Religious Zionists Could Gain Historic Foothold in Rabbinate

Some 150 rabbis and public figures will meet today to choose new members of the Chief Rabbinate Council (Moetzet Harabbanut Harashit), against a background of political deals and intrigues and ideological battles.

The council is the rabbinate's highest governing body. It sets policy for the rabbinate and all its institutions, in particular on matters of kashrut and the appointment of municipal or neighborhood rabbis and religious court judges.

The council has seven permanent members: the two chief rabbis; the municipal rabbis of the four largest cities - Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and Jerusalem (though the post of chief rabbi of Jerusalem is currently vacant); and the Israel Defense Forces' chief rabbi, who has observer status. In addition, 10 other rabbis serve on the council, half Ashkenazi and half Sephardi. It is these 10 who will be chosen today for five-year terms.

The voting is by secret ballot, and electors vote for individual candidates. The balloting will take place this afternoon in the rabbinate's headquarters in Jerusalem. The 150 electors consist of 80 rabbis and 70 public figures, including both mayors and people appointed by the cabinet.

The Chief Rabbinate Law states that one of the council's roles is to "draw the public closer to the values of the Torah and the commandments." However, this role seems to exist mostly on paper. The council oversees huge business interests, mostly related to kashrut supervision, and it is largely controlled by the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties: For years, its composition has been the result of political deals between these two parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

This time, however, several religious Zionist rabbis may well be chosen, due to a dispute between the Ashkenazi UTJ and the Sephardi Shas.

UTJ's Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) faction refuses to support one of Shas' preferred candidates: the chief rabbi of Holon, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who is the son of former chief rabbi and Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef. Last year, Avraham Yosef became entangled in a fierce battle with the Ashkenazi Haredi leadership when he refused to accept the Chief Rabbinate's decision to deny kashrut certificates to businesses that refused to sell only imported fruits and vegetables during the shmita (sabbatical) year. This was the first time the two chief rabbis had ever refused to sign the heter mechira, a legal fiction that enables Israeli farmers to work the land during shmita by "selling" it. In the end, Avraham Yosef, with his father's support, signed the document in their stead.

Due to UTJ's objections to Yosef, a temporary alliance seems to be forming between Shas and the religious Zionist camp. Under the emerging deal, the rabbis elected to the council would include Yosef; Yitzhak Peretz, the chief rabbi of Ra'anana and former chairman of Shas; and two religious Zionist rabbis: Ratzon Arussi, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono, and Ya'akov Shapira, the head of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva.

"This is not a political deal, but an understanding within Shas that the rabbinate's council is a very important body, which needs to reflect the halakhic mosaic of the State of Israel," said Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas). "Mercaz Harav also needs to be represented."

However, the National Religious Party and the Tzohar organization of moderate religious Zionist rabbis - both of which are fighting ultra-Orthodox control of the religious establishment - have expressed support for two different candidates: Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, and David Stav, the rabbi of Shoham.

The Reform Movement, for its part, urged mayors on the electoral body to boycott the vote, due to the rabbinate's "loss of direction" and "the dire need to advance the separation of religious institutions from the government."