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Israel at last to choose its next chief rabbis, probably

Arguably the most contentious and bitter rabbinical contest in Israel’s history is supposed to be resolved on Wednesday

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger (L) and Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, March 11, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger (L) and Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, March 11, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)

A small cadre of Israelis is set to elect two new chief rabbis — one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi — on Wednesday, and for many in this country’s fractured religious inner sphere, the vote cannot come soon enough.

No one can promise that the vote will be held on time, and even the details of the ballot are hazy. Ten candidates made their bids public, but one is having his candidacy challenged and another dropped out this week. There has been a wealth of dirty talk and a bit of talk about a revolution, and there has been no shortage of bribes, badmouthing and backstabbing.

If it sounds like the script from a reality show, that’s because the race for the two top state authorities on Orthodox Jewish life in Israel has been the bitterest, and most revealing, in this nation’s short history.

On the Ashkenazi side of the aisle, there are two front-runners in a race of three. Angling for control over the direction of all Jews of Eastern European descent, Rabbi David Stav, a professed free thinker with goals of pushing Israel’s rabbinate straight into the 21st century, is duking it out in the ring with the more conservative Rabbi David Lau, whose black hat and legacy connections to ultra-Orthodox rabbis make him a more traditional choice than the knitted-kippa wearing Stav.

Rabbi David Stav, June 20, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Rabbi David Stav, June 20, 2013. (photo credit: Flash 90)

Barring a major upset by Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, either Stav or Lau will fill the seat unceremoniously vacated by former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Rabbi Yona Metzger, who stepped down last month in the wake of a massive fraud investigation. Metzger, who has been accused of pocketing untold amounts of donor cash earmarked for NGOs, denies the allegations but nevertheless chose to take his exit early.

A fourth candidate, Rabbi Eliezer Igra, bowed out of the race on Monday evening, after realizing his chances of winning were too slim.

Metzger’s predecessor, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, is the father of Rabbi David Lau and was known for his ability to connect with both Haredi Jews and the Modern Orthodox. The junior Lau, who is currently the chief rabbi of the religiously diverse city of Modiin, has pledged the same sort of inclusiveness as his father. Stav, meanwhile, the current chief rabbi of Shoham, is being touted by the public as a modern man of God and a true beacon change.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, performing the ritual 'search for leavened bread' before the Passover holiday in 2009. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90).
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, performing the ritual ‘search for leavened bread’ before the Passover holiday in 2009. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90).

Stav is the co-founder and chairman of Tzohar, an organization committed to helping couples maneuver the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate’s complicated maze of requirements on the path to religious marriage. He serves as the spiritual leader of Ma’aleh, a Jerusalem film school with a religious bent, and his contemporary, moderate take on Jewish life has led to a vicious backlash from more conservative sectors of society. A group of youths attacked him at a wedding in June, and that same month Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef labeled him “wicked” and “dangerous to Judaism.”

While Stav has been embraced by many Israelis weary of the ultra-Orthodox’s strict, iron-clad grip on Judaism, Lau says that his opponent’s platform of change is not something that should be supported.

“I represent all kinds of groups, and he represents only a group of the national-religious, this is the difference,” Lau told The New York Times on Sunday in a rare interview. “You need to think about a rabbi who can speak with the other rabbis, not fight with them. To speak is better than to fight, I think.”

In the race for Sephardi chief rabbi, who represents all Jews in Israel of Middle Eastern origin, it is still unclear exactly which candidates are running to replace Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who did his very best, but failed, to finagle a new law that would allow him to stay on beyond his term’s 10-year limit.

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva and a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, called Modern Orthodox Jews "Amalek." (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva and a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, called Modern Orthodox Jews “Amalek.” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rabbis Eliyahu Abergil, Ratzon Arusi, Tzion Shalom Boaron, Yehuda Deri, Shmuel Eliyahu and Yitzhak Yosef all officially submitted their candidacy last week. Rabbi Eliyahu’s candidacy was okayed Monday by the Supreme Court following a challenge by Meretz MK Isawi Frej, who submitted a petition claiming the rabbi had incited violence against Arabs and made racist comments in the past. The court said there was not enough time to consider the allegations; Frej vowed to pursue the matter should the rabbi win the election.

Rabbi Yosef, who is the son of the aforementioned Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, scraped onto the official list thanks only to an eleventh-hour ruling by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate who extended his authorization to serve as a municipal rabbi, a shingle which all candidates must carry.

As if that weren’t complicated enough, Shas this week scrambled to run damage control on the comments of rabbinical council member Shalom Cohen, who last week referred to modern Orthodox Jews as “Amalek,” which according to the Bible is a vicious, genocidal nation that needs to be scorched off of the earth.

There is no guarantee that Wednesday’s elections, which have been rescheduled a number of times, will happen on time. But if they do, the committee — which comprises local rabbis, religious court judges, a sprinkling of Knesset members and only two women — is facing its greatest scrutiny ever, and a public that is ever skeptical that Israel even needs one chief rabbi, let alone two.

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