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

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  • +1 I don't think there is but I'm wondering why not. 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
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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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  • 3
    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
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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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There was one Rabbi who claimed to be (see below) but there has never actually been a chief rabbi in the United Sate. Chief rabbis in countries that do have them are almost always political appointees who were appointed by the government for political purposes. The United States constitution would not allow for such a hire.

Even if there was an internal interest in the Jewish community for someone to hold that position, there are so many different Jewish groups in America, with such different ideologies that there is no way one person could be chief rabbi and accepted as such by all groups.

Rabbi Y. Vidorowitz of Moscow came to America in 1893. He succeeded in gathering a number of tiny synagogues together which he was chief rabbi for. He then announced himself as Chief Rabbi of the United States and Canada. When asked "who made you the chief rabbi of America?" he answered "the sign maker" when asked "and why of the entire United States and Canada?" he answered "because there would never be enough unified opinion among all the synagogues there to band together and depose me!"

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  • 2
    The Chief Rabbi of France is not a political appointee - he is elected by leaders of the community. And I don't believe that is the case in the UK or South Africa either. Do you have sources for your second line?
    – mbloch
    Jul 4 '21 at 15:00
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Marvin S. Antelman was Chief Justice of his Supreme Rabbinical Court of America in the 1970s.

But this had no governmental recognition as Chief Rabbi such as in the UK.

In Antelman's book To Eliminate the Opiate, Vol. 2 (2002) can be found a correspondence from the SRCA to the Supreme Court of Israel wherein the SRCA refers to itself as Beit Din Elyon of America:

Our Court wrote an Amicus Curia and placed the following ad:
AMICUS CURIA ON THE KNESSET BILL (5757) CONCERNING THE VALIDITY OF CONVERSIONS BY CLERICS OF THE CONSERVATIVE, REFORM, RECONSTRUCTIONIST ANTI JUDAIC RELIGIONS
Prepared by: The Bet Din Elyon of America for the Supreme Court of Israel
The Torah was given on one mountain by one God to one people not four Torah’s on four mountains to four peoples. God, as our scriptural text sources clearly indicate abhors pluralism:
“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Ex 12:49); “There shall be one law and one ordinance for you and the stranger who dwells among you” (Num. 15:16); “How long will you continue to be pluralistic? (Kings I:18,21); “Don’t meddle with pluralism” (Proverbs 24:21).
For many years there has been a disinformation campaign  ...

The rest of the amicus may be found here

The signature of this amicus refers to the SRCA as a Sanhedrin Ktana:

 Moshe Antelman, Av Bet Din
R. Bernstein P. Goldsmith Z. Levitt
M. Blitz S. Hecht K. Meir
M. Brown C. Hershanov M. Morgenstern
S. Fishbain Y. Jacobson D. Nachmias
M. Friedman S. Kaftori Y. Silver
Y. Gersh H. Kranz S. Sorscher
Y. Gilner D. Lapin E. Sprecher
Y. Glasner T. Tzuker

POB 855 Brooklyn, NY 11219 
A Sanhedrin Ktana founded in 5735 (1974) by disciples of the Moetzet Gdolai HaTorah

POB 50502 Jerusalem 
including members of: Rabbinical Council of America 
Rabbinical Alliance of America 
Union of Orthodox Rabbis of US & Canada 
Agudat Yisrael 
Chabad 

Regarding how far his halakhic authority extended or was received, perhaps one would look how some of his and his court's major rulings went over? Such as in

  • The aguna debate (SRCA ruled a beit din may issue a get on behalf of a recalcitrant husband when it is to his benefit)
  • SRCA's excommunication of Henry Kissinger

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Stuart_Antelman

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