Ironically, the victory by the haredi candidates in this week’s election of the two chief rabbis in Israel may, in the long run, lead to a more liberal and open approach to religious life in the Jewish State.
Not because the two new chief rabbis, David Lau, son of former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, and Yitzchak Yosef, son of former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, plan to loosen the institution’s grip on marriage, divorce and, perhaps most importantly, conversions. On the contrary, despite their pleasant personal manners, there is every indication they will maintain the policies of the previous haredi chief rabbis over the last two decades, alienating the great majority of Israelis with their rigid interpretations of Jewish law. And as a result, the institution of the chief rabbinate may well become increasingly irrelevant, and even discontinued by the time of the next scheduled election, a decade from now.
Rabbi David Stav, the “liberal” Religious Zionist candidate for the Ashkenazi post, was defeated by Rabbi Lau (by a tally of 68-54 among the committee of 147 rabbis and community leaders who vote). But his well-publicized campaign calling for a chief rabbinate that caters to the needs of the majority of Israelis, as well as to the Orthodox, had a positive impact in that it shed light on an election process that is arcane, and steeped in politics and nepotism, if not outright corruption. (Note that the two winners are sons of former chief rabbis whose influence in the voting was a major factor. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the powerful religious leader of the Shas party, had chosen another son to run, but he dropped out after a police investigation.)
The real losers here are the citizens of Israel and Jews throughout the diaspora who will continue to feel distanced from their religion. They will go on finding other ways to marry and divorce rather than go through a rabbinate more focused on patronage jobs than helping their fellow Jews. Perhaps most worrisome is that the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israelis who are not Jewish will drift further away from the prospect of conversion under the ongoing rigid restrictions of the chief rabbinate.
If trends continue, the chief rabbis will oversee a society that has little respect for them or the narrow vision of Judaism they represent. The result will either be radical and much-needed reform of the institution and the election process, or a chief rabbinate so irrelevant and demeaned that it will fall victim to its shameful disregard for the concept of Clal Yisrael (Jewish unity).