After months of bitter intra-party debate, the Jewish Home party voted on Sunday to support Rabbi David Stav’s candidacy for the post of chief Ashkenazi rabbi, a move that greatly increased the relatively moderate rabbi’s chances ahead of a vote later this month.
The Orthodox-nationalist party, headed by Naftali Bennett, had been deeply split between those backing Stav and the more conservative factions supporting Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan.
“I brought to the faction a proposal to support Rabbi Stav as the national-religious candidate for chief rabbi,” said Bennett, adding, “We are all standing behind Rabbi Stav.”
Ariel has proved ineligible for the position because he is too old at 76, but Stav still faces uncertainties in his pursuit of the job. Other candidates include Rabbi Eliezer Igra, a noted judge on Israel’s Upper Rabbinical Court, who announced his candidacy the day after it became clear Ariel was out of the running last week.
In addition, the make-up and size of the electing body remains undecided. The chief rabbi is selected in a complex and opaque process by a committee that, in the past, numbered 150 rabbis, mayors, religious functionaries, and government appointees. A controversial proposal moving through the Knesset, the “Stern Law,” seeks to expand this body to 200, and to include more women.
No date for the vote on the chief rabbi has been officially set, but the decision is expected later this month. The final result could be any of the candidates currently being touted — or someone else entirely, put forward and selected in quiet deal-making among politicians and rabbinic bureaucrats.
Stav serves as head of Tzohar, an organization that seeks to make Judaism more accessible to all Israelis, religious and secular alike. His candidacy is opposed by the ultra-Orthodox and conservative religious Zionist camp for being too liberal.
Ariel is a respected figure in the religious Zionist community, and many rabbis, including those affiliated with Jewish Home, believed that he would be a more acceptable candidate among the ultra-Orthodox than Stav. Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel, leader of Tekuma — a national-religious faction that merged with Jewish Home before the 2013 elections — was a vocal supporter of Ariel’s candidacy.
However, Ariel would have needed new legislation to raise the maximum age to be eligible to serve, currently set at 70. The Sephardi-religious party Shas proposed a deal that would enact such legislation, and would also advance a bill to enable chief rabbis to serve multiple terms, clearing the way for Shas-backed Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stay in office.
However, hours before ministers were set to vote on the measure last Sunday, the bill’s sponsor MK Zvulun Kalfa (Jewish Home) decided that it did not have the necessary support and removed it from the agenda.
Stav has cultivated an image as the liberals’ alternative to a rabbinate dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, and is waging a public campaign that has won him a strong base of popular support. He also enjoys the backing of MKs in the government coalition and in the opposition.
Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron (Yesh Atid) praised the Jewish Home’s decision to back Stav. “I am happy that Jewish Home joined the growing group,” he said, “that sees Rabbi David Stav as someone who can bring about a link between religious and secular, and an improvement in the position of the Chief Rabbinate in Israeli society.”
Piron and Stav are both founders of Tzohar.
Earlier Sunday, the bill that would allow Amar to serve a second term cleared the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and is headed to its first reading on the Knesset floor. Still, Shas was adamant that it would not accept Jewish Home’s preferred candidate. “We will work to torpedo the appointment of Rabbi Stav,” the party promised in a statement.
Matti Friedman contributed to this report.