Jewish Journal


May 19, 2013

Searching for Spirituality? The Race for Chief Rabbi Would Be the Wrong Place to Look



Shlomo Amar, one of Israel's two Chief Rabbis

This article appeared in a slightly different and shorter version in the IHT-NYT last Friday.

An Israeli Chief Rabbi is elected for a ten year term, but the two presiding rabbis – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic – completed their term three months ago (and counting). For them to step down, new chief rabbis have to be elected. For new rabbis to be elected, an "electing body" (a 150-member body consisting of mayors, heads of religious councils, rabbis, appointees of the chief rabbis, and of the minister of religious services) has to be agreed upon. For this to happen, a political deal is needed and a committee of five has to be appointed.

Welcome to Israel's process of electing its official rabbinical leadership. If you're searching for spirituality or for religiosity, you should go look someplace else. The election of Israel's Chief Rabbi(s) is one of the dirtiest political feats this country gets to have- not an easy competition to win.

The current rabbis, Sephardic Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Yonah Metzger, are still serving because at the time of their term's expiration the politicians were too busy with their general election and with forming a coalition to be dealing with the all-consuming business of electing the rabbis. But in recent weeks, and as the new election time is getting nearer (it is supposed to happen in two months, but don't look for a set date – the date will be determined when a political deal is finalized), the parties involved have barely had the time to do anything else. The religious parties – Haredi Sephardic Shas, Ashkenazi Haredi Yahadut Hatorah, Zionist religious Habayit Hayehudi – all have candidates (some of them more than one) for whom they are diligently working. That is so because the rabbinate, much more than a leadership of religious affairs, is a body with thousands of cushy jobs in which these parties are interested.

To get what they want, the parties are willing to go pretty far: the law says that a rabbi can't be more than 70 years old? – they want to change the law, since some of Habayit Hayehudi's operatives are canvassing for a 76 year-old rabbi, Yaacov Ariel (but not all of them. In fact, the leader of the party Naftali Bennet supports someone else). The law says that the rabbi only serves one term? – we can change that law too, if, in exchange for Ariel's appointment Amar will be elected for a second term, as some Shas operatives would like (but not all of them, it's not at all clear if the leader of the party truly wants this deal). The electoral body has too many ultra-Orthodox members and might not vote for rabbi David Stav, Bennet's favorite? – no problem, the body can be expanded to include more potential Stav voters.    

Stav is the supposedly "moderate" rabbi – moderate is a somewhat misleading term, though: Stav is a conventional Orthodox rabbi, moderate only compared to the other rabbis in the race - and that's the reason he is supposedly supported by secular parties. Or is he still? Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party will definitely stick with him. Yesh Atid's number two – Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron – is one of Stav's friends and staunchest supporters. However, last Monday it was reported that another secular party, the right-wing Israel Beiteinu, might be changing its mind and might dump Stav for Ariel. That is, if Habayit Hayehudi commit to supporting their candidate for President of Israel next year.

There's more maneuvering going on behind the scenes, but detailing it all would make your heads spin. It is a battle of old vs. new, Haredi vs. Zionist, strict vs. moderate, party vs. party, leader vs. leader. Some deals are no more than smoke screens for other deals, proposed legislation is far from guaranteed (Justice Minister Tzipi Livni can easily block it, and it's hard to imagine a majority in the Knesset supporting the Ariel-Amar deal), possible outcomes are many as the number of candidates keeps growing and new names are thrown into the mix every week. In Jerusalem similar political fights have been preventing the election of a new local chief rabbi for more than a decade.

There are those who believe that Chief Rabbi is a position with the power to change Israeli realities on matters such as marriage and conversion, but reality is more complicated. Even a moderate rabbi would be "hemmed in" by subordinates, by a "potentially resistant" counterpart, and by "conservative minded" opponents. Presiding over an outdated and unpopular institution, an often corrupt bureaucracy tasked with a mission alien to many Israelis, The Israeli chief rabbis have some power and good jobs, but, as one writer aptly remarked not long ago, "are hardly examples of religious clout, especially among Jews". Looking at the election process, this is hardly surprising.

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