U.S. Modern Orthodox Disappointed With Israeli Choice of New Chief Rabbi

Election of new chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef welcomed by the Rabbinical Council of America, but gets cold shoulder from many non-Orthodox Jews.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in North America, welcomed the election of new chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef. Several weeks ago the RCA was quick to defend Rabbi David Stav, who lost the election, when the latter was fiercely attacked by Ovadia Yosef, the new chief rabbi’s powerful father, and a former chief rabbi himself. The RCA is now congratulating the winners as “accomplished Torah scholars and men whose ways are those of pleasantness and peace,” adding that the last elections were “shaped by calls for a more user-friendly rabbinate.”

RCA President Rabbi Leonard Matanky said more Jews in the United States are searching for tradition and that Judaism “regained its significance through education and persuasion, not by coercion.” Rabbi Shalom Baum, Vice President of the RCA, added, “The Rabbinate can become the gentle, inviting voice that reminds Israelis, observant and not, of the central role that Jewish faith and practice plays in that amazing story”.

Still, apart from the official statement, the reaction of Jewish communities in the United States to the election results varied between disappointment and indifference. While the Haredi communities and press showed precious little interest, many members of the more modern Orthodox communities followed the election closely and were disappointed that Stav wasn’t elected. The elections do not directly influence Jews abroad, but some communities follow events in Israel closely, focusing on matters such as the Israeli rabbinate’s non-recognition of conversions approved by RCA rabbis, as has happened at times in recent years.

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League told Haaretz this week that Jews in the United States were more involved than ever in the Chief Rabbinate elections.

In contrast to Foxman, who supported Stav, non-Orthodox communities representing most American Jews expressed a clear lack of support for any of the candidates. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told Haaretz: “I believe that the issue here is the rabbinate itself and not whoever heads it. The rabbinate, as an institution, has exhausted its function. I believe it has become a narrow expression of religious coercion in Israel and it is time to abolish it and renegotiate the relations between Judaism and the Jewish state.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz this week: “I believe the rabbinate should not exist. This institution has a negative impact on Judaism, on the manner the community understands Judaism, and on the State of Israel.”

The two new chief rabbis met today with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told them, “You are the rabbis of all the people of Israel. You are the rabbis of all the non-religious public who need your help, your patience and tolerance.”

Incoming chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau seated by their fathers, rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Yisrael Lau.Credit: Emil Salman

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