While attention remains focused on the election of a new Knesset and the formation of a new government, the battle over another election — for Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — is just heating up. These elections, too, have far-reaching ramifications for the American Jewish community and for the well-being of Israel.
In recent decades, the well-organized and well-funded ultra-Orthodox political machinery has effectively gained control over the selection of Israel’s chief rabbis. A new campaign is now under way to elect Rabbi David Stav, head of the Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization Tzohar, as the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. According to newspaper reports, a possible deal has been struck between Stav and Shlomo Amar, the current Sephardic chief rabbi, ensuring mutual support for electing Stav for the Ashkenazi post, and for re-electing Amar as chief Sephardic rabbi.
The Jewish Diaspora is being encouraged to rally support behind Stav’s candidacy based on the promise that with him the Chief Rabbinate is going to be inclusive, accommodating and liberal.
Unfortunately, this is indeed just an illusion.
In the case of Amar, the picture is clear. His sentiments against non-Orthodox Judaism are so strong that he issued a statement attacking the Supreme Court for ordering the State of Israel to recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis serving in rural communities. He demonized Reform Judaism as “destroyers, terrorists, God’s enemies” and worse. Coming from the Chief Rabbinate, these attitudes against Jewish pluralism, gender equality and the like, are increasingly offending the overwhelming majority of world Jewry.
I applaud much of the Tzohar rabbis’ work. They emerged on the public scene to offer a more user-friendly and lenient alternative to the increasingly fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate; however, their most recent battle complicates this first impression. In 2011, Tzohar launched a worldwide campaign against the Ministry of Religious Services (then, and still, controlled by the religious Sephardic political party Shas) and the Chief Rabbinate in order to gain formal authority for their members to serve as marriage officiants.
To advance their case, the Tzohar rabbis adopted a disturbing and telling approach: While in Israel they based their campaign on demonizing Reform and civil alternatives, they left this part out of their appeal to the non-Orthodox leadership in the United States when asking them to help apply pressure to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.