Analysis |

Election of New Chief Rabbis Is a Victory for Nepotism, but It's What Israel Deserves

There is no hope for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as long as Israelis are unwilling to liberate their Jewish heritage from the rabbis.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

If, 40 years ago, someone had told Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that a man who had never been a rabbi of a large town or been a dayan, a rabbinical court judge, would one day fill his shoes, he would have dismissed the notion. Yet on Wednesday such a man was elected Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, and it was his son.

Of Yosef’s sons, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef was never considered his most successor. He settled for heading an unfashionable yeshiva and editing a popular series of books based on his father’s rulings. But his loyalty served him well. Unlike his brothers Yaakov and David, he never crossed his father on political matters. Or tried, like the youngest brother, Moshe, to run Shas for him. So when his brother Avraham was suddenly implicated in a breach of trust case, Yitzhak was there to uphold the interests of family and party.

What is really sad about Yosef’s election is that if anyone demonstrated that even someone from a poor family, without a rabbinical pedigree, can become one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time it was Ovadia Yosef, the son of an alcoholic shopkeeper who tried to keep him from his studies. If anyone had any doubt that the unholy mixture of politics and religion is more corrupting than any other form of power, the fact that Yosef senior promoted the election of such an unworthy son proves it, once and for all.

David Lau, Israel’s new Ashkenazi chief rabbi, is also the son of a former chief rabbi ‏(Yisrael Meir Lau‏), but unlike Yosef junior he was anointed from birth. Lau’s father arranged for him to be chief rabbi of Shoham before he was 30, followed immediately by a gig as chief rabbi of the much larger Modi’in.

In both case he was chosen over older and more experienced candidates who had congregations in the respective communities but did not have a chief rabbi for a father.

Aba also arranged a place in the military rabbis’ course for his son, even though he did no military service, so he could claim to be a major in the Israel Defense Forces. He also inherited his father’s gift of the gab and talent for public gestures. That was all Lau pere could bequeath his son: He was never a bold posek ‏(arbiter of religious law‏) himself, only the puppet of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who ensured his and his son’s election. Lau fils will be no different.

But there is no reason to despair at the election of Lau and Yosef. It would have been much worse had the arch-racist Shmuel Eliyahu or the conservative disguised as a reformer, David Stav, been elected. One would have shamed us all and the other would have given us false hope.

There is no hope for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Not as long as it is joined at the hip to politics, and not as long as Israelis are unwilling to liberate their Jewish heritage from the rabbis.

The post of chief rabbi was born in sin − the last vestige of the Ottoman Empire’s rule of Palestine that saw the Jews as a religious community and not a nation. That sin was continued when the dual roles of Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbi were created, perpetuating ethnic discrimination and compounding it with every additional power and authority vested in the rabbinical establishment and courts that held in their hands the fate of converts, engaged couples and agunot ‏(literally “chained women,” generally referring to women whose husbands refuse to divorce them, thus making the women ineligible for remarriage‏).

With Yosef and Lau, the Chief Rabbinate will remain nepotistic, superfluous, gray, corrupt and irrelevant to Israeli society, free to bully the people who need its services.

Until the people rise up and demand that it be abolished, this is the rabbinate we deserve. 

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef with his father Shas' Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Credit: Daniel Bar-On / Jini
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Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.Credit: Moti Milrod
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Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef with his father Shas' Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Credit: Daniel Bar-On / Jini
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Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in the Western Wall.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi