For Chief Rabbi, Vote Nobody (If Only You Could Vote)

Gershom Gorenberg

I explain why in my latest piece at The Daily Beast:

The election will take place next Wednesday. Just 150 electors, most of whom lack the slightest claim to represent the public, will choose two new chief rabbis for the state of Israel. The winners—one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi rabbi—will become the heads of the state rabbinic bureaucracy and will officially speak for Judaism in the State of Israel. If there’s anything more painfully absurd than the way the chief rabbis are chosen, it’s the idea of official state Judaism.

The politicking has gone on for months. Political parties tried crassly to make deals to amend the Chief Rabbinate Law, aiming to help particular candidates. The deals all failed. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, master of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, dithered about which of his sons to run for Sephardi chief rabbi. Last week police questioned his son Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of the city of Holon, on corruption charges, so the Shas leader named his son Yitzhak Yosef instead. Since a majority of the electors are state-salaried religious functionaries, a great many tied to Shas, Rabbi Ovadia’s choice could be decisive. Attacking the favored Ashkenazi candidate of relatively liberal religious Zionist politicians, Rabbi Ovadia said that electing Rabbi David Stav would be akin to “putting an idol in the Temple.” On Saturday night, another leading Shas rabbi, Shalom Cohen, declared that all religious Zionists are “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. “Anti-Semites” would be much too soft a translation.

None of this has added any honor to Judaism. But the most disturbing part of the campaign may be the candidacy of Shmuel Eliahu for Sephardi chief rabbi.

There are modernizing streams within religious Zionism, and streams that take nothing from modernity but extreme nationalism. Eliahu is a harsh representative of the latter. In 2010, he published an open letter saying that Jewish religious law bars selling or renting land to non-Jews anywhere in the Land of Israel. Anyone who did so, he wrote, should be ostracized. This was not a theoretical ruling. Eliahu is the chief rabbi of Safed, a Galilee town with a college that attracts students from surrounding Arab communities. To avoid criminal charges for racist incitement or disciplinary measures against him as a state official, Eliahu signed a clarification—or obfuscation—saying that the original letter was aimed only at “hostile elements.” Settler rabbis and politicians from Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home party) reportedly support Eliahu.

Read the rest here.