Cabinet shows broad support for a single chief rabbi

Ministers back private legislation and advance a government-sponsored bill to unite two rabbinates into one

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem on November 04, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem on November 04, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

In a signal of the government’s intention to cut the number of chief rabbis from two to one, the cabinet’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Monday approved a private member’s bill that would end the existence of separate Sephardi and Ashkenazi heads for the state rabbinate.

There is no reason for two chief rabbis, according to one of the bill’s sponsors, MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid). “All rabbis today know the Jewish law from both [Sephardi and Ashkenazi] traditions. Everyone’s married to each other,” he told The Times of Israel.

“This is a very important step in the process of reunifying the polarized Jewish people,” Lipman added.

The bill, sponsored by Lipman and MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud), is not expected to advance into law in its current form. A similar, government-sponsored bill (Hebrew) has been posted on the Justice Ministry’s website for public reading and comment. A Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel Monday that the bill is expected to reach the Ministerial Committee in two weeks’ time, where it will receive the government’s imprimatur before advancing to the Knesset floor for the first of three readings required to become law.

The two bills will be united in the legislative stage, the Justice Ministry official said.

The vote approving the Lipman-Feiglin bill in the cabinet committee is thus a bellwether of the government’s intentions, suggesting that uniting of the rabbinic posts, which Lipman and others have been advocating for months, enjoys widespread support.

The government version of the bill also seeks to raise the qualifications required to serve in senior positions in the state Jewish religious courts. The government’s proposal would separate the courts from the rabbinate, with the state’s chief rabbi no longer serving as chief justice of Israel’s highest rabbinic court.

“In this proposal, the president of the High Rabbinic Court, and the deputy president, will be appointed from among the judges on the High Rabbinic Court itself, as is customary when selecting the chief justice and deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement last week dealing with the government’s bill.

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman sitting in the plenum hall of the Knesset during an introduction day for new parliament members, February 03, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Rabbi Dov Lipman sitting in the plenum hall of the Knesset during an introduction day for new parliament members, February 03, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The current situation, in which the president [of the High Rabbinic Court] holds a broader public post [as the state’s chief rabbi], does not meet the standard that 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 added.

The private bill won broad cabinet support on Monday. The government bill, meanwhile, is being advanced by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, who head the Hatnua and Jewish Home parties, respectively. Put together, the measure appears to have a preponderance of support within the government, and will likely enjoy an equal level of support in the opposition, especially among left-wing parties.

“Israel has one prime minister, one president, one Supreme Court chief justice, one [IDF] chief of staff — so it’s time it has one [chief] rabbi for one people,” Livni said in a joint statement with Bennett last week.

“Instead of the state preserving a formal, anachronistic ethnic separation” in religious matters, “it’s time for the State of Israel to have one chief rabbi who unites all the different walks of Israeli society.”

“This important step symbolizes the unity of the people,” said Bennett, noting that the IDF had one chief rabbi and that “Ashkenazim marry [those] Sephardi, Yemenite and every other tradition.”

“The appointment of one chief rabbi is one of those issues where the only question is, why hasn’t this happened already?”

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