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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Election Of Chief Rabbis A Tumultuous Process

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JERUSALEM – Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s current Sephardi chief rabbi whose 10-year term is set to expire in the coming months, and Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, a leading Ashkenazi rabbi, announced their intention to force a legal change in the chief rabbinate selection process.

The proposed alteration, which has the support of Shas spiritual head and former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement head and influential force in the HaBayit HaYehudi faction, would extend Rabbi Amar’s tenure and permit Rabbi Ariel to run for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi. He would succeed current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who has also served for 10 years. The plan, if successful, would derail the candidacies of Shoham Chief Rabbi David Stav (Ashkenazi) and Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu (Sephardi).

This new development comes as the election process for chief rabbis seemed to be nearing a conclusion after HaBayit HaYehudi head Naftali Bennett and MK Rabbi Shai Piron of Yesh Atid agreed to back the candidacies of Rabbi Stav and Rabbi Eliyahu.

During the past two months, Bennett and Rabbi Piron have waged behind-the-scenes battles with haredi political factions, including Shas, and even within HaBayit HaYehudi itself. Their goal is to promote moderate religious Zionist candidates for the positions of chief rabbi.

After HaBayit HaYehudi received the Religious Services Ministry portfolio in the new coalition government, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, a Sephardic graduate of Jerusalem’s Mercaz HaRav yeshiva who was forced out less than three years ago as director general of the chief rabbinate-influenced Rabbinical Court System, became the deputy minister of religious affairs. Rabbi Ben-Dahan, fourth on HaBayit HaYehudi’s faction list, promised in the campaign to overhaul the fossilized Rabbinical Court System and the ministry, which was controlled by the haredi United Torah Judaism and Shas parties for years. He also vowed to promote a balance of religious Zionist, haredi and Sephardic dayanim within the courts, and help Bennett find qualified religious Zionist candidates for the chief rabbi’s post.

While Rabbi Stav has actively promoted himself for the chief rabbi’s position, many leading rabbinical luminaries in Litvish and chassidic circles have campaigned against his election, claiming that his religious policies are too liberal. Rabbi Stav is one of the founding members and current chairman of the Tzohar Modern Orthodox rabbinical faction, which has challenged some of the incumbent chief rabbis’ requirements for religious and non-religious Jews who wish to marry in Israel, along with parts of the conversion process.

On the latter issue, Rabbi Stav previously told The Jewish Press, “A huge number of converts would absolutely adhere to religious tradition over the long term if they did not have to deal with the current before, during and after process that the Rabbinical Court System has placed in front of them. The idea is to convert the ger – not to torture them.”

Because of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Stav’s alleged liberal halachic positions, a faction within HaBayit HaYehudi tried to promote Rabbi Ariel, who is accepted by most of the haredi establishment, as an alternative candidate. But at 76, Rabbi Ariel is currently barred from serving as chief rabbi due to the law that only those under the age of 70 at the outset of the 10-year term may serve.

According to Israel Hayom and The Jerusalem Post, Bennett was pressured by some in his party to change the law in order to accommodate Rabbi Ariel’s candidacy. But he could not convince Rabbi Yosef to support the new bill in exchange for extending Rabbi Amar’s tenure. Rabbi Yosef is reportedly angry with Bennett due to his alliance with Yesh Atid, which prevented Shas from joining the coalition.

The 150-person Special Election Committee, which includes municipal rabbis, religious judges, mayors, council heads, the IDF chief rabbi, and several Knesset members, is believed to be under the Shas Party’s influence. Thus, Bennett and Rabbi Piron are trying to write and sponsor a bill that would add at least another 50 members to the committee. The additional members would include a more diverse group of people, and could tilt the balance in Rabbi Stav and Rabbi Eliyahu’s favor.

For his part, Rabbi Eliyahu has been criticized by liberal groups for his support of so-called state-sanctioned revenge against Arabs and his support for some Safed residents’ refusal to rent apartments to local Arabs.

Other well-known rabbis still interested in running for the Ashkenazi chief rabbi’s post include Modiin Chief Rabbi David Lau, former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s son, and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, head of the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva.

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