Elections for the Chief Rabbinate: Democratic processes, voting bodies and judicious choices

No Orthodox rabbi will cross the boundaries of halachic constraints in his decisions, but there is always room for change within those boundaries.

July 15, 2013 23:45
THE RAV delivers the first Talmud class at Stern College for Women.

Rabbi yeshiva seminar (black and white) 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In 1995, I contended successfully for the position of head of Emunah, Israel.

However, strangely enough, just becoming a candidate was harder than running for the position.

The catch was that one had to get the signatures of a fixed number of those on the voting body to be able to run, while the bylaws allowed signing for only one candidate. The thought of getting more than the minimum number needed never entered my Anglo mind, but opposition supporters turned, in record time, to the entire voting body, most of whom could not refuse a face-to-face request from someone they knew. They signed and the result was not enough free signators left for anyone else to enter the race.

I discovered that there was a precedent, that former chief rabbi Israel Lau’s supporters did the same when he intended to run for that position, but were persuaded to use only the number of signatures required to leave room for other contenders.

In my case, the election committee changed the rules to allow people to sign for more than one candidate, realizing that the original bylaw was inherently anti-democratic.

Requiring the signatures of a fixed number of voting body members in order to run for an office is meant to prevent people who are totally unsuited from entering their names. It is not meant to show the electoral strength of a candidate – and, in my case, it worked quite the other way.

In the current race for the Chief Rabbinate, it seems history is repeating itself as far as signatures are concerned. According to reports in the media, one candidate’s supporters attempted to garner signatures of much of the voting body, who are only allowed to sign for one person. In response, the election committee announced that it will invalidate signatures beyond a certain number.

I would like to suggest a change aimed at those eager activists who do not quite understand the democratic process and do not realize that the signatures are not intended to eliminate all opposition. In any election, voting body members should always be allowed to sign for more than one candidate, so that it is clear that their signature does not reflect their vote, which is supposed to remain secret if they wish it to.

MEMBERS OF a voting body should also not feel obligated to vote for the choice of whoever placed them on that body, let alone need his approval to sign a form allowing a candidate to contend. The members of a voting body are meant to be chosen because it is believed that they are capable of making a responsible choice from among the candidates, not to be a rubber stamp.

Otherwise, why have elections at all? Just take those who have the power to put people on the voting body, have them vote, multiply by a factor proportional to the number of people they could have placed on the voting body and avoid the whole campaign.

Luckily for the democratic process, it seems many people do tend to think for themselves once they are on a voting body, and as the ballots are secret, can opt for an objective choice that reflects their priorities.

And one of the main factors being discussed in the coming election for chief rabbis is that of reaching out to all sectors of the nation and effecting improvements in religious services for the public.

Rabbi David Stav has received enormous amounts of coverage and is well known to the Israeli public, while it seems not to be public knowledge that Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, the other serious religious Zionist candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi – who has limited himself to a modest PR budget – has two sons, both of whom serve in the IDF.

He is the respected head of the flagship religious Zionist yeshiva that is the source of large numbers of IDF officers, community rabbis, public servants and yeshiva deans – and this central Merkaz Harav Kook Yeshiva has always turned to the non-observant sectors in Israel with acceptance and openness, since the days of its founder and namesake who traveled throughout Israel to bring a message of love to its early pioneers.

THE CHIEF Rabbinate, in the yeshiva’s credo, is an idealistic as well as a public servant’s position, an integral part of the Jewish state and essential to promote Jewish unity. In fact, Rabbi Stav himself is a product of Merkaz Harav.

What is more important for the functioning of the Chief Rabbinate is that Rabbi Shapiro, whose warm personality and sense of humor are said to be reminiscent of his late father chief rabbi Avraham Shapira, is a much-respected man of stature in theTorah world and not only among religious Zionists – and he is unquestionably a true Zionist – but also in Ashkenazi and Sephardi haredi (ultra- Orthodox) rabbinic circles, for his high level of Torah knowledge.

He is therefore, in all probability, the candidate with the best (or only) chance of bringing all the sectors in this complex country to respect the Chief Rabbinate as they should. And measures he plans to take to make that institution more welcoming to the secular public and to further streamline its courts have a chance of being accepted instead of being fought tooth and nail – or rejected – by rabbinic groups.

A sizable group of mainstream, dedicated religious Zionist rabbis do not support Rabbi Stav’s candidacy. These rabbis desire improvements, and they are not extremists, but resent that Rabbi Stav built his reputation through blanket criticism of the system of which they are a hard-working part, while giving the impression that he has quick solutions for all the problems that the secular have with halachic Judaism. (Haredi media – unfortunately and reprehensibly – have vilified him personally.) Those Zionist rabbis have a point. Realistically, campaign promises aside, couples who are denied marriage for real halachic reasons will continue to be denied. And there is no use promising easy conversion when converts whose conversions are not accepted in the modern-Orthodox world are a no-brainer, so that beyond promoting the religious Zionist conversion courts of Rabbi Haim Druckman, already recognized by religious Zionists, there is no revolution on the horizon.

Anyway, the number of those wishing to convert is minimal and has always been minimal no matter what the prerequisites are (this writer has years of experience in running a youth village with hundreds of Russian students that had a welcoming Ne’eman committee conversion program).

The truth is that we have hundreds of thousands of non-Jews in Israel, who are happy the way they are and have the right to be, no matter how much of a time bomb the situation is. We brought them here without making conversion a criterion.

Working within an existing system is not easy, as any organizational psychologist will agree, and someone who has aroused antagonism on the part of the people with whom he has to work on a daily basis, whether or not it is justified, will have a hard time effecting change.

Good relations with the Sephardi chief rabbi are crucial but last week, at a rabbinic conference in Nahariya attended by the Zionist and haredi rabbis of Israel’s cities, a shouting match took place beween Rabbi Stav and Sephardi contender Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who questioned Tzohar’s statistics, with the former accusing the latter of lying. The conference was adjourned forthwith. This does not bode well for working together, and suggests that Rabbi Shapira is a more judicious choice for practical reasons as well.

No Orthodox rabbi will cross the boundaries of halachic constraints in his decisions, but there is always room for change within those boundaries, for example, room to see to it that women know that everything is being done to help them in divorce proceedings. That, too, can only take place with the cooperation of the Sephardi chief rabbi, the rabbinic court judges and the rabbis in the field and when led by a person whose Torah stature is unassailable. It is important to bear that in mind when looking at the candidates for the Chief Rabbinate.

The writer made aliya from the US in 1971, is former chairwoman of Emunah Israel, CEO of Kfar Hanoar Hadati and member of the Zebulun Valley Authority and Central Committee of the NRP. Now retired, she is volunteer op-ed editor of israelnationalnews.com.

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