JERUSALEM — Israel elected two new chief rabbis this week, after a hard-fought race pitting the religious Zionist movement, which founded and long led the state rabbinate, against the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate that has traditionally shunned it.
Both races ended in victories for ultra-Orthodox-backed candidates, dealing a humiliating blow to the religious Zionist movement and its political voice, the National Religious Party.
Adding an ideological twist to the contest, both defeated National Religious Party candidates were known as outspoken supporters of the West Bank settler movement. The ultra-Orthodox candidates won with backing from Labor Party representatives on the 150-member selection committee.
The two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazic and one Sephardic, will serve for 10-year terms, during which they will take turns chairing the nation’s supreme rabbinical court.
One of the victors, Ashkenazic chief rabbi-elect Yona Metzger, is a neighborhood rabbi in North Tel Aviv with no rabbinical court experience and a string of accusations against him for petty corruption. His victory over a widely respected rival is believed to have been engineered by ultra-Orthodox leaders to punish the National Religious Party for agreeing to join with the anti-clerical Shinui party in the current Likud-led government.
The selection committee, including 80 rabbis and 70 “public figures” — politicians and academics appointed by the minister of religious affairs — chose the winners by secret ballot following a heated session Monday at a Jerusalem hotel.
The new Sephardic chief rabbi-elect, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, currently chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, won handily after securing the backing of the powerful mentor of the Shas party, the former Sephardic chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. His opponent, Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, currently chief rabbi of Safed, is the son of another former Sephardic chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliahu, who has emerged in the past decade as the chief spiritual mentor of the settler movement. Amar won by a 124-to-14 margin.
Less expected was the election of Metzger. Currently a neighborhood rabbi in North Tel Aviv, Metzger has no experience as a rabbinical court judge, urban chief rabbi or even kashrut inspector, all considered prerequisites for the post. His candidacy was opposed by the outgoing Sephardic chief rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, who declared last week that a Metzger victory would be a “hilul Hashem,” or desecration of God’s name.
Metzger was also opposed by Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, who issued a statement hours before the vote urging electors to defer balloting because of legal complaints filed against Metzger. Metzger has been accused by his former chauffeur and others of forging witnesses’ signatures on marriage certificates and extorting last-minute cash payments from marrying couples. None of the accusations has gone to trial.
Metzger’s main support is said to have come from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of B’nai Brak, the chief rabbinic legal authority in what is known as the Lithuanian or non-chasidic ultra-Orthodox community. Elyashiv reportedly pressured several more senior rabbis to withdraw in favor of Metzger.
Metzger’s chief rival, Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, currently chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, was embroiled in controversy in the mid-1990s when he was accused of helping create the atmosphere of incitement that Labor Party leaders said contributed to the assassination of the late Yitzhak Rabin. Ariel and his supporters dismiss such accusations as politics. Metzger won 61 to 53.