The candidate who has injected unusual energy into the selection of Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi said Monday that his chances of election have improved thanks to the endorsement of the Yesh Atid party, a key player in the newly elected Knesset.

Rabbi David Stav, an Orthodox moderate seeking to return the Chief Rabbinate to religious Zionist hands after years of ultra-Orthodox control, said Sunday’s endorsement reflects a desire for a “new spirit in the rabbinic world that will listen to the people.”

“It’s not an exact science, but I believe my chances are better than they were yesterday,” Stav told The Times of Israel.

Stav is virtually the only candidate discussed in the media, and the strong election showing of Yesh Atid and the religious Zionist party Jewish Home — along with the real possibility that ultra-Orthodox parties will be excluded from the new government — have dramatically improved his chances. But he still faces an uphill battle. 

Originally scheduled for this month, the selection process was postponed because of the national elections and coalition negotiations and is now expected to take place in June.

The selection of two new chief rabbis — one Ashkenazi, representing Jews of European descent, and one Sephardi, representing Jews of Middle Eastern descent — is conducted every 10 years in an opaque process of bewildering complexity by a 150-member committee made up of an assortment of rabbis, mayors, religious functionaries, and government appointees.

Choosing a new chief rabbi, the head of a state religious bureaucracy that most Israelis tend to either despise or ignore, usually involves backroom dealing and draws little public interest. This race, however, is drawing more attention than any in memory because of Stav’s reformist campaign.

David Stav (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)

David Stav (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)

Stav, whose Tzohar organization seeks to make Judaism more accessible to Israelis, is appealing directly to the public through the media and has run advertisements to support his candidacy — a first. In an interview with The Times of Israel last year, Stav defended the existence of the rabbinate and the Orthodox monopoly on religious services, saying the alternative was “the disintegration of the components of Jewish identity in Israel.”

Late Sunday, Yesh Atid MK Shai Piron announced that his party would support Stav. Piron is a respected mainstream rabbi and a Tzohar member himself.

“Yesh Atid sees great value in a chief rabbi who served, and whose children served, in the IDF, and who is an example of Torah learning and involvement in Israeli society,” Piron said in a statement. That endorsement followed an announcement Thursday that Avigdor Liberman’s faction, Yisrael Beytenu, would also support Stav. Jewish Home has not endorsed any candidate so far.

Parliamentary support will not suffice for Stav. The majority of the selection committee — 90 members — are rabbis currently serving in official rabbinate posts around the country, most of them ultra-Orthodox. 

Less than 30 of the committee members are subject, directly or indirectly, to government appointment. Most of the rest are mayors, some of them with ties to the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas, and thus unlikely to back Stav.

The ultra-Orthodox are confident that the final results will favor a candidate acceptable to them, said Yossi Elituv, editor of the influential ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpachameaning someone other than Stav.  

Stav is a “respectable” rabbi, Elituv said, but the ultra-Orthodox cannot accept the “bending of Jewish law” in the name of a more accessible Judaism. He was referring to the push by Stav and his colleagues for a more lenient policy on matters like conversion.

“There are those who say everything must be changed, and that we must take shortcuts in religious law,” Elituv said. “I say we must preserve a stringent attitude toward religious law, but that the external packaging of the rabbinate must be more welcoming.”

Elituv noted that the two parties which have endorsed Stav are perceived as having secularist platforms: “That’s no coincidence,” he said. (Despite that characterization, however, both Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu include Orthodox lawmakers.)

Other rabbis seeking the job have a better chance of winning ultra-Orthodox support because they straddle the line between religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox world and are less likely to attempt dramatic change. That could position them as effective compromise candidates. One is David Lau, the chief rabbi of Modiin and son of Yisrael Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi himself. Another is Yaakov Shapira, head of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem.

A fourth candidate mentioned as a possible contender is Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi well-known among mainstream Israelis for his philanthropic work. A spokesman for Grossman would not confirm or deny Monday that the rabbi was considering a bid for the job, saying he would announce his intentions closer to the date of the vote.

On the more hardline wing of the religious Zionist camp, Stav faces a challenge from Eliezer Igra, a rabbinical judge in Beersheba.

Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, well-known for his philanthropic work, has been mentioned as a possible candidate  but has not confirmed he wants the job (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, well-known for his philanthropic work, has been mentioned as a possible candidate but has not confirmed he wants the job (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

While the race to replace the outgoing Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yonah Metzger, has drawn most of the attention, the Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, is also slated to leave his post. But Amar is hoping to remain for another 10-year term, and it is still unclear if his job will indeed be up for grabs.

Outside the rabbinic world, the race has occasioned much criticism of the rabbinate itself. Stav has been targeted by some who have charged that he is seeking to serve as window dressing for an institution that gives Orthodox clerks sole jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, conversion and burial, a situation many Israelis find unbearable and which they are seeking to circumvent in growing numbers.

“There is no doubt that Stav knows how to speak nicely to secular ears, but it’s a trick,” Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote in an editorial Monday. “In real life, he is not the sales representative for a nice petting zoo, but a thug representing an apparatus of coercion.”

At the same time, three respected scholars, including Israel Prize-winning law professor Ruth Gavison, are pushing a legislative proposal that would end the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage. Pinhas Shifman, a professor who co-authored the proposal and an Orthodox Jew himself, told Yediot Ahronot on Sunday that the recent election results meant the proposal could find an attentive ear.

“This time there is a rare political opportunity,” he told the paper. “If a government is formed without ultra-Orthodox parties, an amendment like this might be accepted.”