Bill Would Let Chief Rabbis Serve a Second 10-year Term

Critics say proposal appears intended primarily to keep Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar in office.

MK Eli Aflalo (Kadima ) introduced legislation on Tuesday that would allow the country's two chief rabbis to serve a second 10-year term.

The Kadima MK wants the amendment to apply retroactively, so that the current Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, and his Ashkenazi counterpart, Yona Metzger, would be able to serve a total of 20 years each. Both rabbis' current terms are due to expire in two years.

Aflalo, who said the amendment would correct a "historic injustice," is now recruiting MKs to cosponsor the bill in advance of a Knesset vote. The measure already has the backing of MKs Zion Fanian (Likud ), Yulia Shamalov Berkovich (Kadima ), Michael Ben Ari (National Union ) and Ghaleb Majadele (Labor ).

Behind the scenes, the bill also has the support of MKs from other parties, notably the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Officially, however, the ultra-Orthodox parties are steering clear of the proposal.

The idea of changing the law to allow the chief rabbis to serve a second term has been making the rounds of the Knesset for several months, and the chief rabbis have been kept abreast of the measure's progress. But the prospects for the bill's passage remain unclear.

A Shas source said the bill is primarily meant to enable Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar to serve for another 10 years, because, the source said, there is a "public consensus" supporting him. Whether Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Metzger would remain in the job is less clear. He was a compromise candidate at the time of his election in 2003, and some say he would not risk running for a second term.

A second term for Amar would dash the hopes of those who might have seen themselves as his successor in 2013. They include two sons of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, himself a former chief rabbi: Avraham Yosef, the chief rabbi of Holon, and David Yosef, rabbi of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. The name of Be'er Sheva's chief rabbi, Yehuda Deri, has also been mentioned.

Avraham Yosef has made a number of controversial statements and rulings, most notably one saying that civil court judges should be excluded from the minyan, the quorum of Jews required for communal prayer. There has also been a lot of tension between Amar and Deri, mainly over conversion procedures in the Israel Defense Forces.

If Aflalo's legislation passes, thus enabling Amar to compete for a second term, it is thought unlikely that any of the three would challenge him. One rabbinical source consequently termed the bill a political attempt to preempt the election of any of the three. Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who is Yehuda Deri's brother, is also gearing up for a run for the chief rabbinate.

But Aflalo denied that Shas figures are behind his initiative, adding that he doubts the party will support the measure.

The chief rabbis are chosen by a group of 150 people that includes politicians, religious figures and members of the public.