A special electoral assembly on Wednesday elected Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau as Israel's next chief rabbis, after weeks of a controversial and tense candidacy period. The two chief rabbis will hold office for the next decade.
- Election of new chief rabbis is a victory for nepotism, but it's what Israel deserves
- Shas won the fight for Israel's chief rabbinate on points, not by knockout
- U.S. Modern Orthodox disappointed with Israeli choice of new chief rabbi
- Newly elected chief rabbi slammed for 'racist' jibe
Both are sons of former chief rabbis: Yosef's father is Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, and Lau is the son of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Both of the new chief rabbis are from the ultra-Orthodox sector, and their victories will be seen as a triumph over the National Religious stream.
Of the 150 members of the electoral assembly, 147 cast their ballots in the election. Lau and Yosef each took 68 votes in the election, in a clear victory over their contenders.
The other three candidates on the Sephardi ballot, in addition to Rabbi Yosef, head of the Hazon Ovadia Yeshiva, were Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, who took 49 votes; and Zion Boaron, a rabbinical court judge on the High Rabbinical Court, who won just 28 votes; Ratzon Arusi, rabbi of Kiryat Ono, withdrew his candidacy for the Sephardi post at the very last minute.
Running for the Ashkenazi position, in addition to Lau, were Rabbis David Stav, rabbi of Shoham and chairman of the Tzohar movement, who won 54 votes; and Yaakov Shapira, head of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, who walked away with 25 votes. Two candidates, Rabbis Eliyahu Abergel and Eliezer Igra, withdrew from the race in the past few days.
None of the candidates stood out in advance as a clear winner.
The Haredi political parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism emerged from the election with their preferred candidates the winners. The two parties had come to an agreement, dubbed the "princes alliance," under which both would back the sons of the former chief rabbis. Lau also had the support of Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, the leader of the Lithuanian-Haredi community.
Rabbi Yosef, 61, received his father’s support in his bid for the post, though Ovadia's preferred choice had been another son, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who serves as the Chief Rabbi of Holon and is currently under police investigatiohn for breach of trust.
In addition to serving as the head of the Chazon Ovadia Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef also edited and collated his father’s massive treatise on religious laws and their interpretation, the Yalkut Yosef. For many years he was groomed by his father to become the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, but legal and political impediments to the manner of selecting rabbis in the city foiled these plans. Recently, Yitzhak asked his father to support him in his bid to become Israel’s Chief Rabbi. This created tension in the leader’s household, since Avraham was expecting to be chosen for the job. Avraham was indeed the preferred choice of Ovadia Yosef and also of his younger influential son Moshe. However, after Avraham was embroiled in the police investigation, Ovadia Yosef was forced to choose Yitzhak as the candidate.
Rabbi Lau, 47, the rabbi of Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut, is considered to be close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and circles close to the Prime Minister have been advocating for him in recent weeks. Rabbi Lau also received the support of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who hosted him at home recently. “I love Rabbi David Lau as much as my sons,” he was quoted as saying after their meeting. The younger Rabbi Lau has also received the support of the head of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman.
Upon hearing that he had won, Lau said told Channel 10 that "in my 17 years in Modi'in and two years in Shoham, I succeeded in creating a rabbinate that was a pleasant and welcoming center for Judaism," adding he hoped to do the same in his new role. He also referred to his father, noting that "over the years I've always tried to get good advice from him. His extensive experience, knowledge, wisdom are priceless."
Yitzhak Yosef and his father held a press conference in the evening at Rabbi Ovadia's Jerusalem home. The younger Yosef said that the Chief Rabbinate had been shaken up and needed its status restored. He said he claimed "the power to be lenient," and would not seek stringencies for their own sake.
Rabbi Ovadia told his son to conduct himself with love for others and love of Torah. He added that over the years he himself had worked to release women from failed marriages and to help those deemed invalid for marriage. "I have an extensive library and sought solutions for them. Some with knowledge can find solutions," he said.
Among those electing the rabbis, who split the chief rabbinate's top position, were cabinet ministers, MKs, rabbis, mayors, religious court judges, heads of local religious councils and representatives of the general public. The electoral assembly met at a Jerusalem hotel and hold a secret ballot.
After the vote began, three protesters gathered outside of the hotel to demonstrate against the candidacy of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the current chief rabbi of Safed, whose racist statements in the past stirred a controversy over his eligibility.
The election campaign was filled with mudslinging and has been characterized by observers as probably the dirtiest campaign for the rabbinate ever held. There was little debate about the central issues facing the rabbinate and few of the candidates were prepared to go on record about their plans for the post. Most spoke in electoral slogans, such as making the rabbinate "friendlier."