Chief Rabbinate Electoral Machinations

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The sleazy political machinations surrounding the impending elections for the Chief Rabbinate are shameful.

There is today a unique opportunity for ending the excessive influence exerted over the nation by ultra-Orthodox groups. This extends beyond the emotional issues of haredim serving in the army and becoming gainfully employed rather than subsisting on state welfare. It relates to the debilitating polarization between various religious and secular sectors of society which impact adversely on Israeli attitudes toward religion and Jewish heritage.

In this arena, the Chief Rabbinate could make a constructive contribution, uniting the nation, promoting Jewish values and strengthening the shaky Israel Diaspora relationship. A Chief Rabbi also has a strategic platform from which he can interpret halachic procedures evolved under Diaspora conditions to blend with the requirements of a modern industrial Jewish state.

The early Chief Rabbis, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, were passionately Zionist and sought to deal with contemporary issues relating to the new State. They integrated Jewish national holidays such as Independence Day within the religious calendar and composed special prayers for the welfare of the state and the IDF. The nation as a whole also regarded them as moral leaders.

But alas, over recent decades with the political decline of the national religious party and the rise of the ultra-orthodox political groups, haredim effectively hijacked the Chief Rabbinate – an institution which they had always regarded with utter contempt. They appointed rabbis, who even if not actually anti-Zionist were willing to unconditionally accept their directives on religious issues. More recently they selected truly mediocre puppets. That Chief Rabbi Metzger, in opposing conscription of haredim, could state: “When Yeshiva attendance is low, as on holiday evenings or prior to the Sabbath, more IDF soldiers are injured and killed”, exemplifies the primitive depths to which the Chief Rabbinate has sunk and which shames us all.

Elections for a new Chief Rabbi are scheduled to take place in the forthcoming weeks. For the first time in many years an eminently suitable Ashkenazi national religious candidate has emerged. Rabbi David Stav, 52, is an excellent communicator, a graduate of the prestigious Yeshivat Merkaz Harav and a Talmud Chacham. Steeped in Torah and Derech Eretz (worldly knowledge) he co-founded and is chairman of Tzohar, the Zionist Israeli rabbinical organization which provides religious services for all sectors of the population. An ardent Zionist, he served in a combat unit in the IDF and his eldest son is a paratrooper commander.

Rabbi Stav states that his primary goal, if appointed as Chief Rabbi, will be to infuse the Rabbinate and the Jewish world with the Zionist ethos which prevailed before the ultra-orthodox takeover.

Without compromising halacha, he will seek to synthesize Jewish values with modernity and promote a friendly rabbinate, along the lines of Tzohar whose mandate is to reach out and make Judaism more accessible to all Israelis – from religious to secular. He believes that example rather than coercion is the means to attract the non-observant to a vibrant Judaism.

He also recognizes the need to strengthen Israel Diaspora relations.

He is determined to adopt a more compassionate and national religious approach to the issues of conversion and marriage, where the currently excessively stringent and mindlessly bureaucratic restrictions encourage increasing numbers of non-observant Israelis to marry abroad in civil ceremonies.

Rabbi Stav would introduce prenuptial agreements and decentralize rabbinical control, enabling Israelis to select the rabbis of their choice to conduct their ritual lifecycle requirements. He also proposes to rationalize the Kashrut certification in the food industry which would dramatically lower the soaring prices for kosher supervision.

Stav’s nomination has been endorsed by leading national religious personalities including the rabbinical doyen of religious Zionism, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva.

Not surprisingly, his candidacy is bitterly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanians and hard right wing elements from within the national religious camp who also regard him as being too liberal. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas who admitted never having met Stav, defamed him as an “evil man…dangerous to Judaism, the Torah and the rabbinate”.

Stav’s opponents are pulling out all stops to neutralize him. Despite the fact that the Chief Rabbinate is currently derided and regarded with contempt by the vast majority of Israelis, they claim that his election will split the religious community.

They are now promoting the candidacy of Rabbi David Lau, the son of former Chief Rabbi Israel Lau as purportedly “everybody’s Rabbi”, able to cater for and unite all strands of religious Jewry.

The reality is that whilst, like his popular father, Lau may be a “nice” rabbi with good communication skills, he is a committed haredi whose principal concern would be to placate the anti-Zionist haredim who elected him. He will certainly not be seeking halachic solutions to overcome the stringencies imposed on the nation by the hard line ultra-Orthodox. Nor can he be expected to promote national religious rabbis against those opposed to Zionism.

It promises to be a tight struggle. The election committee for the Chief Rabbi comprises of a majority of rabbis plus representatives from municipalities and political parties represented in the Knesset.

Lau will gain the support of the haredim and some “hardal” (haredi nationalist) elements who oppose Stav. It was only after a major internal battle that Religious Affairs Minister Bennett succeeded in getting his Bayit Yehudi party to support Stav.

Most of the Zionist parties will back him. Incredibly however, there have been rumors that Netanyahu may encourage Likud representatives to vote against Stav in order to placate the haredim – who he considers may one day renew their political alliance with him.

If this proves to be the case, Netanyahu will have betrayed the national camp and would be held accountable for torpedoing this unique opportunity to bring the Chief Rabbinate back into the mainstream and restore the national religious approach for which it was created. Extending haredi control of the Chief Rabbinate will also have profoundly negative ramifications on the various religion and state issues to be determined over the next few years including critical marriage and conversion questions and the fulfillment of haredi obligations in terms of the draft or national service and productive employment.

To a large extent, haredi domination of Israeli political life was a byproduct of opportunism displayed by the secular political parties. If, by his actions, Netanyahu tips the balance against the national religious rabbinate he will be responsible for enabling haredim to continue to retain power by exploiting the indifference of secular Israelis to crucial religious social issues which threaten to undermine Jewish values.

Netanyahu must actively support the election of a national religious Chief Rabbi. He must realize that even a ‘neutral’ Chief Rabbi will remain a puppet of the haredim if he was their candidate. And the time has come for us to face the reality that amongst the ultra-Orthodox rabbis employed by the state, a substantial minority are aggressively hostile to Zionism and even refuse to incorporate the prayers for the welfare of the state and for the IDF in religious services.

It is highly overdue for the state to intervene and ensure that anti-Zionist rabbis are no longer sponsored by the State – least of all by a government purporting to represent the national camp. This situation will only be resolved if a Zionist Chief Rabbi is elected.

The writer may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom



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