Religious Zionists Vie for Post of Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi

In an effort to break the ultra-Orthodox grip on Israel's Chief Rabbinate, three religious Zionists are angling for the top post. But the community is splintered among various factions, and an upcoming vote for candidacy is escalating tensions.

The date for selection of a successor to Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger has not yet been set, but among the national religious public in the Ashkenazi community – Jews of Eastern and northern European descent – the race is already causing a major stir. Three individuals have already presented themselves as potential candidates for the position.

They are David Stav, the chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization; Yaakov Shapira, who heads Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav yeshiva; and Eliezer Igra, who serves as the chief religious court judge in Be'er Sheva. The three will be competing against ultra-Orthodox candidates who enjoy major ultra-Orthodox political backing.

Nonetheless, supporters of Rabbi Igra have organized their own electoral event on Thursday for the selection of the candidate who, as they put it, will get the stamp of approval of the leading religious Zionist rabbis. Dozens of rabbis are expected to convene tomorrow in Jerusalem, most of whom are identified with the conservative wing of religious Zionism, but the entire initiative is the work of backers of one candidate, Igra, who in addition to heading the Be'er Sheva religious court is currently on temporary assignment on the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

Tzohar, an organization of relatively liberal religious Zionist rabbis that has been active in performing marriages for couples who do not want to be married through their local religious authorities, does not recognize the validity of Thursday's election process. Several weeks ago, when Rabbi Igra's supporters raised the idea to organize a national-religious forum that would vote on an agreed-upon candidate, Rabbi's Stav's supporters expressed willingness, but clarified at the time in a statement to Haaretz that the body who makes the selection should be broad and include public officials, women, and not just rabbis. They said then that Thursday's selection process in Jerusalem is a transparent move by both Rabbi Igra's supporters and Rabbi Stav's opponents.

The competition for the Ashkenazi chief rabbi's position is proof that the religious Zionist community, the vast majority of which currently supports the Habayit Hayehudi party, is splintered among various factions. Igra, who hails from the religious moshav collective community of Kfar Maimon in the south, has garnered support from rabbis from the so-called Hardal stream, religious Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis, some of whom have also supported Shapira. With the exception of Yaakov Ariel, who is chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and president of Tzohar but considered more conservative than most of his organization, rabbis identified with liberal Orthodoxy have not been invited to Thursday's electoral event in Jerusalem.

About 60 religious court judges and other rabbis have been invited to attend the event, including those holding top municipal rabbinical posts such as Shmuel Eliahu of Safed, Micha Halevy of Petah Tikva and Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba. Rabbis from the Har Hamor yeshiva in Jerusalem, which is also seen as ultra-Orthodox but Zionist have also been invited, including the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, and his colleague Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. Aviner had initially supported Stav as chief rabbi, but withdrew his support after he said he learned of additional pronouncements that Stav had made which he found "anomalous."

Nonetheless, among those invited to the Jerusalem event are rabbis who have expressed support for Stav, including Aharon Lichtenstein of the Har Etzion yeshiva and Avichai Rontzki, the former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces who now heads the Itamar yeshiva. Officials from Tzohar, however, are encouraging them to stay away from the event.

The expected attendance by official religious court judges comes despite a directive from the director general of the religious court system barring them from participating. Aviad Hacohen, who heads the religious Zionist group Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah, has approached Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein demanding that he prevent the attendance at the event by the religious court judges and the chief rabbis of cities, who hold official state positions. Their attendance, Hacohen said, gives the appearance of "gross political interference in the selection process for chief rabbi of Israel."

Olivier Fitoussi and Gil Cohen-Magen