The recent election in Israel of Rabbi David Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi, and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef as Sephardi chief rabbi, may seem like a victory for the status quo. Indeed, many assume that the new chief rabbis are unlikely to make any meaningful changes in the Rabbinate’s approach and attitude toward the increasing number of Jews in the Diaspora, who are not ultra-Orthodox and who feel shut out of Israel’s Judaism.
Rabbis Yosef and Lau, who were 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 Shas party. In winning the Chief Rabbi position, Rabbi Lau, favored by Prime Minister Binyamin 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 Jews in the Diaspora, who believe this approach is insular and works against their more inclusive approach to Jewish life and observance.
After their victory, Rabbis Yosef and Lau both promised to be “everyone’s rabbi.” That sounds good. However, it would mean that things need to change pretty dramatically. It appears that any changes on issues of personal status in the coming years are not likely to be accomplished solely through the Chief Rabbinate. Instead, these issues will have to be addressed politically and socially, as well. As we have seen with the recent military draft-reform legislation, even changes with popular support in the political realm face an uphill fight if attempted without the buy-in of the Rabbinate.
The election results, and the prospects for change in the future, shine a light on the tensions that arise as a result of the political role of religion in the secular world of governance. This is a serious issue, which the new chief rabbis are going to have to address.
Still, the elections are only days old. We hope that this new generation of chief rabbis will work to address the growing gap between the haredi population and the rest of Israeli society, and will focus upon the gap with the rest of world Jewry, which calls Israel its spiritual home.