Analysis

Shas Won the Fight for Israel's Chief Rabbinate on Points, Not by Knockout

The real meaning of the chief rabbi election results is political: Shas lets out a sigh of relief while Bennett licks the wounds inflicted by the Zionist Haredim.

A deep sigh of relief was heard throughout Shas upon learning the results of Wednesday’s elections for the Chief Rabbinate.

What had lain in the balance for the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party was far more than whether Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, a Torah scholar with no experience in the rabbinate, would succeed in winning a senior government job, Sephardi chief rabbi. What really mattered was that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the winner’s father and Shas’ spiritual leader, was thereby spared a defeat that would have undermined his political power and, more importantly, his decades-old position as the Sephardi community’s supreme arbiter in matters of Jewish law.

The rebels, led primarily by outgoing Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, were defeated. The headline of the 9 P.M. news on Kol Barama, a radio station affiliated with Shas, was “A victory for Israel’s leading sages.”

Not only Shas, but the entire Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leadership celebrated a victory: Both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Haredim stuck fully to their deal, and succeeded in electing two sons of former chief rabbis as the next chief rabbis: Yitzhak Yosef for the Sephardi post and Rabbi David Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

This achievement occurred at a time when the Haredim are at a political nadir, with both Shas and the Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism out of the coalition. Maintaining Haredi control of the rabbinate was thus seen as salvaging an important asset, and as a form of pushback against the present government’s attempts to “harm the yeshiva world” by passing legislation to draft Haredi yeshiva students into the army. In particular, it served as a brake on the more moderate Orthodox stream represented by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and his party’s candidate for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Stav.

The election campaign for the rabbinate was not about the rabbinate and its role, even though its viciousness and its high-profile candidates combined to create an illusion that the fate of both the rabbinate and the Jewish people lay in the balance. That’s nonsense, of course: A glance at the winners reveals that no major changes, if any, are anticipated, and that would have been equally true of most of the other candidates.

Rather, the election’s main significance is political − and particularly with regard to the balance of forces in the Orthodox world.

Bennett, who promised his voters “at least one Zionist rabbi,” is of course the big loser. His sweeping election to the leadership of Habayit Hayehudi, followed by his close political partnership with the secular Yesh Atid chairman, Yair Lapid, was seen as a kind of revolution against the Hardal rabbis (the term is an acronym for “national religious Haredim”) who had dominated the religious Zionist camp for years. But in the election for the chief rabbis, the Hardal rabbis got their revenge, and left his leadership tattered and torn.

Although the Hardal camp was unable to ensure the election of its own candidates (Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for Sephardi chief rabbi and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira for the Ashkenazi post), the split in the religious Zionist vote contributed to Stav’s failure in the Ashkenazi race. And for some of the Hardal rabbis, that was a goal far more important than electing a rabbi of their own.

Divided religious leadership

Now, however, it will be interesting to see how the Haredi-controlled rabbinate will function at a time when the Religious Services Ministry is controlled by two members of Habayit Hayehudi who have declared their desire for reforms: Bennett, the religious services minister, and his deputy, Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan.

The two have already announced a plan to eliminate the institution of government-appointed neighborhood rabbis. Instead, communities will be given government funding for rabbis of their own choosing − a move that will enable Reform and Conservative rabbis to receive government support. The duo has also introduced legislation to allow couples to register their marriage wherever they please instead of only in their hometown, which will force municipal rabbis to compete with each other for business.

These kinds of changes are intolerable to the Haredim. Thus it will be interesting to see what kind of partnership develops between the ministry and the rabbinate, two groups that usually work together closely.

Another question is whether the losing camp of Bennett and Stav will try to challenge its internal rivals, the Hardalim, and whether it will dare to express skepticism about the sacred status of the Chief Rabbinate. That depends first and foremost on how the rabbinate conducts itself under Yosef and Lau.

If the rabbinate continues its current trend of stringency and separation − as expected by those who chose Yosef and Lau − this will strengthen the voices being heard in recent years in the Modern Orthodox camp demanding an end to the rabbinate’s monopoly and the establishment of alternative institutions. If so, the results of the election may turn out in hindsight to have been a boon for the secular public: The power of the rabbinate will decline, and the gap between it and the public will widen.

These elections, for the first time, didn’t affect the religious parties only: Most of the Jewish parties − Yesh Atid, Hatnuah, Habayit Hayehudi, Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu − supported Stav. This coalition of losers carries great weight, especially if we add in important actors abroad that also supported Stav, such as the Rabbinical Council of America − the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the United States − and the Anti-Defamation League.

And a word about Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who was rescued on Wednesday for the second time since returning to the party. The first time, when he still shared responsibility with MK Eli Yishai, he succeeded in maintaining Shas’ power in the Knesset election. Shas remained with 11 seats, despite the votes that were diverted to the rival Sephardi parties headed by Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak and Rabbi Chaim Amsellem.

In the election for the rabbinate, the winner takes all. Nevertheless, the following fact should be noted: In the previous election, in 2003, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s candidate, Amar, received 124 out of 150 votes. On Wednesday, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s candidate, his son, received only 68 out of 150 votes.

This is a reminder for Shas’ leadership that even if it won, it chalked up a serious loss by the very fact that some people dared to challenge Rabbi Ovadia. Deri won’t rest for even a moment. He must produce achievements for Shas in the municipal elections that will take place a few months from now − and there, the situation looks no less gloomy than it did for the rabbinate.

Nevertheless, in elections for the rabbinate, the winner does take all, and that includes money. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s election ensures that his younger brother Moshe − the Shas strongman, who gambled on Deri a few months ago to replace Eli Yishai − will retain his personal cash cow: Beit Yosef, the private kashrut certification business that he owns, will remain intact, and likely even grow stronger. 

Daniel Bar-On / Jini