Struggle over candidacy for chief rabbi heats up

Election will be conducted by panel in secret ballot; national-religious community seek rabbi of their own after ten-year freeze.

Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate 300 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate 300
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
With the terms of the two serving chief rabbis, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sefardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar rapidly drawing to a close, the competition within the national-religious community to be acknowledged as the sector’s consensus candidate is becoming increasingly fraught.
The election will be conducted by a 150-member panel in a secret ballot in June, and many in the national-religious world are eager that a rabbi from their community be appointed to at least one of the two positions, having been frozen out of the chief rabbinate during the last 10- year term.
Despite this, there is as yet no consensus candidate from within the national religious community.
Last Thursday, a group of around 30 leading conservative national religious rabbis convened a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the issue of candidacy. A vote was taken in which Rabbi Eliezer Igra, a rabbinical judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court, was selected as the preferred candidate.
The conference and vote was however, hotly opposed by more liberal streams within the national religious community.
The Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization appealed to the Attorney-General’s Office to prevent dozens of municipal rabbis and state rabbinical judges from attending the event and voting, claiming that their participation would constitute political activity, which is forbidden by law for state employees.
The appeal, filed on behalf of NTA by attorney Aviad Hacohen, was accepted by the Attorney-General’s Office, and the state-employed rabbis did not participate in the end, leading to a relatively low turnout of approximately 30 rabbis.
A broader concern was that the conference organizers and the rabbis invited to attend were in the majority associated with the more conservative haredi wing of the nationalreligious community, and that Igra’s selection was therefore an automatic outcome of the vote.
Supporters of Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association who has declared his candidacy for the position of chief rabbi, accused the haredi nationalreligious leadership of backing Igra as part of a broader struggle for control over the national religious community.
The haredi national-religious leadership is more explicitly political in its outlook, and strongly wedded to the settlement movement and the hard right of Israeli politics. It is also, generally speaking, more religiously conservative than the mainstream national religious community.
Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, dean of the prestigious Merkaz Harav yeshiva, is a third national-religious candidate, also from the conservative stream of the national religious community.
Crucially, Bayit Yehudi has set up an internal committee, headed by MK Rabbi Eli Ben- Dahan, to decide which candidate the party will support, and will most likely make a decision after a coalition government has been formed.
Political backing will be vital for any candidate since the religious services minister designates 20 members of the 150-member selection committee for the chief rabbinical positions.
Whichever party controls the ministry will therefore have a strong influence on the outcome of the election. Bayit Yehudi leaders have stated that the religious services ministry is one of their requests within the current coalition negotiations.
The struggle between the national religious candidates is for legitimacy in the eyes of their public and the political leadership as the consensus candidate who can most likely succeed in the election.
Stav is widely hated by the haredi sector for Tzohar’s various activities, perceived as having undermined the haredi establishment. His opponents are therefore insisting that he is ineligible by the selection committee, which has a significant haredi contingent.
Shapira is seen as more acceptable to the haredi leadership than Stav.
The goal behind last Thursday’s conference was to broadcast support for Igra, assisted by the appearance at the event of leading hardal rabbis Dov Lior, the Kiryat Arba municipal rabbi; Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the Ramat Gan municipal rabbi (who reportedly did not participate in the vote); Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, dean of the conservative Har Hamor yeshiva; and the municipal rabbi of the Eli settlement and dean of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, among others.
Despite this show of strength, Stav has the strongest backing among Bayit Yehudi voters. A poll conducted in January of the party’s supporters found that 59 percent support Stav, with 26% in favor of Shapira and 15% preferring Igra.
Last week, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, dean of the Har Etzion yeshiva in the Alon Shvut settlement and one of the leading mainstream national religious rabbi, publicly recommended Stav’s candidacy to Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennet.