Will Election of Israel's Next Chief Rabbi Bring Winds of Change to Rabbinate?

While there have been plenty of intrigue and personality issues in the race for Israel's Chief Rabbinate, it's worth going beyond the headlines to consider what the outcome could mean for Israelis and for Israeli religious institutions.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

We can start summing up now: There were pointless ideological conflicts fueled by divisiveness; personal grudges and simple hatred; spiritual leaders who spat out words such as "wicked" and Amalek; and people who issued threats or participated in boycotts and late-night meetings aimed at foiling others.

There were six "princes," sons of former chief rabbis - three of them the sons of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and two brothers-of. There were two criminal investigations, one of a reigning chief rabbi, the other of a prince of the house of Yosef. There were deals gone sour, attempts to change the law to help certain individuals, and millions of shekels spent on public relations and strategic consultants.

After all's done and we've all had a good shower, the question will be: Was it worth it? Was the 2013 election of the chief rabbis really so important? Probably not.

Who will be picked on Wednesday? Huh. None of the seven, eight or nine final candidates is particularly promising, and nearly all of them choose not to talk about the system's ills. The only one with a detailed platform and an evident will to work is Rabbi David Stav, but even he is talking more about administrative changes - tweaking and reinforcing the existing structure - than about a radical conceptual rethink.

While the role of Israel's Chief Rabbinate was absent from the debate, that's not to say the race was all about personalities. Intentionally or not, all the candidates represent competing groups within Orthodoxy. Each one defines differently its own identity as well as its attitude toward the State of Israel, nonobservant Jews and non-Jews.

Hanging in the balance are the politics of religion and the religion of politics.

We can think of three possible results, none of them mutually exclusive, that would affect public and Jewish life in Israel. Even if none come about, it is instructive to contemplate the possibilities.

1. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef loses: A fatal blow to Shas
At first glance, such a loss is unimaginable. The body of electors was put together by and for Shas. In the previous two governments, when the party held the Religious Affairs Ministry, it followed the example set by the National Religious Party and did as it pleased with the entire religious establishment. It appointed hundreds of its own as local rabbis, religious court judges, and heads and members of local religious councils. On paper, Shas has the power to determine this election.

But everyone in the party admits that defeat is possible. That would be a fatal blow to Shas, a huge failure for Arye Deri in his first major test since his reinstatement as party chairman and in the long term it could affect even damage the position of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef himself in relation to his flock.

The vote is by secret ballot. Some of the voters are committed to the present Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who is backing Rabbi Zion Boaron, a strong candidate who is the biggest threat to Yitzhak Yosef. Others support rabbis Yehuda Deri, Arye's brother; Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu; Rabbi Ratzon Arusi and Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel.

In contrast to the Ashkenazi Haredim, the Sephardim always took the post of chief rabbi seriously.

To Ovadia Yosef, keeping control of the Chief Rabbinate is of utmost importance, even more than the Knesset. The new Sephardi chief rabbi will be the one to establish and carry on his legacy in determining Jewish law. But he is being met with an open revolt against Deri, just as during the last Knesset election campaign.

A loss by Yitzhak Yosef means the end of decades of Shas control over religious services, and it could put an end to the family dynasty in areas such as the business of providing Kashrut certification - and a split in the Sephardi religious camp - just as has happened to the Ashkenazim after the death of Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv.

2. Rabbi David Stav loses: Even the religious distance themselves from the Chief Rabbinate
This election has caused even further division within the religious Zionist community. The level of antagonism Stav, the chairman of the Tzohar rabbis, aroused made it seem that his conservative opponents would have voted for Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall before they would vote for Stav - a graduate of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and one of their one.

Stav is also a declared conservative, and not one of the liberal voices in Tzohar. But his candidacy has importance for much of the Israeli public. His candidacy is supported by the nonreligious parties and has split Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. He has managed to interest the secular public in the vote for the chief rabbis, for the first time.

But Stav and the centrist stream of the national Zionist rabbis has objected to the move to "privatize" rabbinic and religious functions and has objected to the popular revolt against the rabbinate, which is exemplified in such things as private conversions, private kashrut certification, unofficial marriages and private burials.

If Stav loses, such privatization may become mainstream for the religious Zionist public. This is reflected in the new Beit Hillel movement, which includes women in its rabbinic organization.

If Stav loses, such trends will intensify and accelerate - and a de facto alternative to the Chief Rabbinate will arise. Not only the nonreligious, but also the national religious will reach the conclusion they have no place within the Rabbinate. That could lead to the introduction of civil marriage in Israel, which Stav himself strongly opposes, if you would just ask him.

3. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu wins: A rabbinate of conflict
Assuming the Supreme Court allows Eliyahu to run on Monday, and if he wins - it will be a real upset. His election could even wind up in the High Court of Justice again, but beyond the legal question is the rabbinic figure of the chief rabbi of Safed.

The "rabbis' letter" he organized to prevent Jews from renting or selling to non-Jews in Safed is his best-known rabbinic achievement. His activities with various social and welfare groups are less well known, as are his accessible responsa to questions on the Internet and in text messages.

His victory would serve the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, who avoided supporting Eliyahu publicly. The infighting within Bennett's party only helped Eliyahu. His election would provide Bennett with peace from his party's conservative wing, after Bennett's support for Stav.

But it is easy to guess what an Eliyahu victory would represent to Israelis from the center and left of the political spectrum, as well as for Jews overseas - who are not so well informed about the internal politics of Habayit Hayehudi.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger (L) and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Tzohar’s Rabbi David Stav.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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