Israel on verge of creating one chief rabbi role

By Anshel Pfeffer, January 23, 2014

The israeli government has backed a move to disband the twin posts of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis.

Last Sunday, the cabinet’s legislative committee unanimously voted for the proposal, co-sponsored by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett.

The two positions were established by the British Mandate in Palestine in 1921 and were preserved mainly for political reasons.

Today, a vast majority of Israelis are against any official division between Ashkenazi and Sephardi leadership. Changes in the law have historically been obstructed by the main strictly-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which exerted influence through the chief rabbis. Now, with both parties in opposition, the law is almost guaranteed to be passed by the Knesset.

Political opposition to the make-up of the chief rabbinate intensified last year following the election of Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, both sons of former chief rabbis. Neither of the two had been dayanim (rabbinical judges) and only one has any experience as a rabbi of a large city. Their election was seen by many as an exercise in nepotism by the Charedi politicians.

Both rabbis came under fire earlier this month after they passed a ruling forbidding religious women from serving in the army. Several politicians, including Finance Minister Yair Lapid, called for their resignation.

Under the current arrangement, the two chief rabbis serve in rotation as the presidents of the Rabbinate Council and of the Supreme Beth Din (the Rabbinical Court). Under the new law, the Beth Din will devolve from the Chief Rabbinate and become a fully autonomous judicial body operating along similar lines to the Supreme Court.

The new law, once passed, will only become relevant in 2023, towards the end of the ten-year term of the current chiefs. By that time, a coalition with a significant Charedi presence could change the law back again.

Last updated: 4:45pm, January 23 2014