This past Wednesday, July 24, 2013 Israel’s long and bitterly fought race to elect the next chief rabbis ended with the election Rabbi David Lau, 47 as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, 61 as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi. The next afternoon, Thursday, July 25, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the new elected religious officials. The campaign was not only a battle to hold the top religious posts in Israel, but was a battle between ideological issues, the old stalwarts holding onto power and newer liberal religious views that are becoming the norm in the diaspora and are increasingly becoming popular and invading Israel’s religious leadership hegemony.
The winners of the election where Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who heads of the Hazon Ovadia Yeshiva and Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, who serves as the rabbi of Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut. Lau at 47 is the youngest chief rabbi ever elected. Both rabbis represent the second generation in the position, as both their fathers previously held the posts. Yosef’s father is the political party Shas’s spiritual leader and founder, Ovadia Yosef. Lau’s father is Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who currently serves as Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi.
The two elected chief rabbis met Prime Minister Netanyahu on Thursday afternoon; Rabbi Lau was accompanied by his father. Netanyahu sent well wishes to Rabbi Yosef’s father Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who could not attend.
At the start of the meeting, Netanyahu congrataulated them and said that they have to be the religious leaders for Israeli Jews from the observant to non-observant; “I have chosen to give you my blessings in your new important positions, with one thing, the verse from the book of Vayikra, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ You are the rabbis of the Nation of Israel – but first and foremost, you are the rabbis of the non-religious public, which needs you, your help, your patience, your knowledge, your erudition and your tolerance. Do good unto the Nation of Israel – I am sure you will. I want to congratulate you from the depth of my heart, with all of my heart… We all drink from the same well. Really, I think there is a great opportunity here to do somnething important for the unity of Israel and the love of Israel.” Netanyahu then invited both rabbis to attend the torah study circle he hosts, which is named after his late father-in-law Shmuel Ben-Artzi.
Rabbi Lau told the Prime Minister that he intends to help those that are poor the most saying; “The ones who are doing OK in life, perhaps they do not need us as much.” While Rabbi Yosef said that the relationship between man and g-d and the one between men is as important because the laws regarding those relationships were both given on the same tablets on Mt. Sinai; those relationships are intertwined.
The campaign was an ideological and political battle for Israel’s religious direction between the Haredi ultra-Orthodox and Shas and United Torah parties and religious Zionism and Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi. It is considered the bitterest campaign for chief rabbi, focusing more on mudslinging and insults rather than any concrete positions on the issues or solutions for the problems and unrest.
Six rabbis remained in the race at the time of the election. After the deadline to declare candidacy the week before there were ten rabbis campaigning for the two positions. There were six candidates running for Sephardic Chief Rabbi; Yitzhak Yosef, Yehuda Deri, Shmuel Eliyahu, Zion Boaron, Eliyahu Abergel and Ratzon Arusi. There four candidates running for the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi; David Stav, Eliezer Igra, Yaakov Shapira and David Lau. Chief Rabbis remain in their positions for one ten year term.
The two candidates who won had received the support of the leading rabbinical establishment in Israel, the haredi, ultra-Orthodox. Yosef had the support of his father, although he had originally wanted another son of his Rabbi Avraham Yosef to run for the position; however he was recently embroiled in a police investigation for breach of trust. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef also endorsed Rabbi Lau saying; “I love Rabbi David Lau as much as my sons.”
Rabbi Lau also had the support of Netanyahu, a friend of both Lau and his father, who had been advocating for his candidacy and had pressured politicians that were electors to vote for Lau. Additionally the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox’s Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman supported his candidacy. Rabbi Shteinman and the ultra-Orthodox had a deal to deliver the vote to the haredi candidates. The haredi political parties being left of the government coalition wanted to ensure that they would keep both chief rabbi positions under their control.
The religious Zionist candidates promised to reform the rabbinate were endorsed by political parties; Bennett and Bayit Yehudi, Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, and Yisrael Beiteinu. The Knesset factions primarily supported Rabbi Stav’s bid in an effort to take the chief rabbinate out of the hands of the haredi, hoping that would lead to more leniency in some religious laws and tolerance towards Israel’s more liberal and secular Jews. Rabbi Stav is a liberal religious Zionist and the chairman of the Tzohar movement, an extra rabbinical organization that reaches out to secular Jews, which the haredi objects to and feels their authority threatened by the organization.
The voting was held at Jerusalem’s Leonardo Hotel, with 150 representative electors as the decision makers, consisting of 80 rabbis from different religious councils and the 70 remainder where from the government at all levels, local and the Knesset, only 10 of the electors were women appointed by Bennett and from the Religious Affairs Ministry. The majority of the electors were haredi and would obviously vote for the ultra-Orthodox supported candidates.
The voting took three hours and electors had to remain at the hotel until all the votes were counted. If there would have been a tie they would have had to vote a second time. Most of the candidates were at the hotel trying to campaign down to wire.
Outside there was protests over Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu remaining in the running, he has made in the past racist and homophobic comments, and his remarks telling Jews not to rent or sell property to Arabs prompted the Attorney General to launch a criminal investigation. The public has been objecting to his remaining in the race. There was petition to Israel’s Supreme Court to bar his candidacy however, on July 22 the court ruled in Eliyahu’s favor.
A total of 147 votes were cast for each post. For the Ashkenazic post, Lau received 68 votes, in second place was Rabbi David Stav of Shoham and chairman of the Tzohar movement with 54 votes, in third was Ya’acov Shapira, head of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva with 25 votes, both Rabbis Eliyahu Abergel and Eliezer Igra had dropped out of the race.
The results of the Sephardic post were; Yosef received 68 votes, Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed with 49, and Zion Boaron, a rabbinical court judge on the High Rabbinical Court, with 28 votes. Ratzon Arusi, rabbi of Kiryat Ono withdrew from the race prior to the voting beginning.
After being announced as the next Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Yosef promised to be “the chief rabbi for all of Israel, whether they are haredi, religious, or secular.” He also visited the Kotel to pray. Afterwards Yosef and his father held a press conference at their home where the newly elected chief rabbi promised “the power to be lenient.”
Rabbi Lau also spoke to the press after his win, promising; “As I have stated throughout the last few months, I am everyone’s rabbi – I do not belong to one sector or another, but to all of Israel.” Lau also stated “in my 17 years in Modi’in and two years in Shoham, I succeeded in creating a rabbinate that was a pleasant and welcoming center for Judaism” Lau continuing said he wants to replicate that model through the country, to “create a pleasant society which appreciates Judaism and is interested in studying Judaism. A society whose members know how to respect each other.” Lau concluded his remarks saying; “Let’s know how to be good friends with one another and hopefully we can achieve this.”
Netanyahu called both victors to congratulate them and he told them; “This is the time to work to unite the people of Israel, and to increase the love of Israel.” Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett also phoned to congratulate the rabbis despite the fact that he had endorsed the religious Zionists who lost the race.
Although Bennett did not make a comment, Deputy Religions Minister, Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan also from Bayit Yehudi issued a statement admitting the party’s failure; “As a member of the Bayit Yehudi I am certainly disappointed that we failed in the mission to at least have one rabbi from the religious Zionist camp elected. We put in the maximal effort possible but regrettably, it failed.” He also wanted the secular public “to understand that the importance of the institution of the Rabbinate is much more important than the chief rabbis.”
Rabbi Stav, the religious Zionist responded to his defeat that he hoped the newly elected rabbis will “merit to make significant changes to the rabbinate so that it will reflect a renewed commitment to the needs of all the people of Israel… We will continue to work to unite the Jewish people of Israel and throughout the world through commitment to halacha and love for all Jews and do everything possible to prevent further division and disharmony.”
Rabbi Stav was supported by American Jews, including the Modern Orthodox and the Rabbinical Council of America, (RCA) the largest Orthodox rabbinical organization in the U.S. who had defended Stav when he was attacked during the campaign by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Modern Orthodox Jews were disappointed with the election results. Rabbi Shalom Baum the Vice President of the RCA responded to results stating; “The Rabbinate can become the gentle, inviting voice that reminds Israelis, observant and not, of the central role that Jewish faith and practice plays in that amazing story.”
Non-Orthodox denominations however, that represent the majority of American Jews did not support any of the candidates and dismissed the whole institution of chief rabbis saying it should be abolished. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism told the press; “I believe that the issue here is the rabbinate itself and not whoever heads it.
The rabbinate, as an institution, has exhausted its function. I believe it has become a narrow expression of religious coercion in Israel and it is time to abolish it and renegotiate the relations between Judaism and the Jewish state.” While Rabbi Rick Jacobs the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a more liberal denomination commented: “I believe the rabbinate should not exist. This institution has a negative impact on Judaism, on the manner the community understands Judaism, and on the State of Israel.”
In Israel the results prompted similar sentiments, liberal members of the Knesset either called for end of the chief rabbinate completely or the end the election of two rabbis for the position. Hatnua leader and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said for the next election the positions need to be amalgamated in one rabbi for all Israelis. She will be introducing legislation with Bennett that there should be one chief rabbi, and one rabbi that seves as the President of the High Rabinnical Court. At this time the two chief rabbis rotate the positions five years each.
MK Moshe Feiglin of Likud stated; “The division between the different communities in Israel is the result of some 2,000 years of exile, in which the Jewish People kept their Torah and faith in an amazing fashion. But now, when the Jewish People have returned to their land, our goal is to act to unite the people and return the Torah to its glory so there will not be two Torahs.”
The results of the election might have been a victory for the status quo, but the campaign demonstrated that there is a growing unrest and discontent to the haredi hold on religious leadership. In order for the institution to continue on as it has, both the newly elected chief rabbis will have to show they are more inclusive to all Israeli Jews from the ultra-Orthodox to the secular.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.