Livni, Bennett Propose Bill to Do Away With Separate Chief Rabbis for Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews

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A bill seeking to abolish the practice of having two chief rabbis of Israel, an Ashkenazi one and a Sephardi one, was jointly proposed Monday by the Hatnuah and Habayit Hayehudi parties.

“Israel has one prime minister, one president, one Supreme Court president, one chief of staff,” said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads Hatnuah and was one of the bill's sponsors. “Therefore, the time has come to also have one rabbi for one people, someone who will unite all the different parts of Israeli society – a rabbinate that will give service to all of Israel’s communities, instead of the state maintaining the formal, outdated communal separation.”

The law, which was co-sponsored by Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan of Habayit Hayehudi, would not take effect for another decade. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Cheif Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef began their 10-year terms in July.

In addition to streamlining the Chief Rabbinate, the bill also seeks to distinguish it from the Rabbinical Court of Appeals. Currently, one of the two chief rabbis also serves as president of the appeals court.

Under the bill, the court president would instead be chosen from among the rabbinical court judges serving on it.

Replacing the dual chief rabbinate with a single chief rabbi was a campaign promise made by Hatnuah and Habayit Hayehudi. The idea has been circulating for decades, and has already been adopted in some parts of the country at lower levels of the rabbinate. Tel Aviv, for instance, has only a single chief municipal rabbi, rather than both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi one.

“This is an important step that symbolizes the unity of the nation,” said Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads Habayit Hayehudi. “Today, when Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites and all the other communities all marry each other, it’s clear there’s no reason for two chief rabbis. Just as there is currently only one chief military rabbi, and just as there are no separate roles for Sephardim and Ashkenazim in any other field, there’s no reason things should be different with regard to the job of chief rabbi.”

As for the decision to separate the rabbinate from the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, a joint statement issued by Livni and Ben Dahan explained that a rabbi suited for the "wide-ranging public role” of chief rabbi isn't necessarily the best choice to head the religious court. For instance, Yosef is serving as president of the appeals court even though he doesn't have the formal qualifications to be appointed even as a lower-level rabbinical judge.

“Today, the chief rabbi can be appointed president of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals even if he’s completely unqualified to serve as a rabbinical judge,” wrote Livni and Ben Dahan.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at the Knesset on October 28, 2013. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Minister Naftali BennettCredit: Emil Salman

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