Thursday, July 25, 2013

Israel Elects Two New Chief Rabbis - More of the Same

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."
Rabbi David Lau and RabbiYitzhak Yosef
After a hotly contested election, 150 electors in Israel chose two new Chief Rabbis yesterday, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, both Ultra-Orthodox ("Haredim"). During the course of the campaign, leading up to this vote, some Israelis had been optimistic that Israel might elect more moderate, Zionist, Chief Rabbis, like Rabbi David Stav. Rabbi Stav was supported by the Yeish Atid and Bayit Yehudi parties and promised a variety of institutional and substantive changes.

However, when the dust cleared and the results were announced, it became clear that this was a significant defeat for the forces of change in Israel's Chief Rabbinate. The elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, is the son of former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau (the subject of my recent book review). Newly elected Rabbi Lau is an ultra-religious Rabbi who was serving in Modin. The elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ultra-religious Yitzhak Yosef, is the son of powerful, well known Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Neither rabbi can be considered a progressive force in any significant way.

Over the course of the campaign, the outgoing Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was placed under house arrest on suspicion of bribery. Another candidate dropped out of the race on suspicion of fraud. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, father of the winning Sephardi candidate, made several outrageous statements over the course of the campaign, questioning the Jewishness of some of the more Zionist candidates. The strategy may have paid off as Rabbi Yosef's son wound up winning the Sephardi race, proving that even in a race for a religious office, mudslinging can be an effective political strategy.

The two chief rabbis were elected for a combined 10 year term during which they will hold one of two offices for five years each. They will have a major say and significant control over many personal status matters in Israel including marriage, divorce, conversions, kosher food in Israel, and other religious issues. These two winners are unlikely to bring about any major reforms or changes to these isues in Israel according to several commentators.

For some, Rabbi David Stav, a challenger for the Ashkenazi position, a more moderate candidate, and one who was supported by two of Israel's centrist political parties, seemed to provide some hope that Israel would begin to take a different approach to some religious issues. However, his defeat shattered any ideas that the office of the Chief Rabbinate would be ready for significant internal reform.

But perhaps this may have been a blessing in disguise. Since a clear message was delivered that no internal reform is likely to occur anytime soon, there may be increased support for a political approach to the problem of unchecked, abused power exercised by the office of the Chief Rabbinate. Commentators and newspapers in Israel, as well as various advocacy organizations, have called for a move towards the separation of shul and state - or at least towards a significant reduction in the powers of the chief rabbis. The election of a moderate Chief Rabbi might have diffused some of these calls. But instead, with the election of two Haredi rabbis, Israelis may become increasingly vociferous in their calls for a new approach to the issue of religion and the state.

Naftali Bennett, a cabinet minister and the head of the Bayit Hayehudi party has already stated that it is the political parties who can determine the need for change to the office of the Chief Rabbinate and not only the elected rabbis. He can certainly find support for these views from Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party.

|So it may well turn out the by electing two very conservative chief rabbis, the delegate group may have accelerated the demand for changes to the Chief Rabbi's office, to be carried out by Israel's political parties rather than the rabbis themselves. Given the alternatives, this could only be a tremendous step in the right direction for Israel for those who favour a more progressive approach to Judaism. But it will be a tough battle to try to move this type of change forward, even for those who currently hold significant political power in the Israeli parliament - the Knesset.


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