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Posted on on July 29th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (

In Israel, the election of two new Orthodox Chief Rabbis has exposed a situation that reminds us of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi Muslim Brotherhood.

The new Chief Rabbis are the sons of previous Chief Rabbis: Yitzhak Yosef the son of Ovadia Yosef from the Sephardi Orthodox Community and David Lau the son of Yisrael Lau from the Ashkenazi Orthodox Community.

They were elected by a vote of 147 of 150 eligible electors–politicians, rabbinate officials, and appointees–casting ballots at the Leonardo Hotel in Jerusalem. The results were released Sunday July 28, 2013. The electors, that included Rabbis, mayors and a sprincle of public figures, showed a majority of Ultra-Orthodox party membership with some even more extreme boycotting them while moderate Orthodox being outvoted. Conservative or Reform Jews, don’t even mention the secular Israelis, having had no part in this. But these two elected Rabbis will rule on marriage and death of Israelis.

Modern-Orthodox backed without success Lau’s chief opponent – the religious Zionist reformer Rabbi David Stav. It is the Ultra-Orthodox political parties that won in these elections. Stav had also the backing of a group of secular Jews who wish to see the chief rabbinate once again become a positive force for Jewish identity and affiliation. While Lau’s chief opponent, Rabbi David Stav, was backed by 4 of 5 parties in the government coalition, Lau garnered the tacit support of Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose family is close to Lau and his father. Lau’s election marks a bitter defeat for Stav and his many supporters across Israel, who hoped to revamp the chief rabbinate. Nonetheless, Stav’s insurgent candidacy–which few credited as serious early on – helped push the ultra-Orthodox establishment to back Lau who compared to other opponents can be viewed as centrist. Whether that will be enough for those clamoring for rabbinate reform–or whether legislation to strip the institution of some of its authority will soon follow–remains to be seen.

On the Sephardi side – Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef once he obtained his father’s endorsement–after his brother, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, dropped out of the running due to ethical concerns – his victory was not much in doubt. Indeed, out of deference to Yosef father, three Sephardi candidates dropped out of the race over the last few days. Thus, while the other Ashkenazi and Sephardi candidates were lobbying electors at the Leonardo Hotel until the polls closed, Yitzhak Yosef reportedly abstained and told the press he’d see them at his victory party.

Yosef’s election reasserts the dominance of his father within the Sephardi religious and political establishment. But it will also doubtless come as a relief to many Israelis and diaspora Jews, who were gravely concerned by the candidacy of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu. Eliyahu is on record prohibiting Jews from renting to Arabs, and advocating other troubling views. Israel’s attorney general had stated that he would not defend Eliyahu in the event his election was challenged in the courts. With Yosef’s election, these worries can be put to rest.

Unlike other countries where “chief rabbi” is mainly an honorary title and the “chief” primarily serves a ceremonial role, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (and its satellite bureaus in municipalities, rabbinical courts and kashrut agencies) is a powerful governmental agency with thousands of employees that has a dramatic impact on the lives of every Jewish man and women in Israel, from birth to death.

Issues such as Jewish status, conversion, marriage, divorce, burial and more are all legally regulated by the Rabbinate.

Moreover, decisions of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate have enormous impact on the Jewish status, legitimacy, and affiliation with Israel of Jews around the world.

Unfortunately, over the past 20 years the increasingly haredi-dominated Rabbinate has misused its powers, applying extreme stringencies in matters of personal status and conversion, creating many bureaucratic obstacles to practicing Judaism in Israel, and fostering deep resentment within both religious and secular society and among Jews around the world.

In fact, the chief rabbinate has evolved into a force that is deeply contrary to the inclusive Zionist spirit it once embodied. All Jews – Left and Right, religious and secular, settler and suburban – pay the price. The Rabbinate bureaucracy, or “Rabbinocracy,” must be rehabilitated, its mandate redefined, and its radicalization curbed.

For Israel’s first 40 years, rabbis of the Religious Zionist (or Modern Orthodox) community dominated the Rabbinate apparatus, and used it both to advance Shabbat and kashrut observation in Israel’s public sphere, and to bridge the cultural gaps between religious and secular Israelis.

In general rabbis and religious court judges were moderate and welcoming in their approach and demeanor. They were part of, not aloof from, the Zionist ethos of the country, serving in the Israeli army and living side-by-side with their “congregants.”

But in the 1990s, the political Left handed the keys to Israel’s Jewish character to the Ultra-Orthodox, in order to purchase haredi support for the Oslo process and the disengagement. Haredi rabbis began a slow but inexorable conquest of city rabbinates, religious courts, conversion courts, municipal religious councils, kashrut agencies and more, turning the Rabbinate into a hostile, contrary, backwards force that created more problems than it solved.

This stringency causes today that one fifth of Israeli couples marry abroad. That’s 10,000 couples. If the chief rabbinate doesn’t clean up its act, researchers estimate that within a decade the number of couples marrying outside the Rabbinate and in places like Cyprus, will jump 40 percent.

This brings Israel to the current crossroads: The ideological approaches to the unity of the Jewish People of the new chief rabbis (Ashkenazi and Sephardic) will play a major role in determining the fortunes of Judaism as a creed, as a practice, and as a national identity for coming generations. Their success or failure in repairing and revitalizing the “Rabbinocracy” will save or doom that institution, as well – and this while the political level keeps talking about Israel as a Jewish State whereas its Rabbinate destroys the unity from the inside.

Non-Orthodox communities in the US – representing most American Jews – expressed a clear lack of support for any of the candidates. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told the Haaretz newspaper: “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.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz this week: “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.”

The two new chief Rabbis met today with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told them, “You are the rabbis of all the people of Israel. You are the rabbis of all the non-religious public who need your help, your patience and tolerance.”

This last comment causes us to look at the issue of the Chief Rabbis of Israel – the fact that the Prime Minister who backed them had also to remind them that they are as well the Rabbis of people that do not think like them or look like them. This while negotiations with the Palestinians involve the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State – Jewish in whose image? are these Rabbis going to behave like the Muslim Brotherhood and see in their position the right to superimpose themselves on every body else?

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