Borderline views: The shame of the elections for chief rabbi

The political power struggles among the religious factions have often led to the incumbent being chosen from among the moderate haredi elements.

July 8, 2013 23:18
Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate

Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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It has always been questionable whether Israel required a chief rabbinate. It has never represented more than a small section of the population – the majority of secular Israel have no desire for such an institution, while the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population – the most rapidly growing sector of the country’s Jewish population – do not recognize its authority.

And since the political power struggles among the religious factions have often led to the incumbent being chosen from among the moderate haredi elements, even the religious Zionists have not always accorded it the esteem such an institution merits.

And yet, as the past few months have shown, the position is fought over with great intensity, not only by the religious Zionist and Orthodox factions, but also by the main political parties. This is due to the fact that the chief rabbis wield significant power as heads of the major rabbinical courts, and in determining state policy with regard to such critical matters as conversion, marriage, kashrut, and a host of other matters governing the way in which Judaism is defined and practiced in the public sphere.

But even those who believe that the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis have a role to play are left with little faith in this institution following the political infighting and backstabbing of the past year, in the lead-up to the elections. Even in terms of political struggles, the events of the past year have been dirtier, more prolonged and nothing short of a disgrace.

To put it in its simplest religious terms, the fight to determine who will be Israel’s next set of chief rabbis has been nothing short of a “chilul Hashem” – a desecration of God’s name.

It has become impossible to really know who supports who, and for what reasons. Since the coming to power of the new government, the religious parties have made deals with each other, then gone behind each others’ backs only to make new deals, changed their minds, introduced new candidates, attempted to influence the political composition of the election council and, if nothing else, have once again proved the old saying of British Lord Hailsham: “The introduction of religion to politics is the end of honest politics, while the introduction of politics to religion is the prostitution of religion.”

Most Israelis do not recall the venerable rabbis who occupied this position in the early years of the state. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog was esteemed and appreciated by the population at large for his attempts to bridge the world of religion and secular statehood, and to introduce many of the public practices governing religious behavior in the public domain.

His predecessor, in pre-state days, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook is, to this day, revered as an ultra-Orthodox, but strongly pro-Zionist chief rabbi of Palestine, whose attempts to incorporate the entire Jewish population of Palestine is far removed from the narrow minded and segregationist tendencies of those who speak in his name today.

Following the death of Herzog, chief rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman carried on in the best tradition of representing religion not only to the Israeli public but to the outside world as a whole.

Within the Sephardi world, rabbis Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak Nissim paralleled the work of their Ashkenazi counterparts. It was never an easy job, perceived by many as being the imposition of religion upon a majority secular population, but it worked, thanks in no small part to an understanding by these venerable holders of the post of chief rabbi as to the nature of the state in which they lived.

The position started going downhill from the 1970s onwards. Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef were responsible for feuds between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sectors. Due in no small way to their direct intervention, the Religious Councils became places for “jobs for the boys,” affiliated with each of them respectively. While their respective religious scholarship and achievements were undisputed, both Goren and Yosef set the seeds of the intense and bitter political infighting which has become the trademark of the contemporary Chief Rabbinate.

The following pair of chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, toned down the internal rivalries, but turned the Chief Rabbinate in another political direction.

They openly supported the hardline right-wing political positions of Gush Emunim and the West Bank settlement movement, thus causing an additional schism within the institution which should appeal to as broad a public as possible, and definitely should not take up political positions with which only certain sectors of the population identify.

The most notable holder of the position during the past 20 years has been chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau who, unlike so many of his predecessors, is an eloquent speaker, on both the Israeli and the international circuits. Now returned to his previous position of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Lau – were it not for his age – would have been a popular figure to be the first chief rabbi to occupy the position for a second term of office.

The fact that his son, Rabbi David Lau, is seen as one of the leading candidates for the position is, in no small way, due to the name recognition given to the position by his father.

Almost a year ago it seemed as though a real revolution could take place as the name of Rabbi David Stav, the rabbi of Shoham and one of the founders of the religious moderate Tzohar Rabbis Movement, was touted as the favored candidate.

His outreach approach, his understanding that the position of chief rabbi is as much, if not more, aimed at the non- Orthodox population (who anyway have their own rabbis to turn to when they have questions and problems) was seen as a welcome breath of fresh air to this troubled and increasingly insular institution.

Enter the religious politicians. Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett keeps chopping and changing, if only because his own party is split from within. Arye Deri of Shas is back to what he does best: wheeling and dealing behind everybody’s backs and informing everyone that it is all in the name of the real power broker, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

And now, with the early departure of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, surely one of the most inept holders of this position, power has passed to his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is able to nominate no fewer than 10 members of the selection committee. Amar surely regrets that the political deal aimed at changing the law to enable him to stay on in the position of chief rabbi after his 10-year term comes to an end did not succeed in gaining the necessary political support.

What has been going on is nothing short of a disgrace. If there ever was a public institution which has become totally discredited in the eyes of the people it is meant to serve, it is surely the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Many are rightly asking: if this the depth to which this institution has sunk, is it perhaps time to seek an alternative mechanism by which religion can be organized in the State of Israel? The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.

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