Shas Spiritual Leader Promises Ashkenazi Haredim Cooperation on Election of Israel's Chief Rabbi

With two new chief rabbis to be chosen in August, Shas and Habayit Hayehudi are trying to strike a deal over the candidates.

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Tuesday threw a wrench into the government’s efforts to appoint a religious Zionist as the one of the next chief rabbis when he promised to cooperate on the issue with the Ashkenazi Haredi ‏(ultra-Orthodox‏) establishment.

Shas is the dominant party on the committee that is to choose two chief rabbis for a 10-year term this coming August.

Yosef’s message was conveyed Tuesday to the leader of the Lithuanian ‏(non-Hasidic‏) branch of the Ashkenazi Haredi community, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who had been worried by reports of a deal between Shas and the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party. While it does not constitute a concrete commitment to appoint an Ashkenazi chief rabbi acceptable to the Haredi rabbis, it clearly does not strengthen the efforts to appoint a religious Zionist to the post.

In another twist, it has become clear that not all Shas officials are united behind the move to reelect Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the current Sephardi chief rabbi. New legislation would be needed to enable him to run for a second term.

Over the past few days, the political establishment has been abuzz over a possible deal between Habayit Hayehudi and Shas under which Amar would be reelected as Sephardi chief rabbi and Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, a religious Zionist, would become the Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Ariel, who is currently the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, is being promoted as a compromise candidate by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, one of the doyens of the religious Zionist world.

Ariel’s election would also require new legislation, since current law bars candidates above the age of 70. Ariel is 76.

If this deal does go through, the three religious Zionist rabbis who have already announced their candidacy might withdraw. These include Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the moderate religious Zionist movement Tzohar, who is opposed by conservative circles in the religious Zionist community.

Proponents of this deal on the Sephardi Haredi side include Amar himself and his followers. Last Sunday, Amar met with Yosef in an attempt to promote the deal. But Yosef appears in no hurry to accept the deal with Habayit Hayehudi, and a high-ranking Shas official said the road to such acceptance was still long.

Though Yosef admires Ariel as an adjudicator on matters of religious law, at his meeting with Amar, he asked about Ariel’s position on drafting yeshiva students − an issue that has been a top priority for Yosef in recent months. The religious Zionist website Kipa has quoted several statements by Ariel on this issue in recent months, such as “Enlistment should be deferred for those who have the desire and ability to study Torah,” and “The draft should not be imposed by force; there is no benefit in that. The value of studying Torah aside, we must recognize that there are human ‘nature reserves’ among us and give them a way to serve appropriately within their own settings. All this must be done with understanding and sensitivity.”

While Shas MKs Aryeh Deri, Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias publicly support Amar’s bid for a second term, not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the idea. If the bill permitting Amar to run again does not pass, at least two rabbis intend to run for the post: Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the chief rabbi of Holon and the son of Ovadia Yosef, and Rabbi Yehuda Deri, the chief rabbi of Be’er Sheva and the brother of Aryeh Deri.

In closed meetings, Aryeh Deri complained about the way the talks with Habayit Hayehudi are being run, calling them a “bazaar.” Deri believes no deal should be signed until Habayit Hayehudi promises that all the coalition factions will support the “Amar bill,” and until it is certain the attorney general will not disqualify the bill as a personal one.

Earlier this week, Shteinman sent a message to Ovadia Yosef asking that he cooperate on the matter of the chief rabbis’ election in the same way Shas and the Ashkenazi Haredi parties generally cooperate during coalition talks. The two rabbis have recently grown closer as Yosef mourns his son Yaakov, who died of cancer earlier this month. Yosef sent back a message via Aryeh Deri promising such cooperation.

Shteinman has no candidate of his own at present, though the Haredim consider Rabbi David Lau, the chief rabbi of Modi’in and the son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, an acceptable candidate. Lau is also a close personal friend of Aryeh Deri. 

Michal Fattal
Emil Salman