It would be an understatement to say that the current election campaign for the Chief Rabbinate, which concludes on Wednesday with the election itself, has left many people with a bitter taste.

The public has witnessed unseemly political wrangling, ugly intra-factional warfare, morally questionable campaign tactics and vitriol so vicious that it is creating societal divisions.

It would seem that the brutal nature of this election campaign reflects the larger struggle in Israel over the Jewish character of the state, and who gets to control and define it.

Entirely absent, however, is any discussion among the combatants as to the place of religion in Israel, since all are totally wedded to the principle of an established, Orthodox synagogue which determines exactly how religious life and life-cycle events should be conducted.

The struggle has also revealed political and ideological fault lines within some of the different factions competing for the prize.

The first major battle waged during this campaign was in the national-religious community. The candidate who set his stall out very early, Rabbi David Stav, was the epicenter of the controversy.

Stav, as chairman of the independent Tzohar rabbinical association, has worked toward creating a more user-friendly process for marriage registration, advocated for a general overhaul of the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate and its regional subdivisions, and proposed various ideas to resolve some of the more knotty issues facing Judaism in Israel.

But his drive for change and a more tolerant approach was bitterly opposed by conservative elements in the national-religious community, with the Yeshivat Har Hamor hierarchy in particular blamed for the rancorous arguments over who Bayit Yehudi would endorse as the official national-religious candidate.

In this conflict, the battle lines were clearly drawn between the more moderate, centrist stream of the national-religious movement – led by Stav, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of Yeshivat Hesder Petah Tikva and others – against the hardline “Hardal,” or Zionistharedi, branch led by Rabbis Tzvi Tau and Yehoshua Zukerman of Har Hamor, Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba/Hebron, and Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed of Yeshivat Beit El.

Rabbi Benny Lau of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, who is of the more moderate national religious stream, explained the ideological conflict well last month. Lau compared a recent speech by Zukerman, in which he referred to the Chief Rabbinate as “a tower of spiritual light for the nation” and described it as an institution to set the rules and framework for religious life, to Tzohar’s own program of reforms set out by Stav last year.

Stav’s program, explained Lau, set out to be more attuned and attentive to the needs of the public and to be “a faithful servant to the Jewish people.” Zukerman, however, referred to Tzohar’s program as “a humiliation of the Chief Rabbinate” and a “descent to the level of the public and its interests, and the abandonment of the role of true and courageous spiritual leadership incumbent on a rabbi.”

It seems that one ideology wants to address the people’s needs, while the other wants to define and regulate the public’s religious life and how it is lived from above. Significantly, Stav prevailed largely because efforts at finding another candidate foundered.

For Shas, the internal battle for party endorsement has further revealed political divisions within the movement, but the series of venomous attacks against Bayit Yehudi and Stav have also highlighted the intense frustration that the party and its rabbinic leaders in particular are feeling about their inability to shape events at present, as well as the concern over losing its powers of patronage.

Having been left out of the government, Shas now finds its school budgets and curriculum under serious threat; its yeshiva students facing possible conscription; the Religious Services Ministry, a former Shas fiefdom, in the hands of Bayit Yehudi; and, to top it all, it is in serious danger of losing control of the Chief Rabbinate.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, stung by the betrayal of Shas chairman Arye Deri, who torpedoed legislation designed to allow Amar to run for reelection, has defiantly backed and promoted his own candidate, the moderately inclined Rabbi Tzion Boaron.

It would have once been almost unthinkable that anyone would defy Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and back an independent candidate against Yosef’s candidate, his son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.

But this is what Amar has done, and he does not appear to be backing down. Aside from Amar’s renegade behavior, significant numbers on the electoral committee for the chief rabbis’ authority, including Shas associates, appear ready to back Boaron.

The fact that the vote is conducted by secret ballot makes their actions less risky.

The struggle over who can wield political control over religious life is really what is at stake here, and Shas sees this power ebbing away from it at the moment – a feeling which has clearly upset, frightened and disconcerted those at the top of its chain of command.

As for the Ashkenazi haredim, their road to designating a candidate was thoroughly uneventful compared to Shas and Bayit Yehudi.

The senior Ashkenazi haredi rabbinic leadership has opted for Rabbi David Lau, chief municipal rabbi of Modi’in, as a safe pair of hands into which to entrust the rabbinate.

Lau has promised to be a chief rabbi for all sectors of Israeli society and has touted his credentials as the rabbi of a modern, largely non-religious city while at the same time being acceptable to the haredi leadership allowing him to maintain the haredi community’s minimal respect for and trust in the chief rabbinate.

However, he is unlikely to see the institution and its services as in need of serious reform, thus his appeal for Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the leading Ashkenazi haredi rabbi, who gave him his public backing and that of the Ashkenazi haredi political machine.

And this, too, is a method for maintaining control of the political power to determine the nature of Judaism in Israel.

A haredi MK said recently that although the haredi community does not often utilize the Chief Rabbinate, preferring to avail itself of the services of private haredi rabbinical courts and rabbis for its religious needs, it is nevertheless important to maintain the “minimal standards” for the general public that have been provided thus far by the Chief Rabbinate.

Again, this reflects a desire to be the tower of spiritual guidance for the public, as opposed to the servant who wishes to serve the population for its spiritual and religious needs.

Meanwhile, even Stav cannot claim to, at heart, represent the entire public. He is opposed to equal recognition of non- Orthodox streams by the state, civil marriage and civil unions, and, although committed to creating a better service for the public, also committed to the nexus of religion and state exemplified by the Chief Rabbinate.

He argues that the institution and the principle of an established synagogue, imperfect as it is, is the only way of preserving the unity of the Jewish people around unified practices of marriage, divorce and conversion – thereby averting the irrevocable rupture between social groups and the nation as a whole that such a split would bring in its wake.

It may be that his approach of revamping the Chief Rabbinate, so as to make it relevant, approachable and fit for the purpose, could still be effective at this stage. But societal divisions along religious lines are deepening all the time, and antipathy between secular and religious society is growing – especially in the wake of increasing haredi extremism and self-imposed isolation.

At the same time, non-Orthodox groups are increasingly clamoring for equal recognition for their denominations, and state recognition for their marriages, divorces and conversions, as well as an equal share in the state-funded boondoggle for the provision of religious services.

Sadly, most of today’s candidates for the Chief Rabbinate seem either blissfully unaware of the problems facing Judaism and the Jewish people in the Jewish state, unwilling to acknowledge that any problems exist, or simply unwilling to grasp the nettle and tackle some of the most acute issues regarding the place of religion in the state.

Regardless of who is triumphant on Wednesday, religious strains in the country will continue to be harshly felt in the coming years.

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