Livni, Bennett call for one chief rabbi instead of two

Ministers vow to unite Sephardi, Ashkenazi chief rabbis into a single position, detach chief rabbinate from religious courts

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

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)

Following a long, cantankerous race for chief rabbi, two coalition partners promised to pass a reform of the institution, though a more modest one than many critics have called for.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the son of former chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and Rabbi David Lau, the son of former chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, were elected Wednesday to reprise their fathers’ respective roles.

In a letter to the chief rabbi candidates sent earlier this week, Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said they would advance a bill in the current Knesset to unite the two chief rabbi positions into a single overarching rabbinic post.

The bill has yet to be drafted, and spokespeople for the two ministers’ parties, Jewish Home and Hatnua, told The Times of Israel this week it may take months to write. There’s no hurry, as the new chief rabbis were elected to 10-year terms. If it passes, the law would only affect the next term, which would begin after the 2023 rabbinate election.

The bill is also seeks to improve the religious court system by removing the chief rabbi from the role of chief dayan, or religious jurist. According to existing rules, the two chief rabbis serve in that capacity in alternating five-year terms. The new bill would detach the chief rabbi post from the rabbinic courts and empower the jurists themselves to select a chief dayan from their own ranks.

The bill is an initiative of Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home), who served for 21 years as director-general of Israel’s rabbinic court system.

“The chief rabbi isn’t always a dayan,” explained an official of the Religious Affairs Ministry involved in the initiative. “A dayan has to know the material, the law.”

Besides, the official added, “the chief rabbi job is a busy one. He has to travel, give rulings on different issues.” The new structure would enable the chief rabbi to focus on the job, while giving the religious courts a more expert hand at the helm, the ministry believes.

The bill will likely fail to satisfy the demands of the rabbinate’s many critics, one of the most vocal of whom is Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

“An institution that was irrelevant beforehand to the lives and worldviews of many Israelis, will continue to be so for the next 10 years,” Lapid charged in a statement on Facebook on Thursday.

“Those who wish to use the services of the rabbinate are, of course, welcome to do so, but it’s inconceivable that there is no alternative. The time has come for civil unions that will offer a solution also for the LGBT community, for those who are not Jews, and for all the beautiful Israelis who simply want to marry without interference from the religious establishment,” Lapid said.

“This will be a dirty and probably prolonged political battle, but we will carry on the fight,” he promised.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of Hiddush, an organization that advocates the separation of religious institutions and the state, said on Thursday that “there are few government bodies that muster as much disdain toward Judaism and distances Jewish Israelis from their religion as the Chief Rabbinate.”

“Israel must return to the authentic Jewish tradition of supporting rabbis who operate by the virtue of voluntary acceptance of their authority and leadership by their communities, not by riding on coercive civil laws and political manipulation,” Regev insisted.

Earlier this month, Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer revealed that a large majority of Israelis believe their state religious institutions to be profoundly corrupt.

Seventy-three percent of Israelis said the country’s religious institutions were either “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt,” putting Israel in 3rd place among 107 countries surveyed in terms of the public perception of corruption in religious institutions. Only Sudan (79%) and Japan (74%) had higher figures.

The survey also asked respondents how corrupt they believed the institutions to be on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is “not at all corrupt” and 5 is “extremely corrupt.” Israel’s religious institutions scored 4.1, tied with Sudan and Japan for first place.

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