A measure that would unite Israel’s two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, into a single position gained the backing of a key ministerial committee Sunday.
The move would create a chief rabbi “who is independent of his ethnic origins,” Justice Minister and Ministerial Committee for Legislation chair Tzipi Livni said in a statement after the vote.
The existence of two chief rabbis, one Sephardi, or belonging to Jewish communities originating in the Muslim world, and the other Ashkenazi, or European Jewish, has been justified for years as reflecting religious divisions among Jews.
But the new bill’s proponents, chiefly Livni and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), say that such divisions by ethnicity or religious heritage are no longer relevant in Israeli society.
“We don’t have two states of Israel,” said Livni. “There is one Jewish and democratic state for us all – Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Ethiopians and Russian-speakers, young and old – we are all one people.”
She called the current system of two chief rabbis “anachronistic and divisive,” and said the new measure “is one more step toward a rabbinate that is inclusive and unifying, that serves to bring people closer rather than distancing them, that is worthy and effective for all Jews in Israel.”
“One rabbi for one people,” Bennett declared on his Facebook page on Sunday.
“As I promised the public a year and a half ago, the ministerial committee approved today the bill [to create] one chief rabbi for the state of Israel, just like the army, just like the synagogue, just like life,” Bennett wrote, adding that the measure would actually strengthen the office of the Chief Rabbinate.
“I’m convinced this decision will contribute to strengthening the public’s trust in the Chief Rabbinate against those who want to weaken it, and who want to weaken the Jewish identity of the only Jewish state in the world,” he wrote.
The Sunday vote was the second time the cabinet committee approved the measure. A previous bill, proposed by MKs Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) and Moshe Feiglin (Likud) in November, passed the ministerial committee, but was then frozen by the government. The current bill is nearly identical in content, but was crafted in the Justice Ministry and enjoys the support of Livni and Bennett, the two ministers who will oversee its implementation.
By obtaining the government’s support in the ministerial committee vote, the bill has a much higher chance of garnering majorities in the Knesset, and in fact appears to enjoy majority support in both the coalition and opposition.
The main opponents for the bill are expected to be the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. On Sunday, Shas MK Yaakov Margi, speaking to Haredi news outlet Kikar Hashabat, called the bill a “war on the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”
The measure, if passed, will only take effect at the election of the next chief rabbi in 2023.
While the ministers focused on Sunday on the symbolic importance of creating a single chief rabbi, the bill also contains a significant institutional reform: the separation of the chief rabbinate from the rabbinical courts.
The chief rabbis currently serve as the top judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court and as chairmen of the Chief Rabbinate Council, on an alternating basis. That judicial role may be their most powerful position, as Israel’s rabbinical courts control much of the personal status law of Israeli Jews, including dealing with questions of marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and more.
But the Justice Ministry has long complained that many of Israel’s chief rabbis, who are selected in a political vote by representatives of local rabbinic councils and the government, have not always possessed the qualifications required to serve as senior judges.
“The current situation, in which the president [of the high rabbinic court] holds a broader public post [as chief rabbi], does not meet the standard according to which judicial posts should be independent. In addition, chief rabbis are appointed to head the high rabbinic court without [necessarily] possessing the qualifications to serve as religious judges,” the ministry said in a statement in November, when it first publicized the proposal.
The new bill would see the chief rabbinic judge appointed from among the serving judges on the high rabbinic court, effectively splitting – and the Justice Minister hopes, professionalizing – the two institutions.
Deputy Minister for Religious Services Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home), who served as director-general of the rabbinical courts until 2010, noted on Sunday that the measure would strengthen the religious court system.
“The duties of a chief rabbi take up much of the [chief] rabbi’s time,” Ben Dahan noted in a statement, echoing comments he made after leaving the court system in 2010. “Only a chief rabbinic judge who knows the system from within and commits himself wholly to the position can create real and lasting change in the religious courts.”