half-remembering. – msh210 Dec 27 '12 at 14:09
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    Also worth reading the Wikipedia page on Rabbi Yaakov Yosef. – Fred Dec 31 '12 at 19:25

There has never been an official Chief Rabbi of the United States. Jonathon D. Sarna (in his American Judaism: A History. Yale University Press, 2004, page 105) explains this phenomenon thus:

But since there was no parallel Christian religious authority—no chief Protestant minister, no archbishop, not even a Catholic cardinal with nationwide jurisdiction—it was easy for opponents to dismiss any Jewish effort to create a chief rabbinate as "ridiculous" and antithetical to American ideals. Nor, given church-state separation, could any chief rabbi expect governmental recognition, much less the kind of authority that some European chief rabbis wielded. Finally, many Americans of the day, Jews among them, were deeply suspicious of strong central authority. The "tyranny of the majority," they feared, would soon come trampling down on the rights of the minority, be they southerners or religious reformers. As a result, all efforts aimed at electing a chief rabbi ended in failure, and the decentralized congregationalist polity that characterized American Judaism since the Revolution remained in place.

There were a number of US cities that had Chief Rabbis, but the last one, Rabbi Shalom Rivkin of St Louis, MO, passed away in October of 2011 (source).

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    It's happened on several occasions long ago that a large number of synagogues in NYC agreed on (or were prepared to agree on) a chief rabbi, who would probably have been de facto chief rabbi of the US in many regards. Rabbi Jacob Joseph held such a post briefly, and there had been talk and plans for Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim Weisser to have done so as well. (Accounts differ whether Malbim declined the offer, or accepted it but died before relocating.) – Shalom Dec 24 '12 at 14:38

Similar sentiment

The point is that most Jews have not shown much interest in surrendering even a wit of their religious autonomy to their clergy. The only place in the world where chief rabbis have real political power and wield enormous internal communal clout is, of course, in the one place where Jews are in the majority – the state of Israel.

In the decades that followed the combative downtown rabbinical troika, supporters of esteemed rabbis lavished the largely honorific title of “chief rabbi” of specific hometowns upon their leaders. In the interwar period, Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Atlanta was revered both in that city and all over the South. In more recent times, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, who unquestionably held sway among his minions in Elizabeth, N.J., comes to mind. But if they – and other compatriots – had any power, it was solely in the realm of persuasion.

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