Five Reasons the Chief Rabbinate Elections Don't Matter - and Five Reasons They Do

Sure, the media is interested in the race what with all the skullduggery and plot twists. But how could the race affect the lives of Israeli and Diaspora Jews?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The elections for Israel's next Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis taking place this afternoon (Wednesday) have surprisingly generated a great deal of media interest and political maneuvering, way beyond the confines of the religious community. Why has so much been made of this contest, which seems to have dealt only with the political support of the candidates and their pedigrees (four out of seven are the sons of former chief rabbis) – but not with the basic question of which rabbi is best equipped to deal with the spiritual needs of modern-day Israeli society. The chief rabbi elections, with all their skullduggery and plot twists, are surely of interest to the media – which needs to churn out news – but should it really interest you? Will the identity of the two rabbis elected today have any effect on the lives of Israelis and Jews around the world?

Here are five reasons why it probably won't.

1. No-one listens to the chief rabbi

Chief rabbis are supposed to be the highest authority on matters of halakha (Jewish religious law) but rarely have they commanded broad authority. The Haredi community has never recognized the state rabbinate as anything other than a provider of jobs. It has its own rabbis and does not need the state to select new ones every 10 years. In fact, the Haredi leadership has succeeded for decades in suborning chief rabbis, who have become their scared puppets. This has gradually turned away the Zionist-religious community as well, which once supported the state rabbinate as a matter of ideology but now prefers to choose its own rabbis. And, of course, secular Israelis couldn't care less who the chief rabbis are.

2. Certainly not 'Gadol ha'dor'

The last chief rabbi who had any claim to being regarded as a "gadol ha'dor" (the greatest of the generation) was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was forced to step down 30 years ago due to political machinations. The 10-year term limit for chief rabbis means that most of the candidates are relatively young; since a serious rabbinical leader doesn't need to be chief rabbi to be taken seriously, none of the seven candidates can be considered part of the top rabbinical echelon in Israel. One or two of them may be in 20 years from now.

3. The Rabbinate is a moribund establishment

The Chief Rabbinate is one of the least organized departments in Israeli bureaucracy, staffed by incompetent hacks, many of whom were appointed thanks to nepotism. The Rabbinate has little influence over the local religious councils – which do most of the work anyway and are ruled by local politicians and rabbis with their own agendas. Even a truly reform-minded chief rabbi has no chance of changing how the Rabbinate goes about its business.

4. The chief rabbi is a foreign concept

The post of Sephardi chief rabbi in Palestine was founded by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire who regarded the Jews as a religious community, not a national group. The British Mandate added the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, creating the ridiculous duality with which we are stuck to this day. The concept of having chief rabbis to represent entire communities is foreign to the Jewish way of life and the principle in "Pirkei Avot" of Ase lekha Rav – provide your own teacher or rabbi.

5. Whoever wins will be discredited

As the fiasco surrounding the outgoing Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger (recently under house arrest over suspicions of money-laundering) should have taught us, whoever emerges victorious today will be discredited by the political maneuvering that has gone on – and will be alienated from whatever constituency opposed his election. No leader can succeed from such a starting point.

Having said that, today's elections will indeed have an effect on Orthodox religious communities and on Israeli and Diaspora politics.

Here are five ways in which the selection of the chief rabbis could still produce change.

1. An alternative rabbinate

The shrinking proportion of Modern-Orthodox Jews who still believe the Rabbinate can be reformed and become a positive force in Israeli and Jewish life have pinned their hopes on Rabbi David Stav. The Haredi and Zionist-ultra-Orthodox establishments are doing everything to deny Stav, including fielding a hopeless candidate, Yaakov Shapira, to split the Zionist vote. If they succeed (which is highly likely), it will spur Modern-Orthodox Israelis (and their counterparts in the United States) to establish an alternative rabbinate that would apply halakha in a more humane fashion. In the unlikely chance that Stav wins, the alternative rabbinate will probably emerge two or three years later when they realize he is incapable of changing the rabbinate.

2. Splitting the religious community

Rabbi Stav's failure could also have another result: It may provide the watershed moment that finally splits the national-religious community in two – into those who believe in a more inclusive and worldly attitude, not only on religious matters, but also on social and political issues, and those who are basically ultra-Orthodox while also being Zionist. Many observers believe such a split already exists, but the anger over efforts on the part of Haredi-Zionist rabbis to foil Stav's election could bring it all out in the open.

3. The end of the House of Yosef

For 40 years, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, his family and the party he founded, Shas, have had an almost absolute grip on the Sephardi religious establishment. Now his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is running for the position Rabbi Ovadia once held, and is widely considered the favorite. But outgoing Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, a former follower who has become estranged from Rabbi Ovadia, is fielding his own man, Zion Boaron, who has been gaining ground in the last few days. Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri has put all his political capital into winning this race, even convincing his own brother, Yehuda, to withdraw his candidacy. If Yosef loses, this will be a major blow to Shas and could signal the end of 92-year-old Rabbi Ovadia's dominance.

4. Taking the conversion debate forward

The chief rabbis do not directly control the rabbinical conversion courts, but they have a lot of influence on appointments and promotion of dayanim (rabbinical judges). They can also exert pressure on rabbinical courts around the world to conform to Israeli standards, as they decide which courts will be recognized when it comes to receiving Israeli citizenship on the basis of foreign conversions. Most of the dayanim in Israel are currently in thrall to the hardline Haredi leadership, which is disposed against converts. At least some of the candidates believe in changing the general attitude – whether they succeed in making life easier for thousands who want to become Jews is another question.

5. Breaking up the kashrut monopolies

For decades, the Chief Rabbinate has allowed private Haredi kashrut organizations to flourish, making billions off the food industry (which, of course, comes from the pockets of Jewish consumers in Israel and around the world). The Rabbinate has a wide range of legal and administrative methods to counter this situation, but none of them has been used as the kashrut organizations are a major source of jobs and income for well-connected members of the Haredi community. The Yosef family operates one of the larger of these lucrative organizations and Yitzhak Yosef's election will ensure it continues to prosper. If he loses, and more reform-minded rabbis are elected, there may be some change. But the chances of that happening are still slim.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar (R) and Chief Rabbi of Holon Avraham Yosef attending a rally in Jerusalem rabbinate, protest state recognition of Reform, Conservative rabbis, June 26, 2012.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Will the chief rabbi elections change anything? Maybe, maybe not.Credit: Emil Salman

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