There was a period of time leading up to last week’s chief rabbinate elections in Israel where there was a glimmer of hope for moderation and the potential for some element of change. In the final days before the election, however, it became clear that no such movement was likely. And so it is.
The election of Rabbi David Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef as Sephardi chief rabbi is a victory for the status quo. No meaningful change in approach, attitude, tolerance or power sharing is likely. A significant portion of Israeli Jews will remain shut out of Judaism. And the subtext of the message to an overwhelming number of Diaspora Jews is, “Your beliefs are not welcome here.”
Rabbis Yosef and Lau, elected to 10-year terms by a body of 150 state-salaried religious functionaries, have familiar names. Both are sons of previous chief rabbis. Their legacy selections represent a victory for haredi Judaism and its political allies, including the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Rabbi Lau, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prevailed against centrist Orthodox Rabbi David Stav, who was the preferred candidate by Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
The chief rabbis head Israel’s far-reaching religious bureaucracy and are the state’s spokesmen for Judaism. Beyond the ceremonial aspects of their positions, the power the chief rabbis wield on issues of personal status, such as marriage, divorce and conversion is significant. The Rabbinate’s existing policy on such personal status issues, and its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of or share authority with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, has aggravated a great number of Israelis. That insular approach is particularly galling to Diaspora Jews, who are devoted to pluralism, and have rallied around a more open and accepting approach to Jewish life and observance.
After their victory, Rabbis Yosef and Lau both promised to be “everyone’s rabbi.” That sounds good. But unless things change pretty dramatically, it is a goal that is not likely to be achieved. Neither rabbi has expressed any interest in reaching beyond the ultra-Orthodox communities in which they have been functioning, and neither has made any meaningful effort to do so. Indeed, the universe of “everyone” they promise to serve appears to be narrowly circumscribed. As a result, it appears that any changes on issues of personal status in the coming years are not likely to be accomplished through the Chief Rabbinate. Instead, those issues will have to be addressed politically and socially. But as we have seen with the recent military draft-reform legislation, even changes with popular support face an uphill fight when they threaten religious dogma and the religious status quo.
Beyond the blow to the cause of religious diversity, the election results shine a light on the nagging issue of the political role of religion in the secular world of governance. Raw, bare-knuckled politics played a major role in the chief rabbinate elections. That result is sure to exacerbate the growing gap between the Orthodox — particularly the haredi — population and the rest of Israeli society. And we are concerned about its effect on the rest of world Jewry, which calls Israel its spiritual home.