A bill to abolish the twin positions of Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis passed its first hearing in the Knesset Monday evening after several weeks of delays, setting it on the path to eventual passage onto the statue book.
The two positions have existed since the founding of the state, but Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, along with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, proposed legislation earlier this year that would combine the positions into a single religious figurehead.
The legislation, if it passes, would take effect in 2023, when the terms of the current chief rabbis ends.
As well as abolishing the positions, the bill would separate the rabbinic courts from the Chief Rabbinate and have the president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court selected from acting rabbinical court judges, similar to how Supreme Court presidents are chosen.
Currently, one of the two chief rabbis serves as the head of the Supreme Rabbinical Court and the other serves as chairman of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, with the two trading posts after five years.
The Chief Rabbinate has publicly opposed the bill, saying it would harm religious services and Judaism, and argued that there is no overlap in the duties and responsibilities of the two positions.
Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who advanced a precursor bill to the government legislation approved on Monday along with MK Moshe Feiglin, welcomed the bill’s approval, saying it would help unite the Jewish people.
“I am honored to have been one of the sponsors of this law,” Lipman said. “Polarization begins from the top and this important change will demonstrate in the clearest of terms that we are one people. The time has come for the Sephardi- Ashkenazi divide to be put to rest once and for all, along with all the other divisions within our society.”
However, haredi MKs criticized the bill, and claimed it was part of a broader attack against the religious establishment.
Shas chairman MK Arye Deri said the same MKs who backed the bill would also vote to disband the chief rabbinate and argued that the bill was political revenge on behalf of Bayit Yehudi for having lost to the haredi parties in the elections for the chief rabbis last year, when two haredi rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, were elected.
Ben-Dahan rebutted the arguments of the haredi MKs, saying that the bill would strengthen the Jewish people and that the creation of two chief rabbi positions was a result of the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel.
“When the State of Israel will have existed for 75 years there will be no reason at all for having two chief rabbis,” he said during the debate.
“You are deceiving the public,” Ben-Dahan told the haredi MKs. “The tasks of the chief rabbis is to issue rulings in Jewish law pertaining to the public, and in this there is no difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim.”