Inside storyNepotism, misogyny and power struggles stymie appointments

A fight over women’s representation leaves Israel’s Jews without chief rabbis

The Justice Ministry’s demand that the rabbinate consider women for a position traditionally reserved for rabbis is key to the delay in succession for the first time in over a century

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Israel's Ashkenazi former chief rabbi David Lau, right, and Israel's Sephardi former chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend an event at a ceremony  in Jerusalem, June 30, 2023. (The Chief Rabbinate of Israel)
Israel's Ashkenazi former chief rabbi David Lau, right, and Israel's Sephardi former chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend an event at a ceremony in Jerusalem, June 30, 2023. (The Chief Rabbinate of Israel)

For the first time in over a century, Israel’s Jews have no chief rabbi after the term of both ended on Monday this week amid delays in the succession process due to the role of women, as well as alleged nepotism and internal power struggles.

Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and his Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi David Lau parted with their titles just after midnight on Tuesday after 11 years on the job.

The unusual delays in appointing their successors underscore growing tensions between the laic judiciary and the rabbinical court establishment but also highlight internal power struggles within the Chief Rabbinate and decentralist trends in Haredi society.

Yehuda Avidan, the director general of the Religious Services Ministry under Michael Malkieli of the Shas party, addressed the issue of women’s representation in a speech on Sunday, during a sendoff event in Jerusalem for the two ex-chief rabbis.

“The most serious breach we’re facing is the attempts to strong-arm the Rabbinate into appointing female rabbis against Halacha,” he said, adding that this would “destroy the Rabbinate as an institution” and that the ministry would resist this.

Director general of the Ministry of Religious Services, Yehuda Avidan, attends Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, on June 18, 2024. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jamming the succession process is a result of this perceived strong-arming, a source with inside knowledge of the Chief Rabbinate told The Times of Israel under the condition of anonymity.

The alleged coercion, the source said, came in a letter sent last month by the Attorney General’s Office warning the Chief Rabbinate to consider appointing women under the title of “rabbis” to the 150-member Chief Rabbi Election Assembly responsible for selecting chief rabbis.

“The Justice Ministry is trying to get the Chief Rabbinate to say women can be rabbis and is holding the chief rabbi races hostage,” he alleged. Due to this issue, “no electing council was convened. Because it wasn’t convened no chief rabbi can be elected,” the source added.

The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, right, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef and Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau pray during the Birkat HaKohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel on October 2, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Women rabbis?

In their letter to the chief rabbis, deputy attorneys general Carmit Yulis and Gil Limon noted a High Court of Justice ruling from January that said  women may also be considered “rabbis” for the purposes of the Chief Rabbi Election Assembly.

The justices ruled that in the context of the 1980 law that codifies the chief rabbi’s election process, the term “rabbi” applies not only to the recipients of that title from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate — which bestows it only on men — but also to individuals, including women, with knowledge of the Torah and Halacha, the Jewish legal code, comparable to that of the men.

The ruling stopped short of demanding that women be appointed to the Assembly as rabbis, insisting merely that they be “considered” for it. In their letter, the deputy attorneys general noted the Rabbinate’s stated refusal to even consider appointing women under the title of rabbi. It constitutes a violation of a court order, the justice ministry officials wrote.

Indeed, the Chief Rabbinate Council, a governing body of 10 rabbis that acts as an ultimate arbitration body in all Halacha and Rabbinate-related matters, on May 19 announced that considering women for a rabbinical title is “forbidden because it a recognition of the claim that women may serve in rabbinical functions, which contradicts the position of the rulers on Halacha.”

Israel’s Ashkenazi former chief rabbi David Lau, left, and Israel’s Sephardi former chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend a ceremony in Jerusalem, April 4, 2023. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Inherent majority

Beyond its principled stance on the definition of a rabbi, the Rabbinate has realpolitik reasons for opposing the appointment of people whom it does not consider rabbis to the Chief Rabbi Election Assembly, which is an ad-hoc body convened ahead of each voting session on rabbinical nominations.

The 1980 law states that 80 of the 150 delegates are rabbis: 10 are personal appointees of the chief rabbis and another 70 are municipal rabbis affiliated with the Chief Rabbinate. The 70 delegates who are not rabbis include mayors, lawmakers, cabinet ministers and other public representatives.

This law is engineered so that “the Chief Rabbinate has an inherent rabbinic majority in the Chief Rabbi Election Assembly,” said Tani Frank, the director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem-based thought and advocacy center dealing with Judaism in Israel and North America.

“That majority is jeopardized if people whom the Rabbinate does not consider rabbis get appointed at the expense of people who are considered rabbis by the Rabbinate,” he added.

The anonymous source said that the desire to preserve a rabbinical majority does not play a significant role in the dispute.

The chief rabbis, the source said, agreed in talks with the Justice Ministry to reduce the number of Assembly members by 10 people at the expense of the rabbis’ share, “down to 140, half rabbis and half non-rabbis,” the source said.

Alternatively, the rabbis agree to keep the number of delegates as is, but rename the category of 10 personal appointees to something other than “rabbis” — and then appoint women to the category, the source said.

“The only opposition is for a woman to be labeled a rabbi,” he added.

The 15 justices on the High Court attend a hearing on petitions against the government’s reasonableness law, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

However, even among the current non-rabbi members of the Chief Rabbi Election Assembly, women are usually vastly underrepresented, the anonymous source conceded. Previous Assemblies had only a handful of women in them. But the Rabbinate is willing to change that, he said.

“The chief rabbis are fine with appointing more women. But the Rabbinate will not call them rabbis,” the source said.


In their letter, the deputy attorneys general also noted a separate High Court of Justice injunction against the Rabbinate from May in connection with nepotism concerns in the appointment of regional rabbis, who have an important role in the election of a chief rabbi.

Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, was a member of an appointments committee that had considered two of his relatives for a nomination. Other candidates were related to Aryeh Deri, a leader of the Shas Sephardic movement whose spiritual leader is Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardic ex-chief rabbi.

Citing the ruling, the two justice ministry officials told the former chief rabbis that they were to neither participate in the elections themselves nor appoint delegates on their behalf, including the 10 personal appointees the law affords them.

The nepotism issue is “marginal,” according to the source.

“The chief rabbis are prepared to sit out the elections and waive the 10 personal appointees. That’s not what this is about,” he said.

The claim that the process is stuck solely because of female representation is likewise “unconvincing,” said Frank.

“There has been foot-dragging on this for months,” Frank said of the succession process. Even if the Attorney General Office’s letter explains the absence of a Chief Rabbi Election Assembly, he said, it does not explain why the Rabbinate had not even appointed a committee to convene the Assembly.

“It’s merely a convenient pretext,” Frank said of the women’s representation issue.

Tani Frank (Shalom Hartman Institute)

Internal politics

The real reason for the delay, Frank said, is that it’s politically expedient for Shas, the Haredi Sephardic movement and political party that is widely believed to be a major powerbroker in the appointment process of the Sephardic chief rabbi and many other Rabbinate-affiliated positions.

“You have two main candidates for the position of Sephardic chief rabbi, both of them close to Aryeh Deri,” the senior-most lawmaker of Shas, Frank said. One candidate is Deri’s brother, Yehuda, who is currently in the hospital due to a serious illness. Another is David Yosef, a brother of former Sephardic chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.

“I’m not sure Aryeh Deri is eager to play referee here. Much better for him to wait until things are clearer for him. I think that’s what we’re seeing,” Frank said.

Chief rabbis are elected to serve for 10 years. The Knesset last year extended by one year the terms of Yosef and Lau so the race wouldn’t interfere with the municipal elections. Religious Services Minister and Shas member Michael Malkieli had pushed for the postponement. The municipal elections were then also postponed and held in February due to the outbreak of war with Hamas on October 7.

Diminishing confidence

The delay in the chief rabbis’ elections is both paralyzing the Rabbinate and eroding the public’s already-diminishing confidence in it for petty politics, said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of ITIM, a nongovernmental Jerusalem-based advocacy group for reforming Israel’s religious bureaucracies.

“It’s a stain on the Jewish dimension of the State of Israel,” Farber told The Times of Israel, referencing both the delay and the alleged nepotism.

In a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute of over 600 Jewish respondents conducted last month, 54% said they neither accept the Chief Rabbinate as a religious or spiritual authority nor hold the identity of the next chief rabbis to be particularly important (55%).

At least six candidates are in the running for Ashkenazi chief rabbi, including Eliezer Igra, the senior-most rabbinical judge at the Great Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem, who took over some of Lau’s duties in that institution, and Kalman Ber, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Netanya, who has significant allies in both the Religious-Zionist contingent of his constituency and in the more isolationist spheres of Haredi society.

The late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef seen with his son Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef during a ceremony inaugurating the latter as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel at the at the Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem old city on September 16, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Haredi decentralization 

To Frank of the Hartman Institute, the politicking around the appointment of a chief rabbi is part of a broader process of decentralization of authority in Haredi society.

“There are plenty of candidates but no obviously preeminent ones of the caliber of Ovadia Yosef, for example,” said Frank, speaking of the late father and a predecessor of the previous chief Sephardi rabbi. The founder of Shas and one of the 20th century’s most highly regarded Halachic authorities, Ovadia Yosef died in 2013 without a successor capable of inspiring a similar level of reverence.

In the absence of such giants, nepotism and horse trading are alienating many Israelis, including Haredim, from the Chief Rabbinate and eroding its influence, Frank noted.

“But that doesn’t mean that rabbis have less authority in Haredi circles. It only means the authority is less centralized and more compartmentalized,” he said.

This may be bad news for the Rabbinate, he added, but in the long term, “it may actually lead to more openness, at least in some communities.”

Sam Sokol contributed to this report

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