Race for Israel's Chief Rabbinate Marked by Byzantine Politics

Religious Zionists could seriously dent ultra-Orthodox power - if Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett plays his cards right.

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President Shimon Peres paid a holiday visit at the home of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar on Sunday, just before the last day of Passover. “I would like you to have the privilege, for us to have the privilege, to be chief rabbi for many more years,” Peres told Amar, whose term in office according to law was to have expired on Passover eve. Amar’s term has already been extended by some months to allow the Knesset to pass a law especially to allow him to be elected to an unprecedented second term.

The “Amar bill” has come a long way since it started out last year as a private member’s bill presented by then-MK Eli Aflalo of Kadima, and bore the hallmarks of Shas lawmakers ‏(then in the coalition‏). The new coalition agreement contains a clause that the coalition can, if it wishes, pass the Amar bill. Now, thanks to Peres, the bill has received a statesmanlike seal of approval.

“You give light to Israel and unity in our hearts, and respect to the Torah, and it makes me very happy that there is a person like you, a spiritual leader like you, and I know you will work to increase peace, in Israel and between us and our neighbors,” Peres told the cleric.

The date for the Chief Rabbinate elections has not yet been set, but will apparently take place during the summer. Most people are indifferent to the race, which they see as taking place in the Orthodox shtetl, even though it impacts marriage, divorce, conversions and the price we pay for products stamped as kosher. As the race heats up it seems none of the candidates is a front runner for either Ashkenazi or Sephardi chief rabbi. Even the Amar law is not assured passage; Yisrael Beiteinu, for example, is split on how to vote, and even Shas is having trouble deciding.

The makeup of the new coalition can ostensibly turn things upside-down in the rabbinate, which for a few decades now has become heavily ultra-Orthodox. Habayit Hayehudi therefore has a chance to install a chief rabbi, perhaps even two, who are identified as being Zionist and supportive of the Jewish state.

But the elections for the chief rabbinate are extremely complicated. The 150-member electoral body consists of rabbis, mayors, heads of religious councils, and appointees of the chief rabbis and of the minister of religious services. The electors are currently made up of a clear majority of ultra-Orthodox members, which means that Habayit Hayehudi’s chairman, Industry Trade and Labor ‏(and Religious Services‏) Minister Naftali Bennett, will not be able to bring about the appointment of a Zionist chief rabbi without cutting a deal with the ultra-Orthodox. He would prefer a deal with Shas − to have Shas pick the Sephardi chief rabbi it wants and allow the religious Zionists to pick the Ashkenazi chief rabbi they want.

Shas’s last outpost

The Chief Rabbinate and the religious councils are the last bastion of Shas, which is now getting used to life in the Knesset opposition. Some in Shas blame Bennett for their new outsider status, and some want to take revenge, but that’s only the beginning of Bennett’s problems. At least three of the candidates for Ashkenazi chief rabbi, rabbis Eliezer Igra, David Stav and Yaakov Shapira, are identified as religious Zionists. Personally, Bennett is closest to Stav, a relative moderate, but the minister has not yet made his preference public. He knows that the moment he comes out for Stav, he will open a front against the ultra-Orthodox ultra-nationalists, especially settlement rabbis and leaders like rabbis Dov Lior, Zalman Melamed and Shlomo Aviner.

Bennett will also not want to support Stav unless he knows for sure he can close a deal with Shas. Over the past few days it seems some of the weight has been taken off Bennett’s shoulders. An unofficial forum of seven rabbis has been established, who supposedly represent the entire national religious spectrum. Among them are Aharon Lichtenstein, Yaakov Ariel and Haim Druckman. This panel will recommend one of the three frontrunners − Igra, Shapira or Stav.

But will the two losers give up their candidacies? What will Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid do, having already announced their support for Stav? Moreover, Habayit Hayehudi is dealing with a party, Shas, known to be falling apart − and considering the rift between Shas MKs Eli Yishai and Aryeh Deri, there is no one with whom to close deals. Sources in Shas say the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, knows nothing of a deal between Shas and Habayit Hayehudi, while some in Shas are trying to torpedo any understanding between the two parties. United Torah Judaism’s MK Moshe Gafni has already attacked Shas in the ultra-Orthodox press for its apparently emerging alliance with national religious elements. Meanwhile, Shas has counter-attacked Gafni, saying that the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox see the Chief Rabbinate merely as a source of jobs.

Over the past few days it seems more likely that if the Amar bill passes, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger will also ask for a second term, although he has officially announced he wants to retire. This would leave the Chief Rabbinate in total control of the ultra-Orthodox.

Habayit Hayehudi is also concerned about the possibility that Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman, the only possible favorite of the electing body, but who is unacceptable to the national religious movement, will announce his candidacy. That would reshuffle the deck. And so the idea has come up recently in Habayit Hayehudi to support a Sephardi as well as, or instead of, an Ashkenazi rabbi. The name of Rabbi Shumel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, has come up in this regard. He is the only Sephardi rabbi identified as national religious and is personally close to Bennett and deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan.

Meanwhile, will any of the four candidates for Ashkenazi chief rabbi − Shapira, Stav, Igra and Rabbi David Lau − institute reforms in the Chief Rabbinate? On Tuesday, the four gathered onstage at a conference of the right-wing movement Komemiyut. Each stated his vision for the office; all, including Stav ‏(the only one who presented a plan for change‏), said the rabbinate should take stands on the economy and security. Three of the four said the chief rabbi should advise the government before going to war. None revealed the depth of the crisis in the rabbinate or the political drama going on there.

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.Credit: AP
Barack Obama greeted by the chief rabbis.Credit: Reuters
The chief rabbis of Israel visiting Pope John Paul IICredit: AP

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