Huge drama surrounded the final few hours before the deadline for candidates to submit their candidacy for the twin positions of Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Jerusalem with two notable figures throwing their hats in the ring at the last moment.
The highly controversial chief municipal rabbi of Safed and senior figure in the conservative wing of the national-religious movement Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu submitted his candidacy shortly before the deadline at midnight for the Sephardi position.
And Rabbi Moshe Haim Lau, brother of current national Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, submitted his candidacy for the Ashkenazi position. Following Moshe Haim’s decision to run, Chief Rabbi David Lau announced that he would be recusing himself from all deliberations and processes relating to the election.
Additionally, Rabbi Yehuda Deri, chief municipal rabbi of Be’ersheba and brother of Shas chairman MK Arye Deri also submitted his candidacy for the Sephardi position.
Parallel with these developments, serious legal concerns regarding the qualification of leading candidate for the Ashkenazi position Rabbi Arye Stern severely complicated his bid to gain election to the post.
The election is scheduled for October 21.
Rabbi Arye Stern, a leading figure and highly respected rabbinic authority, has long been the approved candidate for the national-religious community in Jerusalem and for the national-religious Bayit Yehudi party, but his qualification to serve as a chief municipal rabbi was obtained through oral not written examination by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate in 2009.
The practice of giving such qualifications without the candidate passing written exams was suspended however by the High Court of Justice in December 2012 following a petition by the national-religious lobbying group Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah which claimed that such ordination is open to nepotism and has been used to bestow lucrative positions on those with connections to the rabbinate.
NTA says that hundreds of rabbis were awarded qualification to serve as a municipal chief rabbi by the chief rabbinate in this way.
In order to avert a final ruling by the High Court, the Chief Rabbinate promised to all but end such ordination in January 2014, as reported by The Jerusalem Post
Because Stern’s qualification to serve as city rabbi was obtained in this way however, his candidacy has been challenged on the basis that it was not earned in a manner which is currently legally acceptable.
On Monday, deputy attorney general Erez Kaminitz sent a letter to Chief Rabbi David Lau, who serves as President of the 16-man Council of the Chief Rabbinate in which he said the council “must deliberate and reach a decision regarding Rabbi Arye Stern, and if he is ‘a great Torah scholar,’ in accordance with the guidelines.
Rabbis who received their qualification to serve as chief municipal rabbis by oral examination were described as “a great Torah scholar” thereby allowing them to bypass the written exams.
The deputy attorney general said that the hearing must be conducted no later than Sunday, October 12, since the elections are scheduled for October 21. Since the Council of the Chief Rabbinate is not scheduled to convene until next month, Kaminitz said Lau could call the 16 members by phone in order to ask them individually whether or not they will ratify Stern’s qualification to serve as chief municipal rabbi.
In a separate letter to Lau, the deputy attorney general said that its legal opinion was that the qualification to serve as a chief municipal rabbi Stern received in 2009 merely requires a form of renewal and that the rabbi does not need to gain such qualification from scratch.
A source close to the chief rabbinate told The Jerusalem Post said that a telephone poll of the rabbis of the chief rabbinate’s council was complicated and that he believed several rabbis would refuse to deliberate such an issue by phone.
Further complicating the issue however was Chief Rabbi David Lau’s decision to recuse himself from the proceedings because of the candidacy of his brother Moshe Haim.
It is almost certain that current council member, former national Ashkenazi chief rabbi and current chief municipal rabbi of Tel Aviv Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau will be disqualified from the decision making process on Stern’s qualification since he is the father of Moshe Haim.
It is unclear now who will conduct the telephone poll of the members of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate in accordance with instructions of the deputy attorney general.
One possibility is the director of the office of the chief rabbinate Elhanan Glatt, a Bayit Yehudi loyalist.
The chief rabbinate source noted in addition that there are several rabbis on the council who do not favor Stern’s candidacy either. Amongst his possible opponents on the panel are Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Chief Rabbi of Holon Rabbis Avraham Yosef, both of whom are sons of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was the spiritual leader of the Shas movement.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is thought to have opposed Stern’s candidacy, even in return for mutual support for Yitzhak Yosef, who was expected to be a candidate for the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem before he was elected to be national Sephardi chief rabbi. Stern, however, maintains that Ovadia Yosef had not opposed his candidacy and has said the Yosef even wrote approbations for his works on Jewish law.
Rabbis Avraham and Yitzhak Yosef could be prevented from voting on Stern’s qualification however since their brother in law Rabbi Mordechai Toledano is a candidate for the position of Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.
Stern has been accepted as an official candidate for the position but failure to ratify his qualification to serve as a municipal chief rabbi would disqualify him from the race.
Another surprise that was sprung late Tuesday night was Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s entry into the race for the Sephardi position.
Eliyahu has long been rumored to be interested in the job and has a personal relationship with Barkat. The rabbi has however a long record of controversial comments, particularly in reference to Israel’s Arab minority, which have generated intense opposition from equality and governance organizations.
In 2006, Eliyahu was indicted on grounds of racial incitement for comments he made to the media in 2002 and 2004, but the charges were dropped in return for which the rabbi apologized for his comments, and pledged not make similar statements in the future.
According to one source, Eliyahu came to an arrangement with Shas chairman MK Arye Deri and received his support for the position of Sephardi chief rabbi, although this claim has not yet been verified.
The entry of Deri’s brother Yehuda Deri also complicates the picture although haredi website Kikar Hashabbat reported that his candidacy was not coordinated with Shas and would not get the party’s backing.
Because of the severe complications surrounding Stern’s candidacy, Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, dean of the Merkaz Harav national-religious yeshiva submitted his candidacy for the Ashkenazi position in order to provide Bayit Yehudi with a national-religious option should Stern’s candidacy fail.
The other prominent candidate for the Ashkenazi position is the haredi rabbi of Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger.
On Monday, former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar officially submitted his candidacy for Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, representing a new twist in the struggle for political influence in the haredi and religious Sephardi sector and his long-running feud with Arye Deri.
Shas has not publicly endorsed any candidate. Rabbi David Yosef, who serves as a member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages and is also a son of Ovadia Yosef, was Shas’ most likely candidate but he and the party decided not to go ahead with his candidacy, likely because of the political strength of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Bayit Yehudi over the race which combined could overcome Shas’ patronage.
Amar was considered the strongest candidate for the Sephardi position until Eliyahu submitted his candidacy, but since Eliyahu is from the national-religious community and enjoys support from the national-religious Bayit Yehudi party, including close relationships with Deputy Minister of Religious Services Eli Ben-Dahan and Barkat, his bid for the position cannot be taken lightly.