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Op-Ed: Analysis: The Elections for the Chief Rabbinate

An analysis of the voting body, the factors at play and how religious Zionists could have gotten one Chief Rabbinic seat, rather than losing both to the hareidi candidates, Rabbi David Lau of United Torah Judaism and Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef of Shas.
Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 6:30 PM


It is an old, un-idealistic and somewhat depressing – unless you enjoy the game for its own sake – truism that politics is the art of the possible, a calculation of the probable and an exercise in the pragmatic. And although I would love the Chief Rabbinate to be decided on the basis of a shared vision of Judaism's role in the Jewish state, it is decided by a voting body that is as politically at odds as any other.

Before the elections for the Chief Rabbinate, I wrote an article for a large, Israeli newspaper saying that the Bayit Yehudi and the religious Zionists need to back a candidate who is accepted by the hareidim, not one who is anathema to them, for the good of Israel's unity and the good of the functioning of the rabbinate itself.

What I didn't write, but what should have been obvious to religious Zionist politicians, was that numerically, only that kind of candidate could possibly win the election for them. Naftali Bennett had been warned that Rabbi David Stav could not win the Chief Rabbinate and might split religious Zionists. He, however, supported Rabbi Stav, whose work with the non-observant he and many others admire and whose very professional public relations machine literally took over front stage in a much-publicized media campaign - a first for Chief Rabbinate elections.

There were various factors at play that influenced the results and put hareidi rabbis in both elected positions.

The Voting Body

The voting body included 150 members, 80 of them rabbis. The seventy others included MK's, head of municipalities, regional authorities and religious councils, and ten women who represented the Religious Affairs Ministry and were chosen by Minister of Religious Affairs Naftali Bennett.  Religious Council heads, after years of hareidi Chief Rabbinic appointments, are not particularly Zionist. Altogether, at least 80 of the 150 voters were bona fide hareidim. The secular and religious politicians in the voting body were pressured by PM Netanyahu to vote for Rabbi Lau (see below) while the mayor of Shoham (Stav's pulpit) and the mayor of Modiin (Lau's pulpit) competed for their colleagues' support  and more or less cancelled each other out.

 Political Arithmetic

Understanding politics, knowing the voting body, and using simple arithmetic showed that Rabbi David Stav might even come fairly close, but did not have much of a chance. This was the case despite the millions he spent on public relations for over a year, despite the right wing, Zionist, semi-religious Makor Rishon paper that ignored a newspaper's supposed committment to fair coverage and dedicated an entire issue and countless articles to promoting his candidacy. (Hareidi newspapers, sites and magazines had positive articles on the other Ashkenazi Zionist candidate as well as their own candidate. Arutz Sheva made a point of being fair.)

This was the case despite, and in fact, because of, the extra-rabbinic organization he created, Tzohar, vehemently hated by the hareidi community for putting their rabbis down and posing a threat to their positions, and criticized by part of the religious Zionist rabbinic community for its leader's viewpoints, its advertising and blanket criticism of the Chief Rabbinate. During the twenty-year hareidi control of the Chief Rabbinate, Tzohar served a real need and reached out to the secular, but was seen, correctly, as planning a takeover – and hareidi jobs were at stake.

Sivan Rahav-Meir, a popular TV newswoman  whose husband Yedidiya Meir is a central figure on the hareidi Kol Hai radio station, said in a post election interview on Israel's Reshet Bet radio, that even the Bayit Yehudi MK's were split over Stav, so that the choice to back him was a mistake. The choice also caused fierce controversy among Israeli religious Zionist rabbis. Those mainstream rabbis should not have been criticized and ignored, as they were. Rabbis are not MK's who have to toe the party line, they have their own opinions.

The religious Zionists needed consensus to win, but did not pick someone whom all of them could vote for nor someone who could get hareidi support. They picked someone who could not get one hareidi vote, although they knew the makeup of the voting body. (This is not the place to elaborate on the "I am a proud dati-lite" phenomenon and rabbinic power struggles in the religious  Zionist community. That is the subject of another article.)

The venerable religious Zionist leader, Rabbi Chaim Druckman, saw what was going to happen and tried to promote the candidacy of the much-respected Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, but Rabbi Stav refused to step down (the other two Zionist candidates did so in Rabbi Ariel's honor) and his pr machine's ready response (quoted by Stav supporters and Makor Rishon)  was that "it was a mistake for Rabbi Druckman to try to promote Rabbi Ariel as the religious Zionist candidate. He should have realized that the time for Rabbi Ariel is over."

But Rabbi Ariel is the president of Tzohar! He is 15 years younger than Israel's current, proactive President Shimon Peres! Failing that, Bayit Yehudi should have promoted a candidate that the hareidim respect and who could garner some of their votes.

The official Bayit Yehudi (Ashkenazic and Sephardic) candidates got 55 votes each in the election. Hareidi Rabbis Lau and Yosef each got 68. Where did the other votes go? There were religious Zionist rabbis on the voting body who would not vote for Stav. That is a fact that Bennett could have realized, and which is now proven. They voted, instead, for Rabbi Yaakov Shapira. So did a group of hareidim who broke ranks, but would never have done that for Rabbi Stav .  Adding those votes to the 55 voters Bennett controlled, would have seen the religious Zionists win the Ashkenazic rabbinic seat.

In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, former Sephardic  Chief Rabbi, ran his own Sephardic hareidi candidate, rabbinic court judge Rabbi Boaron. He and Rabbi Shapira garnered almost the same number of votes, showing that these were religious Zionists and hareidim who did not want the official party candidates, neither Rabbi Stav or the Sephardic religious Zionist candidate, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.

The Deal that Wasn't

Several months ago, the makeup of the voting body was known, Bayit Yehudi was already powerful and the hareidim were less sure of themselves, having lost their attempt to enter the coalition and in a frenzy over the proposed draft law.

That was the time for Bayit Yehudi to sign a deal with the hareidi rabbis, putting in a religious Zionist Ashkenazic rabbi that the hareidim could bring themselves to support  (in no way could that be Rabbi Stav) and a hareidi Sephardic rabbi (or vice versa), possibly in exchange for raising the number of yeshiva boys who are deferred. That is real politics, the art of the possible, political pragmatism. Instead, Bayit Yehudi tried to get both positions without having a majority in the voting body.

The Result

Since there was no religious Zionist- hareidi deal,  two other factors dominated the election.

First, the hareidim decided to get their own back.  Kept out of the coalition, threatened by the draft law, insulted by Yair Lapid's party and the leftist media, they voted almost to a man on the lines of a deal made between the Sephardic hareidi leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (read that Aryeh Deri) and the Lithuanian hareidi leader Rabbi Shteineman (who has established himself as Rabbi Elyashiv's successor) a week before the election.  Some of the older rabbis had to take a deep breath to obey the deal, as they see Rabbi Lau as something of an upstart at 47. However, hareidim do not hold the post of Chief Rabbi in much esteem and see it as a source of power, not of religious and spiritual leadership in the renewed Jewish state requiring a recognized figure in the Torah world.  Rabbi Stav's pr line discounted that qualification as well, so one can hardly blame the hareidim.

Second, PM Netanyahu used the elections as a way to put down Naftali Bennett, a rising star whom he sees as competition and seems to dislike personally. The prime minister worked hard for Rabbi Lau among the mayors and heads of regional authorities, claiming that the elder Rabbi Lau had officiated at his wedding.  A less emotional and more plausible reason is probably that hareidi Chief Rabbis do not pose much of a problem vis-a-vis giving up parts of Judea and Samaria and negotiations are upon us. The late Chief Rabbis Avraham Shapira, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu -  all religious Zionists – fought for Eretz Yisrael with all their might.

Rabbis Lau and Yosef have other priorities and the hareidim have already threatened Bennett that his support for the draft law would lose him support over Judea and Samaria.

 Should Bennett have agreed to MK Stern's plan to enlarge the voting body?

There is going to have to be a change in the voting body before the elections for the Chief Rabbinic Council, set to take place in a few months.  This will be a test for Bennett, who fought against adding 50 people to the voting body for this week's elections because he was- correctly and justifiably – afraid that the Prime Minister would put in his own people and that it would be used to dilute any rabbinic influence in choosing the Chief Rabbi, an oxymoron, at least to the religious, akin to having laymen choose the head of the Bank of Israel.

He has to succeed in getting religious Zionist Torah figures on to that voting body to show his core constituency that he represents religious Zionism and understands what choosing rabbinic council members is all about. If it becomes a feminist issue, the chosen body will lose respect in the religious world, but it does require rabbis who see the reality of women's plight in divorce and custody battles.

Aftermath

Is the chief rabbinate relevant? Minister Yair Lapid, angry at the election results, said there are going to be alternatives for marriage, divorce, conversion soon. New Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Lau, an outgoing and well-liked city rabbi, will probably be astute enough to make the existing system more user-friendly for the secular, causing the extra-rabbinic Tzohar to be unnecessary, thus downgrading Rabbi Stav and constraining Lapid. Since these are the places where the non-observant meet the rabbinate, that will make him popular in that sector.

He has promised to work for agunot and, but with the hareidi rabbinic community breathing down his neck, expect little change there and in the rabbinic courts.

There are other crucial issues facing Israel where a religious Zionist Chief Rabbi could have made a big difference. The Land of Israel and the "peace" process is one of them. There is also another shmitta year coming soon and if the last one is an indication, there will be no Chief Rabbinate solution for the general public, while the hareidim will import foods and solve the problems for their own community (also a subject for a separate essay).

In addition, the financially lucrative kashrut supervisions of the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rabbinic hareidi world that derided the Chief Rabbinate heksher will in all probability be untouched.

One also recalls Chief Rabbis Shapira and Eliyahu taking courageous stands on halakhic issues such as heart transplants that stood up to the hareidi rabbinic opinions, because the two were respected halakhic figures.

And the Bayit Yehudi? The polls show that the defeat has led to the phenomenon of rallying round the flag, so that the party's popularity has risen. Had they succeeded in electing a Chief Rabbi, however, their support would have risen even more and continued to rise for lasting reasons as the rabbinate became relevant to the citizens of Israel.

A Chief Rabbi with the religious Zionist view of Israel as a Jewish state would have been a source of pride and Zionist vision for Jews the world over.

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