Let’s concede at the outset that the process by which Israel chooses its Chief Rabbis is disgraceful, humiliating, over-politicized and demeaning to all the participants. The election date has come and gone without any election; the terms of the previous Chief Rabbis have expired and been extended; and the electoral process itself changes from week to week and is still unclear.
We can also concede that the involvement (even interest) of American Jews is fairly limited. Our lives will not be changed in any meaningful way whether the Chief Rabbi is this one or that one. We have little stake in the outcome, notwithstanding that there is always cooperation between rabbis in both countries and there are consequences to all from any of our actions.
What is being lost – indeed, trampled – in the process is the realization that all of the candidates are wonderful people, fine talmidei chachamim, and outstanding Rabbonim. Every single one of them would serve as Chief Rabbi with honor and distinction, and there are a dozen other Rabbis off the top of my head that would be equally outstanding if they sought and gained the position. The politicking, the campaigning and the media advisers have made this election unseemly, but it should not divert us from the basic reality: we are blessed to have such capable rabbis in their current positions and in the Chief Rabbinate if they are so blessed (if, indeed, that is the right word).
Most of the public’s attention has been focused on Rav David Stav, Rav of the town of Shoham and head of the rabbinical organization Tzohar. Rav Stav is a creative, energetic, dynamic leader who is rooted in the Mesorah but who is unafraid to speak his mind, to break through the inertia of the terminally passive, and to make the Rabbinate more responsive to the people. He is said to be the choice of secular Israelis, among others, because he will look to revise the status quo and renew the role of the rabbinate in Israel. The attacks on him have been scandalous and unfair, but have succeeded – as lashon hara usually does – in making him in the eyes of some into a polarizing figure. That itself is unfair.
The primary alternative candidate now is Rav David Lau, Chief Rabbi of Modiin, with whom I have developed a very warm relationship over the last few years. Son of a former Chief Rabbi, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, whose life story should be read by and inspire all Jews, Rav David should nonetheless not be perceived as a legacy candidate, driven to higher rabbinic office by the effects of nepotism. He is an exceptional human being – warm, friendly, engaging, personable and dedicated to Torah and Klal Yisrael. By the standards of the Israeli rabbinate, he is unique. I have personally witnessed Rav Lau walk miles on Shabbat morning to participate in the smachot taking place in a variety of kehillot, only because as the city’s rabbi he deems it appropriate. (Few, if any other chiefs, do the same – Rav Shlomo Riskin in Efrat being the exception, but an exception that proves the rule.) That approach, more typical of the American rabbinate, is sorely lacking in Israel. Rav Lau brings that to Modiin, which is why so many will be disappointed if he is elected, because they do not wish to lose him – the greatest testimony to a Rav’s effectiveness.
Both Rav Stav and Rav Lau are excellent orators and teachers of Torah. But this is unique: every Thursday night at 11:00 PM, Rav Lau gives a shiur at a different home in one neighborhood of Modiin, only because people asked for it and he is happy to do it. (I have attended several times myself and even filled in once when Rav Lau was away.) Between 15-20 men come every week, late at night (the class ends around midnight), and Rav Lau enters, banters, takes a topic in halacha or from the sedra and teaches Torah. There is no money, no fanfare, no entourage, no need for the national media to take note of it; just a Rav teaching Torah to eager students, laymen all. He is treasured by religious and secular alike, and his scholarship is apparent from his sefer on halacha (a compendium of different topics) called “Maskil L’David.”
Another illustrious Rav whose name was entered but withdrawn because of an age barrier is Rav Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan. He is not only a superior talmid chacham, but a human being of exquisite sensitivity and humility. One example: a number of years ago, the expellees from Gush Katif set up a protest tent outside the Knesset in which they lived for a few weeks while their demands for justice were being considered. I went to visit them to show support. When I arrived, all I saw was Rav Ariel sitting in the tent surrounded by the refugees, giving a shiur, offering words of chizuk, consoling, supporting and identifying with Jews in need. Again – there was no entourage, no media, nothing to record that this was the rabbinate at its best: ministering to Jews, and tending to their spiritual and material needs not to win plaudits or acclaim but simply because it was the right thing to do.
Some candidacies have been placed on the back burner – but they are also wonderful rabbis and people. Rav Eliezer Igra, Rav of Kfar Maimon and Dayyan, is filled with Torah knowledge, depth, integrity, and love of Israel. He fought in the Yom Kippur War under Yoni Netanyahu’s command, and is widely respected, if perhaps the least known of the candidates. While sitting next to him and chatting at an event not long ago, I noticed that he (like me) wears a kippa serugah under a black hat. I didn’t ask him why (I’m not sure why I do!) but it is symbolic of someone who wants to overcome divisions in Jewish life, and doesn’t wish to see the Torah world divided into teams with uniforms.
And Rav Yaakov Shapira, Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz HaRav and also son of a former, and most revered Chief Rabbi, Rav Avraham Shapira zt”l, is also a strong religious-nationalist and an effective spokesmen for Torah and the land of Israel. His candidacy also seems to have been muted for now, through no fault of his own.
In the Sefaradi world, admittedly less familiar to me, vying for the position of Chief Rabbi are two of the sons of Rav Ovadia Yosef, and also Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, son of former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l. He is the longtime rabbi of Tzfat – a powerful, outspoken defender of Israel, Jewish settlement and Torah – a leader who is unafraid to ruffle feathers and is guided by the truth of Torah in all his endeavors. Another candidate is Rav Ratzon Arussi, a dayyan and Rav of Kiryat Ono, whose Torah works are widely studied but whose outsider status might benefit the Rabbinate in general.
My point is not to choose sides, declare a favorite or to influence any voter; this particular system is broken. It is rather to underscore that all these individuals are splendid Rabbis and human beings, lovers of Israel, who do great honor to the Rabbinate in particular and to the Jewish people generally. The campaigning – including the pathetic leaks, rumors, innuendos and endorsements that are staples of secular elections – should not obscure that fact. Israel is blessed with many fine rabbis. They are the “judges who will be in those days” (Devarim 17:9) whose authority applies to their era. Nostalgia for the past is always pleasurable but often inaccurate. Great rabbis of the past – universally applauded today – were often vilified in their time, and usually by the same type of people responsible for today’s vilifications. (Who knows? Maybe they are all related as well.) That so many people view the Chief Rabbinate as the vehicle for power, patronage, money, jobs and prestige is one reason why the process is so vexing and troublesome. But don’t blame the rabbis for that.
Whoever wins, we should wish him well. Whoever doesn’t win, we should wish him well too, for all Jews should be appreciative that they all will continue to serve God, His Torah and His people.
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