On Wednesday, July 24, Israel’s new chief rabbis were chosen. It’s a curious process, held every ten years, in which a board of 150 electors composed of Orthodox rabbis and lay people (mainly elected officials and functionaries), including a few (very few) women, horse-trade their way to the election of two men who are, at least in theory, the spiritual leaders of the nation. In practice, the office of chief rabbi has become the grand prize in a corrupt system of political spoils. Indeed, as his successor and that of his Sephardi colleague were being chosen, incumbent Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was already under house arrest on charges of bribery and corruption.
The competition this time was more bitter than it had been in years, and the scandals, unlikely alliances, and backroom deals made for great, if unedifying, political theater. When it was all over, the winners were both very familiar and fairly unknown: Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is the son of former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a towering figure in Israeli religious life who held the office from 1973 until 1983 and, as founder and leader of the powerful Shas Party, has been the de facto Sephardi chief rabbi ever since; Rabbi David Lau is the son of former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a decidedly lesser but nonetheless distinguished figure who held the office from 1993 until 2003. Both sons are men of some accomplishment, respected in their own political and religious circles, but neither one has been a key player in Israeli religious life, and, as I write, new revelations, allegations, and miscues (to which I shall return) are being reported about the younger Lau almost every day.
The biggest winners were the ultra-Orthodox haredim, who solidified their hold on an institution that, at least in the Ashkenazi case, they formally disdain even as they milk it for all it’s worth as a source of patronage and a vehicle for religious coercion. The obvious losers were the Religious Zionists, who, of all Israelis, most deeply believe in the rabbinate—so much so that they tore themselves apart over it, losing the best chance they have had in decades to regain control of the institution.
And how did the Israeli public do, and for that matter, Judaism? The election was held, after all, precisely at a moment when questions of religion and state have returned to the center of Israeli public discourse, from the issue of haredi participation in the military to the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage, divorce, and conversion to the question of how much ultra-Orthodox sensibilities should be accommodated with regard to women in the public sphere (or even public transportation).
So many candidates went up and down, came and went, that at times this summer it seemed like anything could happen—until it finally became clear that nothing, or rather the same thing, is exactly what would, in fact, happen.
On the Sephardi side, after a few months of electoral machinations, it became clear that as far as the Shas Party was concerned, the only question was which one of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s sons would inherit the seat their father had vacated nearly thirty years ago. One after another, however, they fell out of the running. Yaacov, the eldest, who was the most politically right-wing and the most remote from his father, passed away earlier this year. David, a close friend of Aryeh Deri, the chairman and chief demiurge of the Shas Party, blotted his copybook when, a year and a half ago, he penned an anonymous letter to a leading member of the Knesset decrying borderline-illegal attempts by the Shas Party to seize control of the country’s rabbinical administration city by city. This was done not out of civic duty, but apparently in order to keep his brother Yitzhak from becoming chief rabbi of Jerusalem, a job he himself coveted. Avraham Yosef, rabbi of Holon, emerged as a candidate, until journalists brought to light his questionable use of his office to promote a kashrut supervision organization headed by his brother Moshe. It was only a few days before the election that the family turned, reluctantly, to Yitzhak, who, as editor of his father’s voluminous halakhic writings, actually has the scholarly credentials that entitle him to claim the office. Against the last scion of the Yosef family who remained in the ring, the other Sephardi candidates didn’t stand a chance.
One caused a stir, though. Shmuel Eliyahu, rabbi of Safed, son of another former Sephardi chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu (1983-1993) and, like his father, a hard-right nationalist, was the candidate of Religious Zionism’s new Jewish Home Party (Bayit Yehudi), headed by Naftali Bennett. Eliyahu is a controversial figure. In 2005 he suggested that the appropriate way “to take revenge on” secular Israelis for the Gaza disengagement of that year was “to make their children religious, assault them, drive them crazy.” More recently, he has said that Jewish landlords ought not rent to Arabs, leading the attorney general to consider invalidating his candidacy on the grounds that he had violated the country’s incitement laws. Eliyahu’s near disqualification was far from the most surprising thing about his candidacy: that would have been his being on the same Religious Zionist slate as the Ashkenazi David Stav, chairman of a moderate rabbinic organization called Tzohar (literally, skylight), whose platform was as conciliatory as Eliyahu’s was divisive.
This was actually just the beginning of the divisiveness within the Religious Zionist camp. The “chardal” wing of the party, which combines sectarian Zionism with something like the anti-modernist worldview of the haredim, put forward yet another son of a former chief rabbi. In this case, it was Yaakov Shapira, the son of former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira (1983-1993) and the head of Mercaz Ha-Rav, the flagship yeshiva of Religious Zionism founded in the 1920s by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. On election day, Rabbis Shapira, Stav, and Eliyahu split the Religious Zionist vote and were trounced by their haredi rivals.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The chief rabbinate was established in 1921, in the early days of the British Mandate. For the British, it was a continuation of the Ottomans’ practice of appointing local clerics to keep religion friendly and manageable and to run things like marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For the Zionists, it would be yet another new institution of the nascent state. For Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, whose spirit still hovers over today’s debates, it was to be a means of modernizing Jewish law and leading the spiritual revolution that would be the ultimate fruit of the Jews’ secular nationalist revival. Rav Kook was a deep but ethereal thinker and lacked the political smarts and administrative acumen to enliven the institution. But after his death in 1935, a number of distinguished successors put the chief rabbinate on its feet.
For decades, the rabbinate served as the religious arm of the state, supervising kashrut, marriage, and divorce, and running a system of rabbinical courts, parallel to the state judicial system, which ruled according to Jewish law. It worked alongside other arms of the state charged with maintaining religious identity and practice—the Ministry of Religion, the Interior Ministry, and the local religious councils—through which state funds are distributed for synagogues, ritual baths, and the like. The haredim, who did not recognize the ultimate legitimacy of the state and regarded its rabbinate as a theological monstrosity, had parallel institutions of their own.
Yet, in recent decades a curious dynamic took hold. The rabbinate steadily passed into the hands of the haredim, who, while formally disdaining Zionism, came to relish the rabbinate’s opportunities for patronage, profits, and power. Meanwhile, the Religious Zionists focused their energies on the settlement of the West Bank and Gaza. By the mid-1990s it had become clear that the rabbinate had lost much of whatever touch it had ever had with the Israeli public.
In response, in 1995, a group of Religious Zionist rabbis created Tzohar. Their first major innovation was simply to insist upon meeting with and actually becoming acquainted with couples before marrying them (while refusing the customary bribes). In the ensuing years, Tzohar has continued to stake out the classic territory of Religious Zionism, promoting a moderate, modern traditionalism. They have urged the rabbinate to serve its constituency and represent the state rather than seeking to undermine it or simply milk it. In response, the rabbinate effectively shut down the marriage program, which was deemed ideologically deviant (and bad for business).
Beyond weddings, Tzohar has run user-friendly prayer services and sponsored public education programs. It has also urged openness to converts. In 2008, in a decision that still resonates, a State rabbinic court led by haredi Judge Rabbi Avraham Sherman annulled thousands of conversions. They had been presided over by Religious Zionist rabbis as part of an effort to integrate Russian immigrants into Israeli society. (Israel’s High Court of Justice affirmed the validity of the conversions in 2012.) In the face of such socially destructive, halakhically infamous, and deliberately provocative acts, Tzohar has continued to argue for moderate, piecemeal reform.
For decades the haredim have benefited from the fact that their singular priority—funding for the network of institutions that enable their self-enclosed lifestyle—was so narrow that they could negotiate their way into almost any government coalition. The installation of Yona Metzger as Ashkenazi chief rabbi in 2003 was a perfect expression of their cynicism and contempt for the institutions of the state: He was a rabbinic nonentity with questionable ethics, but he was an entirely reliable cutout. (Earlier in his career, Metzger had agreed to be disqualified from serving as a municipal rabbi in order to forestall disciplinary charges; when he was put up for chief rabbi, he argued that he’d never been disqualified from serving the whole country, which showed chutzpah even by Israeli standards.)
But after the Israeli general elections of 2013, the political covenant between Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett and the secular centrist Yair Lapid effectively excluded the haredi parties from power. It also put their young men in the sights of the army and their budgets on the chopping block. If they had lost the chief rabbinate too, it would have spelled big, big trouble. Luckily for them, the Religious Zionists were their own worst enemies.
Rabbi Stav and his colleagues in Tzohar see themselves as continuing Rav Kook’s teachings on tolerance and cooperation with secularists in their push for a more responsive and supple (if still firmly Orthodox) rabbinate. Stav and his cohort are by no means religious liberals, but they do understand the popular alienation from the rabbinate and seek to ameliorate it as best they can. But they are not the only ones who claim Kook’s mantle. Rabbi Zvi Tau, the éminence grise of the chardalim whose disdain for Stav goes back decades, has argued that while responsiveness and flexibility may be good for camp counselors or neighborhood rabbis, the chief rabbinate must hold the line against the encroachments of Western culture. In Tau’s dark and unsubtle interpretation of Rav Kook’s acutely dialectical worldview, religionists can work with secular Zionists only because the latter do not understand their own place in the unfolding messianic drama. “Secularists,” Tau has said, “have no future. All of their future reality will explode when the kingdom of Israel will arise.” Tau and others went to work, badmouthing Stav to anyone who would listen, above all Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his retinue in the Shas Party.
Rabbi Yosef, in turn, issued scathing attacks on Stav, at one point calling him “wicked.” This was the latest in a series of sad moments in the career of Rav Ovadia (as he is known), who is now ninety-two. Had he never entered politics he would have gone down in history as a staggeringly erudite, intellectually nimble, and compassionate halakhist. His refusal to ascribe redemptive significance to the State of Israel while at the same time declining to join his Ashkenazi haredi counterparts in condemning it as the devil’s handiwork also seemed to hold out the possibility of societal compromise. But this is not how things turned out.
In leading Shas, which is a Sephardi social movement and network of institutions as well as a political party, Rav Ovadia may have become the most powerful rabbi in Jewish history. He has also become the leader of a party with a well-deserved reputation for corruption. The emblematic figure here is Aryeh Deri, who recently returned to politics after serving twenty-two months in prison on bribery charges a decade ago. When asked about Rav Ovadia’s description of Stav, Deri helpfully explained that it wasn’t defamatory, it was just that Stav’s actions fit the halakhic criteria of “wickedness.” He should know. Machiavellian though he may be, nobody ever said Deri was dumb. And on election day, he proved his skill.
On the Ashkenazi side, the haredim were unified behind Rabbi David Lau. He had been successful as the rabbi of the mixed secular-religious town of Modi’in; he had the blessing of Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, a venerable rosh yeshiva (he is somewhere between ninety-nine and one hundred and one years old) who, since the passing last year of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, has emerged as the leader of the relatively moderate haredim (Lau also took care to solicit the blessing of even more hard-line haredi rabbinic figures such as Rav Chaim Kanievsky); and his father had been almost as reliable a proxy as Metzger while maintaining his dignity and the stature of the office.
As the election drew near, Prime Minister Netanyahu had close associates make calls to electors conveying the PM’s wishes to them: elect Yosef and Lau. Netanyahu favors the pliant, reliable haredim (whom he’d be glad to see back in the government) and seems to despise his former aide Bennett for empowering Lapid and outflanking him on the right. When the votes were in, the two haredi candidates had each received an identical number of votes, sixty-eight.
What happens next? The Religion Ministry remains a part of Naftali Bennett’s portfolio, and how a right-wing Religious Zionist (who backed the reform-minded Stav) and the haredim will manage to work together is anyone’s guess. Bennett and Tzipi Livni have together put forward new legislation that would restructure the rabbinate, with one chief rabbi instead of two, and separate the post of chief rabbi from chief rabbinical judge. This streamlining would probably eliminate some of the institution’s corruption, but the odds of its passing are slim.
Meanwhile, Rabbi David Lau has called, with a gingerly diffidence reminiscent of his father, for the integration of haredim into the army and the work force, while cautioning that “a coercive process is not the way.” But this was quickly overshadowed by a one-week trifecta of scandals following his election. First he was caught using the Israeli equivalent of the “N-word” while admonishing the young men of Modi’in to study Torah rather than watch basketball on television. Next, it was revealed that he had brought in illegal crib sheets the first time he tried to pass the State Rabbinic exam in 1993. (He was disqualified and passed the next year.) And then the real scandal hit.
The newspaper Ma’ariv has reported that in secret meetings with haredi decision-makers before the vote, Rabbi Lau agreed to submit all of his decisions regarding conversion to Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the same haredi rabbinic judge who had annulled thousands of conversions in 2008. Whether Lau turns out to be more like his predecessor Metzger or more like his father, any hopes that he would be the one who could effectively institute at least some of the reforms proposed by Stav and Tzohar are now dead.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef will likely try to maintain the status quo on most issues, while being willing to explore limited forms of haredi national service. Both will continue to oppose liberal religion in Israel, as well as the introduction of civil marriage and divorce, though they may try to make the religious court system more humane when it comes to agunot, wives whose husbands have abandoned them without giving them a get (halakhic divorce), which would allow them to remarry. Indeed, Rav Ovadia, in a reminder of his past glories, spoke movingly about the plight of agunot at the first gathering celebrating his son’s election.
Some are urging Rabbi Stav, Tzohar, and allied religious bodies to create their own alternative institutions. Other rabbinic moderates have urged friendly cooperation with the new chief rabbis, though that may be less likely now that Lau’s secret deal on conversion has been revealed. In truth, it’s a hard call. Stav’s very public campaign, while electorally unsuccessful, may have succeeded in getting many Israelis to consider the possibility that the rabbinate could be something other than the ecclesiastical version of the DMV (or Tammany Hall). On the other hand, more people than ever before, including figures in the Religious Zionist camp, are publicly musing about whether the country needs a chief rabbinate at all. Some have suggested the tactic of letting things go from bad to worse until the system implodes. Yet, as much as one might want to abolish the rabbinate outright—and then take a good shower—the institution still wields real power over people’s lives, and many of them, women and converts above all, are terribly vulnerable in the meantime.
Israeli society has only barely begun to have a serious conversation over what, if anything, the contemporary rabbinate is for. The rich church-state discourse with which Americans are familiar has no analog here. Roger Williams’ classic theological argument that the establishment of religion inevitably damages religion itself has, for all of Israel’s vaunted attachments to America, little purchase in Israel. And the American trade-off, by which religious intensity is lowered for the sake of civic peace, doesn’t sit well with Israeli intensities and primal identities. There is, as of yet, simply no civic language for arguing about the rabbinate, let alone a menu of policy options. What’s more, the country’s secular elites are still happy to consign the country’s religious life to the rabbinate, which conveniently excuses them from reckoning with the inescapably religious freight of Zionism.
Championed by one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, the chief rabbinate began as a noble dream, that we could institutionalize the sacred. In the end, Rav Kook and his intellectual heirs were tragically naïve about Judaism’s susceptibility to the corruptions of power. And that is a reality that only courage and a different kind of faith can undo.
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