At first, it seemed so simple. After 20 years of haredi domination of the
rabbinate, the new government had a chance to rehabilitate the “Rabbinocracy,”
curb its radicalization, and reconnect it to Israeli society.
There was a
good chance to elect a staunchly and proudly Zionist Ashkenazi chief rabbi, and
there were several excellent candidates for the high post.
There was even
a chance to elect a chief rabbi with real executive experience at making changes
and at revamping stultified rabbinic bureaucracies, who had a concrete and
realistic plan to do so, and who even had the support of major secular political
factions and many elements in Diaspora Jewry.
His name is Rabbi David
Stav, chairman of the bold, modern-Orthodox Tzohar rabbinical association. It
should have been a slam dunk. It still can be.
But alas, the Bayit Yehudi
party, which is the key player in the choice, seems to be bungling it. It has so
far failed to get behind Rabbi Stav. Instead, the party is succumbing to the
well-intentioned but misguided machinations of Rabbi Haim Druckman and other
(small “c”) conservative rabbis who want to re-engineer the election process in
order to select somebody else.
Unfortunately, it appears likely that all
the tinkering with the process is going to leave Bayit Yehudi, religious
Zionism, and the secular Zionist public high and dry. In its absurdly
complicated and incautious attempts to re-jigger the election process, Bayit
Yehudi is going to fail, I’m afraid, to elect its preferred candidate
(apparently, Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel), and instead see a haredi rabbi
You simply wouldn’t believe how unreasonably
complicated this race is getting. At the moment, there are tricky legislative
initiatives under way to raise the age limit for the post (to allow Rabbi Ariel
to stand for election), to cancel the one-term limit (to allow Sephardi Chief
Rabbi Amar to stand for reelection), to expand and recalibrate the electoral
body by adding women and more Knesset members (to dilute the power of
Shas-appointed rabbis), and more.
There is even a political deal cooking
to tie the election of the chief rabbis to the election of the next president of
the state. Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman is said to have offered
Bayit Yehudi his faction’s support for legislation that would smooth the way for
Rabbis Ariel and Amar – if Bayit Yehudi agrees to back Liberman’s favored
candidate for president (that is, David Levy) when Shimon Peres retires next
This is all going to backfire. Legislation tailored to boost a
specific person is always a bad idea, as a matter of principle.
know who will end up benefiting. Next thing you know, there will be a
legislative initiative to give the current chief rabbis, or a different 50-
year-old haredi candidate, the post for life.
And remember, even under
the current arrangement, the chief rabbis serve for 10 years, which means that
the current race is a one-in-three-Knesset terms, rare opportunity, to effect
In short, all this political wheeling and- dealing is making
a wreck of the rabbinate race.
I understand that Naftali Bennett and his
Bayit Yehudi colleagues are under tremendous pressure from conservative (or
“hardal”) rabbis within Religious Zionism to support a candidate that is less
liberal than Rabbi Stav. Bennett has a political debt to some of these
conservative rabbis (such as Druckman and Hebron and Kiryat Arba Chief Rabbi Dov
Lior), because, in the face of massive haredi criticism, they backed Bennett in
his decision to ally Bayit Yehudi with Yesh Atid. That political debt is now
coming home to roost. Bennett wants and needs to hold the conservative wing of
his electorate within the party, and Rabbi Ariel is certainly eminently
qualified for the post.
Nevertheless, Bennett is making a double mistake.
First, he is forsaking his real base of support – modern Orthodox, traditional
and even secular voters – by abandoning Rabbi Stav. And that’s because only
Rabbi Stav, of all the candidates for the post of chief rabbi, truly intends to,
and has the abilities to, bring about deep, long-lasting and much needed reforms
of the rabbinate bureaucracy (or my term, the “Rabbinocracy”).
abandonment of Rabbi Stav also flies in the face of Bayit Yehudi’s slogan
“Something New is Beginning” and the inclusiveness that was a hallmark of the
party’s political campaign. And as Diaspora affairs minister, Bennett should
know that Rabbi Stav is the right man to deal capably and swiftly with the
fractious issues of religious pluralism that lie ahead.
Second, as I
said, Bennett errs by monkeying with the electoral process because it’s going to
blow up in his face.
Haredi factions will enter by the back door and run
one of their own elder candidates, like former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, for
the post – and win. While Rabbi Lau is universally beloved, his reelection would
herald no real reform of the Rabbinocracy. He would make a better president of
Israel than a second term chief rabbi.
Need I remind Bennett that the
Chief Rabbinate and its satellite bureaus in municipalities, rabbinical courts
and kashrut agencies desperately need to be revamped? Need I remind him that we
need chief rabbis who will put on premium on synthesizing tradition with
modernity, and on efficient, user-friendly service, while neither compromising
Halacha nor insolently stonewalling secular Israel? Almost all Bayit Yehudi MKs
know that Rabbi Stav is the obvious, best choice for the post, and that he is
the most easily electable as well, without unsavory backroom deals or messy
legislative gimmicks. To them I say: Don’t blow this opportunity.
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