Reporter's Notebook

As ‘shameful’ rabbinate campaign ends, some look for seeds of victory in defeat

The process of choosing the chief rabbis was so unpleasant, say critics, that the imperative for reform may now prove overwhelming

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A rabbi casts his vote for the elections of the new chief rabbis of Israel, in Jerusalem on July 24, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A rabbi casts his vote for the elections of the new chief rabbis of Israel, in Jerusalem on July 24, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The campaign leading up to Wednesday’s dynastic election of Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau as Israel’s new chief rabbis was the most hard-fought and dirtiest in memory, with name-calling, horse-trading and alleged outright corruption.

In and around the Jerusalem hotel where 150 men and women (well, mostly men) gathered to cast their votes, surrounded by hundreds of mostly ultra-Orthodox spectators and journalists, it felt more like a meeting of the Likud Central Committee before primaries than a solemn process to determine which esteemed sages would serve at the helm of the Jewish state’s religious establishment for the next decade.

Many non-Haredi Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, will be disappointed not just by the process, but also by the results. They were rooting for Rabbi David Stav, an ostensibly more open-minded leader of the national-religious camp. Yet already it is being argued that both proponents of reform in the rabbinate, and also of religious pluralism in Israel, are better served by Lau than by Stav. The latter would have merely put a friendlier face on an organization that would remain, in principle, what it has been for years — a bloated bastion of ultra-Orthodox dominion over all other streams of Judaism in Israel. Lau’s victory, as Ashkenazi chief, by contrast, means no one can prettify what for the non-Orthodox and many of the modern Orthodox sectors is an anachronistic, Jewishly damaging institution.

“The election of the new chief rabbis brings an end to the shameful campaign that shows an unprecedented, low standing of this corrupt institution,” said the Reform movement’s Rabbi Uri Regev, the CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit advocating for religious pluralism. “The skullduggery, nepotism, and defamation that accompanied these elections prove that there are few government bodies that muster as much disdain towards Judaism and distances Jewish Israelis from their religion as the chief rabbinate.”

Rabbi David Lau at the elections for the two Chief Rabbis in Leonardo hotel in Jerusalem, July 24, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)
Rabbi David Lau at the elections for the two Chief Rabbis in Leonardo hotel in Jerusalem, July 24, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)

Expect the reactions of the major organizations of non-Orthodox American Jewry — some of which, unusually, issued public calls to support Stav’s candidacy — to be perhaps a bit more polite in tone but similar in content.

At the Leonardo Hotel as the votes were cast, there was a lot of cheek-kissing and back-patting, and small knots of men seeking a quiet corner to catch up, or perhaps discuss whom to vote for. The candidates walked around the hotel, smiling into the cameras, shaking lots of hands (and occasionally allowing youngsters to kiss them), and dancing in circles with their supporters signing songs of faith and victory.

“Purify our hearts so we can serve You truthfully,” one unsuccessful candidate sang with his followers.

“Thank you for voting for a responsible and united rabbinate,” read the text on flyers spread out on a table in the lobby. The flyer showed one of the outsider candidates, the ultra-Orthodox Yaakov Shapira, superimposed over an image of hundreds of yeshiva students sitting on their wooden benches.

Flyers on behalf of RAbbi Yaakov Shapira (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Flyers on behalf of Rabbi Yaakov Shapira (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI)

“It’s a shame and a disgrace,” said David Halamish, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Binyamina-Giv’at Ada, a town near Haifa, and one of the 150 electors — speaking before the results were announced. The process of the elections was as undignified as the long and ugly campaign that preceded it, he said. “Just look around you, great Torah sages standing around here as if they were poor people begging for donations.”

Halamish, like many other electors interviewed for this article, would not say who he chose. “It’s a tough election,” he said, then elaborated rabbinically: “Let’s assume I want to vote for Reuven, but I can’t because he has no chance of winning. So I am forced to vote for Shimon, not because I like Shimon but only because I don’t want Levi to win.”

“In the past this event was much more quiet and dignified,” a top rabbinate official said, asking not to be identified.

Sephardi chief rabbi pick Yitzhak Yosef (photo credit: image capture from YouTube)
Sephardi chief rabbi pick Yitzhak Yosef (photo credit: image capture from YouTube)

“I don’t agree with all those who say we need to abolish the rabbinate,” said Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg-Ikar, mustering a defense with a reference to the new royal baby in London. “Just this week we saw how the British stick to their ancient traditions, some of which we’d laugh about here. So we, too, need to preserve our well-established institutions. All candidates were appropriate and bring honor to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and it was very difficult for me to decide whom to vote for.”

Rabbi Yosef Karasik, one of the chosen 150, assured The Times of Israel that no one tried to bribe him. “The chief rabbi of Israel has amazing and unimaginable spiritual power,” asserted Karasik, a Chabad Hassid. “He has more influence on Jews in the Diaspora than any other person in the world. Does he need to be a great Torah scholar? No, but he needs to be able to talk to people like Riki Cohen from Hadera and bring them closer to Judaism.”

What powers do the chief rabbis actually have?

Most Israelis know the chief rabbis only as figureheads, representing Israel’s Jewish community at official events in Israel and abroad. In March, when US President Barack Obama landed at Ben Gurion Airport, the two outgoing chief rabbis, Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, were among the very first dignitaries to greet him on the tarmac, right behind the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the Knesset.

Maintaining their family dynasties, the two chief rabbis-elect — Yosef, the son of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, and Lau, the son of former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau — will serve as the heads of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Grand Court, respectively. By holding these positions, which they will trade after five years, they exert control over almost all official institutions that run organized religious life in Israel, including major life cycle events.

MK Yisrael Eichler about to cast his vote (photo credit: Raphael Ahren)
MK Yisrael Eichler about to cast his vote (photo credit: Raphael Ahren)

“It impacts agunot [women whose husbands refuse to divorce them]. It impacts kashrut. It impacts conversions. It has to do with the shmita year [during which observant farmers refrain from working the land] and therefore even the price of vegetables,” the secular Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked posted on  Facebook on Wednesday morning.

She also sought “divine assistance” for her party’s preferred candidates — Stav and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu. That they both lost handed the Haredi parties their first major victory since they were forced out of the government earlier this year.

Jewish Home chief and and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett has already tabled a proposal to have only one chief rabbi in the future, be he Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and it can be assumed that after Wednesday’s crushing defeat for his would-be chiefs, he will advance additional ways to make the system more acceptable to the national-religious camp (and parts of Diaspora Jewry).

As things stand under current law, the two chief rabbis are chosen by a so-called Electoral Assembly comprised of 150 members, 80 rabbis and 70 representatives of the public. The first group includes the rabbis of major Israeli cities, towns and regional councils, as well as 10 religious judges. The second group is made up of two government ministers, five MKs — Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism), Miri Regev and Gila Gamliel (Likud), Yoni Chetboun (Jewish Home) and Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) — and the mayors and heads of religious councils of Israel’s largest towns and regional councils.

Since the State of Israel granted the chief rabbinate a monopoly over religious issues, the chief rabbis actually wield control over critical issues such as kashrut, burials, conversions and the question of who is recognized as a Jew.

‘The position of the chief rabbi exercises very little if any moral and even religious influence over the country as a whole’

“But if the chief rabbi said, all of a sudden, that he wants to recognize religious pluralism and have Reform conversions recognized in Israel — individually, they don’t have the power to change that,” said Steven Beck, the director of Israeli-Diaspora relations at the Israel Religious Action Center, which is affiliated to the local Reform movement and demands the abolition of the Rabbinate. “They are the custodians of the monopoly.”

“Bureaucratically, they have enormous influence, because they control the system… responsibility over all aspects of personal status pertaining to Jews in Israel, and control over the senior appointments within that bureaucratic structure,” said Rabbi David Rosen, an honorary adviser to the chief rabbinate.

This system does not only affect Israelis, but all Jews across the globe, added Rosen, who is Orthodox. “The vast majority of Jews, even if they’re Conservative or Reform Jews, are overwhelmingly wrapped up with Israel in some way or another,” he said. “And because Israel gives exclusive control over personal status pertaining to Jews to the chief rabbinate, the chief rabbinate exercises a disproportionate global influence over matters pertaining to Jews around the world.”

On the other hand, the rabbinate and its leaders have very little “soft power” — no one, neither the Haredim, nor the national-religious public, is much impressed by its religious teachings and rulings. “The position of the chief rabbi exercises very little if any moral and even religious influence over the country as a whole,” Rosen said.

For those in the Diaspora who wanted Stav, the head of the Modern Orthodox Tzohar organization, to be elected because they hoped he would reform the rabbinate and make it more open, Rosen had a conciliatory message. Stav, if anything, would have made the institutional problem of religion and state in Israel even worse.

Rabbi David Stav greeting supporters before the polls closed (photo credit: Raphael Ahren)
Rabbi David Stav, left, greeting supporters before the polls closed (photo credit: Raphael Ahren)

“Anybody who is going to be in a position of an institutionalized party within Orthodoxy is going to be very careful not to do anything too far-reaching that would lead others to the right of him to raise questions about his own legitimacy,” Rosen said. Since Orthodoxy is the only game in town, the ability of any chief rabbi to change the system “is greatly limited,” he asserted. Even if Stav had been elected, he would have not brought any fundamental reforms — “certainly not regarding religious pluralism or anything relating to Diaspora Judaism.”

Sure, Stav had pledged to make the rabbinate more “user-friendly,” more accessible to Israelis who are not Orthodox. That would have raised the institution’s reputation at home and abroad, but the Orthodox monopoly over life cycle events and issues of personal status would have persisted, Rosen claimed.

“Those who want to see a radical change will probably argue that Rabbi Stav’s appointment would be counterproductive because it would make the institution look far more friendly than in fact it is,” he said. Or as Beck put it, “Change will not come just based on one person being slightly more moderate.”

What remains for those unhappy with the results is the hope that change comes from elsewhere. The fact that the four biggest parties in the Knesset (Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid, Labor and Jewish Home) as well as most of Diaspora Jewry wanted Stav but ended up with Lau and Yosef might actually propel more dramatic reforms to the Israeli Rabbinate than one individual — even if he’s liberal-minded — ever could.

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