Open Zion

07.25.13

What to Make of the Chief Rabbi Results

The results are in: late Wednesday evening Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef were elected, respectively, as the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis of Israel, beating out an array of challengers from the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox camps. They succeed Rabbi Yona Metzger (Ashkenazi) and Rabbi Shlomo Amar (Sephardi), and will serve for the next 10 years.

If the surnames of the newly elected Chief Rabbis sound familiar, that’s because both of them bear relation to previous head rabbis. Rabbi David Lau is the son of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi from 1993 to 2003. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi from 1973 to 1983.

For much of Israeli society, the success of Yosef and Lau’s candidacies reinforced long-held perceptions of the rabbinate as a corrupt and archaic institution. MK Zehava Galon (Meretz) cracked a joke on Facebook yesterday comparing the rabbinate to the British monarchy. It’s received 2,290 likes so far, a lot more than she normally gets (in fact more than she’s ever gotten for a status, as far as I can tell). A Haaretz editorial was more explicit, dubbing the election of Yosef and Lau “a victory for nepotism.” So although Lau and Yosef won Wednesday’s election, it appears they have much work to do if the institution that they will now head is to survive their tenures.

Just last week, Gershom Gorenberg argued in these pages for the abolishment of the chief rabbinate. If Wednesday night proves anything, it’s that Gorenberg—along with a substantial portion of the Israeli public—has not yet gotten his wish. Even those who simply wished to reform the rabbinate lost out, as the dovish candidate, Rabbi David Stav, was soundly defeated.

As disappointed as opponents of the status quo may be with Wednesday’s outcome—whether they believed the rabbinate is incorrigible or just in need of significant overhaul—all of them can take solace in the fact that things could have been much worse. Shmuel Eliyahu, himself the son of a former Chief Rabbi, was on the ballot and a not so unlikely contender. Like his father, Eliyahu has a history of controversial remarks and Jewish legal decisions that paint him as an unrepentant racist. His election would have doubtless been an embarrassment to the State of Israel and international Jewry.

Thankfully, this nightmare did not materialize. But the mere possibility that it could have, and that someone with similar views might be elected in the future, should give pause to those still in favor of continuing the chief rabbinate as is.

The one big winner in all this, aside from the Lau and Yosef clans, appears to be the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. The election of two rabbis from their own ranks represented a much-needed victory at a time when haredim feel besieged by both the national-religious and secular Jews’ push to draft eligible yeshiva students. Significantly, they managed to maintain control over the one institution in Israeli society where they exercise unfettered power.

But the ultra-Orthodox can’t afford to celebrate for too long. This very well could be the last election that’s ever held for Chief Rabbi of Israel. And at that many Jews might just say, "Baruch Hashem—thank God."