Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has denounced Rabbi David Stav, a candidate for the post of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi who is considered relatively moderate. Yosef, in his weekly sermon, said that Stav was “a wicked man,” someone “dangerous to Judaism” who had “no fear of God at all.”

Electing Stav would be like “bringing idolatry into the temple,” Yosef said Saturday. “He is not worthy… this man is dangerous to Judaism, dangerous to the rabbinate and dangerous to the Torah.”

Yosef went on to attack Economics Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), saying that their support for Stav was indicative of their “hatred of Torah” and resolve to ”drive Torah scholars from their yeshivas.”

Lapid and Bennett have been staunch supporters of a new law that would force ultra-Orthodox men to join the army. Shas’s opposition to such legislation kept it out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Yosef has called Jewish Home a “party of goyim.”

Stav serves as head of Tzohar, an organization that says it 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 on the grounds that he is too liberal.

Stav has cultivated an image as an 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 coalition and in the opposition.

On Sunday, Education Minister Shai Piron, himself a member of the nationalist-religious camp, questioned the place of Yosef’s statement and whether it was even allowed under traditional Jewish law. “Why? Why does Rabbi Ovadiah have to curse [Rabbi Stav],” he wrote on Facebook. “Does he think that that this will bring people closer to Torah and to Judaism? Does he think that to speak this about a person he has never met is moral? Halachic? Jewish?”

Shas vowed last week to block his election, and Yosef called on his followers Saturday to “torpedo” efforts to vote him in.

In a statement, Tzohar called Yosef’s remarks a testimony to “the urgent need for change across the rabbinate” and said he should “repent and ask forgiveness.”

“We protest the incitement voiced yesterday by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” Tzohar said. “Israel needs a rabbinate that will connect it to Judaism, and not antagonize.”

The religious Zionist movement, the organization noted, did not need the permission of Torah sages to field candidates and “knows how to manage the religious Zionist tradition for all of Israel.”

Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: courtesy Tzohar)

Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: courtesy Tzohar)

Yosef’s remarks came in the wake of last week’s non-vote on the “Amar-Ariel bill,” which would have allowed candidates over the age of 70 to run for the position of chief rabbi, and thus pave the way for Yaakov Ariel, 76, the popular rabbi of Ramat Gan, to challenge Stav for the chief rabbi post.

The “Amar-Ariel bill” was pulled at the last minute by sponsor MK Zvulun Kalfa (Jewish Home party) after he realized that it did not have the support necessary to pass, and removed from the Knesset agenda.

Ariel is popular among both conservative religious Zionists and some in the ultra-Orthodox community, and had the bill been passed, it is conceivable that Stav would have stepped aside and the Jewish Home would have endorsed Ariel instead.

The law would have also allowed chief rabbis to serve more than one 10-year term, thus enabling current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, whom Yosef supports despite the candidacy of several of his own sons, to remain in his position.

Incumbent Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger has not expressed a desire to continue in his post.

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.