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Power struggle leaves Israel without chief rabbis

Politics, nepotism and the role of women have left the country's top rabbinical offices vacant for the first time in its history.

Israel's Chief Rabbis David Lau (left) and Yitzhak Yosef (center) sell the state's chametz in Jerusalem ahead of Passover, April 21, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Israel's Chief Rabbis David Lau (left) and Yitzhak Yosef (center) sell the state's chametz in Jerusalem ahead of Passover, April 21, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.

An internal power struggle involving politics, nepotism and the role of women is delaying the selection of Israel’s next chief rabbis, leaving the posts vacant for the first time since the establishment of the state, officials said on Sunday.

The delay—ostensibly over the appointment of women to the body which selects chief rabbis—also comes amid a power struggle within the ultra-Orthodox leadership. At the same time, the Supreme Court and the religious establishment which controls the Chief Rabbinate are clashing over issues of religion and state, including most recently ultra-Orthodox conscription.

The High Court of Justice ruled in January that women with sufficient knowledge of the Torah and halachah (Jewish law) may be considered rabbis for the purposes of membership in the 150-member Chief Rabbi Election Assembly.

The 80 slots allocated for rabbis have always been reserved for men only in keeping with the Orthodox worldview, and any change is viewed as anathema by the Chief Rabbinate.

The 150-member voting body comprises of 80 Orthodox rabbis, 10 of whom are appointed by the Chief Rabbinate, and 70 others, including mayors, lawmakers, members of religious councils and other public officials.

The Chief Rabbinate, which is run by the ultra-Orthodox, refuses to appoint any women to slots allocated for rabbis, officials said.

The positions of Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbi became vacant last week after the previous incumbents’ 10-year terms ended without replacements being chosen, and without a date being selected for such a vote to take place.

“There is not a halachic possibility of appointing women as rabbis,” Rabbi Yaakov Roja, the interim president of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, wrote in a reply to the High Court. “Considering a woman for this role is also forbidden.”

Internal power struggles

Officials said that along with the dispute over the issue of women serving as rabbis on the voting council, which is a non-starter for the rabbinate, there is an internecine power struggle going on that has resulted in the vote being delayed for political reasons.

“They saw this as a good opportunity to push off the election until they can manipulate the result in their favor,” Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, a nongovernmental, Jerusalem-based advocacy group for reforming Israel’s religious bureaucracy, told JNS on Sunday.

“They are exploiting the issue of women to delay elections which they are not interested in holding right now for political reasons,” he said.

His organization has filed a lawsuit against the Chief Rabbinate over the election delay. 

“They are breaking the law by not holding elections,” he said.

Both previous chief rabbis come from rabbinic dynasties; both their fathers served in the position and now they have brothers running for the post.

“This is pure politics and a manipulation of the system to produce desired political ends,” Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an NGO working to advance religious freedom, told JNS. “It is a mixture of political interests and religious fundamentalism. It is not about halachah but a manipulation of halachah.

The elections for chief rabbi were originally due to be held last year, but were pushed off as they coincided with local elections that were later postponed due to the Israel-Hamas war.

Officials said that the dispute could carry on for days, weeks or months, depending on the court’s position.

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