Bennett’s Test of Leadership

Habayit Hayehudi is being torn apart from within over the identity of the next chief Ashkenazi rabbi.

Habayit Hayehudi is being torn apart from within. This is mainly an ideological clash, reflected by the deep dispute over the identity of the next chief Ashkenazi rabbi.

Naftali Bennett, who went to the polls with the slogan “something new is starting,” wants Rabbi David Stav, 53, to take the post. Stav is an eloquent man appreciated by people who don’t define themselves as religious. His image is one of revival, of shaking off the rabbinate’s stale image. He promises a revolution in religious services so that the rabbis will be approachable, friendly and uncorrupted; people who react appropriately to the needs of the hour.

Bennett, who shares these ambitions, sees Stav’s election as the final stage of his master plan: getting Habayit Hayehudi out of the religious ghetto and transforming it into a key political power that will be attractive to a wide segment of the population − people who aren’t necessarily religious in daily life.

A movement has formed to curb this trend − and apparently Bennett’s leadership as well. This is being led by the Tekuma movement, which is part of Habayit Hayehudi, and many members of the veteran rabbinical establishment. Their candidate for chief rabbi is Rabbi Yaakov Ariel.

Ariel, 76, is a posek ‏(one who decides on disputes over religious law‏) and a talmid chacham ‏(a Torah scholar‏) with an unsullied reputation. According to the law, the upper age limit for election to this post is 70. So that Ariel can be elected, the old guard of National Religious Party rabbis, headed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, has joined forces with Shas, headed by Aryeh Deri.

Their plan: Habayit Hayehudi will team up with Shas and vote to repeal the law stating that a chief rabbi can only hold his position for a maximum of 10 years. Thus Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who recently completed a 10-year term, will be able to remain in his post for the rest of his life. ‏(Shas effectively determines who will head the chief rabbinate because it controls the selection committee, which it established when it had unlimited control over the politics of religion.‏) In return, Shas will promise two things.

First, it will support the abolition of the law stating that only someone under 70 can be elected chief rabbi. Second, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will sign a document authorizing this plan, and will order the Shas members on the selection committee to choose Rabbi Ariel. This will ensure that Shas will not betray its partner in the deal and vote for an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi candidate. And so Rabbi Yosef ‏(who once said “Habayit Hayehudi is a party of goyim”‏) signed.

Bennett is in an unenviable position. In the inner world of religious Zionism, the weight of the rabbis who oppose Rabbi Stav is extremely significant. On the other hand, this test determines Habayit Hayehudi’s direction: to continue being conservative or to start a revival. Who will decide, the rabbis or the chairman and the majority faction in the Knesset?

If Bennett stands up to the test he will be a leader, and not just of the narrow faction he currently heads. If he goes along with the veteran rabbis’ position ‏(many rabbis, including a majority of Tzohar rabbis, support Rabbi Stav‏), he will never be able to fulfill his public and private dreams. And the new Habayit Hayehudi will go back to being the old National Religious Party.

To restabilize his leadership and prevent regression, Bennett must announce that he supports Rabbi Stav and refuses to sign the deal the rabbis made with Shas. His opponents from Tekuma will swallow this. Basically, they can’t survive politically outside Habayit Hayehudi. If they don’t swallow it, the current Knesset term will be the last one for some of them. Only then will Habayit Hayehudi, without a millstone around its neck, be able to set out on the new way it promised and be free to accomplish things.