Israel’s Charedi establishment breathed a sign of relief on Wednesday, as it kept its grip on the Chief Rabbinate in the elections for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis.
Rarely in recent years has the Charedi camp been so worried that the state’s top rabbinical posts would go to its opponents, namely religious figures who take a less hard-line attitude towards Jewish law. They were right to be concerned: their opponents, from the religious-Zionist community, gave them a real run for their money.
The victors were not the only candidates that the Charedi establishment approved of; they come from tried and tested families.
The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is David Lau, the son of former Chief Rabbi
Yisrael Meir Lau. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, is rabbinic royalty — he is the son of Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual head of Shas and one of the most revered clerics in Israel.
These two figures, chosen by an electoral college of religious and political representatives, will ensure continuity in the Chief Rabbinate. They will not make any big changes, and talk a lot about keeping up the standards of the established institution.
The Charedi community has never been terribly enthusiastic about the Chief Rabbinate, seeing it as an innovation of the secular state. But as long as it exists, it would like to retain control. The community has no particular vision for the rabbinate, but rather wants to use it to ensure there is not what it would deem a deterioration of religious standards.
The religious Zionist candidates were very different — especially David Stav, the runner-up in the Ashkenazi race. He is an iconoclast who wanted to curb Charedi power and reform the rabbinate to sideline rabbis who take hard-line positions, such as withholding marriage licences from some converts because they do not trust their Jewish credentials.
The next decade could well be a boring one for the rabbinate — if indeed it lasts the decade that these two have been elected for, given the various corruption allegations levelled against it.
But boring is not necessarily bad.
Seeing Rabbi Stav in office with his various planned innovations would have been interesting, and he would have pleased many liberals. But the Sephardi candidate favoured by religious Zionists, Shmuel Eliyahu, could have destabilised the country. He is a political extremist and has been widely criticised over anti-Arab comments attributed to him.
However, one of Rabbi Eliyahu’s ideas may well have been to abolish the Chief Rabbinate’s ban on Jews ascending Temple Mount. Such a move could set off dangerous confrontation with the Arabs.
Whatever one’s assessment of positives and negatives of Wednesday’s result, there is one unavoidable conclusion: however hard religious-Zionists try, they have lost control of religion in the public sphere.
Consider this alongside the increase in the Charedi population in the past decade and one is left wondering — may this be the last Chief Rabbinate race that religious-Zionists will even bother entering?