Election to Be Held Wednesday |

A Guide for the Perplexed: The Race for Israel's Chief Rabbinate Draws to a Close

From kashrut to women's rights, Haaretz addresses some pressing questions about the roles and clout carried by Israel's official religious representatives.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

After a tense and bitter election campaign, the two new chief rabbis of Israel will be elected Wednesday evening, with the winners expected to be announced at 6 P.M. One hundred and fifty members of the electoral body for the Chief Rabbinate will gather in Jerusalem to choose the new Ashkenazi chief rabbi and the new Sephardi chief rabbi.

The five candidates on the Sephardi ballot are: Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef, Shmuel Eliyahu, Zion Boaron, Eliyahu Abergel and Ratzon Arusi. Running for the Ashkenazi position are three rabbis: David Stav, David Lau and Yaakov Shapira.

The two victors will enter office at the Chief Rabbinate on 80 Yirmiyahu Street in Jerusalem, between a bank branch and an emergency medical center, and start to work. But the question is, how will this affect the Israeli public?

What do the chief rabbis actually do?

The chief rabbis fulfill two roles: they trade places at the helm of the Chief Rabbinate Council and the presidency of the High Rabbinic Court in Jerusalem. Each has a five-year term in each position out of the chief rabbi’s 10-year term.

The Chief Rabbinate’s council is sort of the rabbinate’s “cabinet.” The chief rabbis alternate as the chairman of this council, sort of a prime minister. Ten of the rabbis are elected to the council every five years, and the rest are permanent members: The chief military rabbi and the chief rabbis of the largest cities. The council has a number of subcommittees for various matters.

Will we really see a revolution in the Rabbinate after the elections?

During the election campaign some of the candidates promised to make significant reforms in the Rabbinate, but the chief rabbi’s power is rather limited: they are part of the religious services system, which included the municipal rabbis, the local religious councils, the religious services minister and his ministry, and numerous other bodies external to the Rabbinate – alongside market forces.

What may still change despite all that?

The main area of influence of the chief rabbis is in kashrut. While the granting of a kashrut certificate to a business is the responsibility of the local religious council, the Chief Rabbinate is responsible for setting the standards for kashrut. The kashrut policy and various halakhic matters are brought before the chief rabbi and the kashrut committee of the Rabbinate Council to decide on the questions of Jewish law.

For example, one of the best-publicized standards of the Rabbinate on kashrut is the ban on opening kosher restaurants on Shabbat. This, of course, will not change. But in certain areas, mostly relating to imported foodstuffs, a more liberal chief rabbi could rule more leniently – which could help lower the prices of some foods.

Another issue on the agenda is “private kashrut certification.” By law, only the Rabbinate is allowed to authorize the use of the word “kosher” for food, or authorize others to do so. The Rabbinate is allowed to use criminal sanctions against those who grant kashrut certification on their own without Rabbinate authorization. But over the past 20 years various private kashrut “brands” have been a roaring success, names such as Badatz Beit Yosef, Rubin or Badatz Haeda Haredit – and many others. It seems the new chief rabbi, whoever it may be, will try to strengthen the governmental kashrut system and trim the private bodies.

For the general public this is not necessarily good news: In order for the Haredim to trust the general Rabbinate kashrut standards, they will have to be made much more stringent.

Will it be easier to get married?

As opposed to the common opinion, the Chief Rabbinate does not have any real influence on the matter. Given the limitations of Orthodox Jewish law, there is no possibility of making significant changes in the process of registration for marriage. The two most common claims on the matter relate to the unpleasantness of the registration process; and to the difficulties facing someone when a doubt arises about their Jewishness. A chief rabbi cannot force a marriage registrar to smile, and it is the Rabbinic Court that handles the clarification on the matter of the person’s Jewishness. Nonetheless, the chief rabbi can take away the authority to register marriages form the local rabbi if he uses his powers in an inappropriate fashion. That is what happened for example in Ashdod, where the local chief rabbi refused to register couples where one of them underwent conversion through the IDF’s conversion program.

And what about conversion?

The Rabbinical Courts for Conversion are a separate entity form the regular Rabbinic Courts, and the chief rabbi provides guidance for these courts. Here there is truly an opportunity to make the process easier, for example in the matter of deciding to what extent the strict observance of the commandments is a requirement for conversion, along with matters relating to the conversion of minors from nonreligious families. A chief rabbi who tries to make reforms in this area can expect a fierce attack from the Haredi public and rabbis, but slowly and carefully it is possible to make significant changes in the conversion process.

And burial?

The burial societies (Hevra Kadisha) operate under a license from the Religious Services Ministry. This license is conditional on their following the instructions of the chief rabbis. Except for this authority, the chief rabbis have no other real power in the matter of burial. In 1996, the law for civil burial was passed by the Knesset, which states that every cemetery must also have a section for civil - i.e. nonreligious – burial, and the implementation of this is in the hands of the government, not the Rabbinate.

Will the new chief rabbis allow Jews to go up to the Temple Mount?

The Chief Rabbinate has traditionally objected to allowing Jews to go up to the Temple Mount for halakhic reasons, since all of the Jewish people are ritually impure in present times. This position has helped the Israeli government over the years to keep Jews off the Temple Mount, and to ignore various demands to allow religious rituals and prayer on Temple Mount. A change in the Rabbinate’s policy on the matter would cause an earthquake in the religious world, but it seems that the new rabbis will not make such a change: None of the candidates have themselves gone up to the Temple Mount.

What will change in the Rabbinic Courts?

The Chief Rabbi who is not acting as the head of Chief Rabbinate Council serves as the president of the High Rabbinic Court. It is important to remember that the Rabbinic Court judges, like all other judges, have judicial independence and freedom and are authorized to rule based on their own views. The president of the High Rabbinic Court can rule on appeals and determine Jewish law on various matters, but cannot issue guidelines for rulings or instruct judges. The chief rabbis also sit on the Judicial Appointments Committee, which appoints Rabbinic Court judges; so that in the long run they can bring in the judges they want into system.

Is there a chance the Rabbinic Courts will change their attitude toward women?

The Rabbinic Courts are regularly criticized for their attitude toward women, and it is often claimed that the Rabbinic Court judges favor the claims of the husbands over the wives in divorce cases, and the wives are often forced to give up some of their rights in order to be granted a divorce. But in this way the Rabbinic Courts are quite similar to the regular courts: quite a bit depends on which judge you wind up with.

The president of the High Rabbinic Court, the chief rabbi, can for example set halakhic guidelines can as to the level of negative behavior a husband can show before the court will force to grant the divorce. A more liberal rabbi can lower relax this level of behavior required, while a stricter judge can be more stringent in his requirements. But the president, and chief rabbi, of the court is only one judge on the tribunal and such matters are the subject of huge volumes of Jewish legal debate over the centuries; so that any single chief rabbi will be unable to make a dramatic reform in the matter.

And what about women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce (get)?

Unrelated to the elections for the chief rabbis, the trend today is to be much stricter with husbands who refuse to grant their wives a Jewish divorce (get), and no major rabbi objects to this.

IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu at a conference in Ramle.Credit: Nir Kafri
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef with his father Shas' Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Credit: Daniel Bar-On / Jini
Rabbi David Stav.Credit: Gali Eytan
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.Credit: Moti Milrod
Rabbi Yaakov Shapira.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Rabbi Ratzon Arusi in 2009.Credit: Nir Kafri
Rabbi Zion Boaron.Credit: Emil Salman

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