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Israel Elects New Chief Rabbis

Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef chosen for ten-year terms

Yair Rosenberg
July 24, 2013
Rabbi David Lau, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef(Moti Milrod/
Rabbi David Lau, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef(Moti Milrod/

Rabbi David Lau (Ashkenazi) and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (Sephardi) will be Israel’s next chief rabbis. Voting took place today from 3 p.m.-6 p.m., Israel time, with 147 of 150 eligible electors–politicians, rabbinate officials, and appointees–casting ballots at the Leonardo Hotel in Jerusalem. The results were released moments ago.

Rabbi David Lau is the son of former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, and is currently the rabbi of the diverse city of Modi’in. Though himself ultra-Orthodox, Lau, like his celebrated father, is well-liked among Israel’s secular population, a fact he went to great lengths to emphasize during his campaign, given the popularity of his primary challenger, the religious Zionist reformer Rabbi David Stav. For the past seven years, Lau has done the “Ask the Rabbi” TV program for Israel’s Channel 1, as well as filled a regular slot on Radio Kol Chai since 1999. He also runs a web site where individuals can submit questions on Jewish law.

While Lau’s chief opponent, Rabbi David Stav, was backed by 4 of 5 parties in the government coalition, Lau garnered the tacit support of Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose family is close to Lau and his father. Lau’s election marks a bitter defeat for Stav and his many supporters across Israel, who hoped to revamp the chief rabbinate. Nonetheless, Stav’s insurgent candidacy–which few credited as serious early on–helped push the ultra-Orthodox establishment to back a centrist. Whether that will be enough for those clamoring for rabbinate reform–or whether legislation to strip the institution of some of its authority will soon follow–remains to be seen.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is the son of former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and a noted scholar of Jewish law. Once he obtained his father’s endorsement–after his brother, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, dropped out of the running due to ethical concerns–his victory was not much in doubt. Indeed, out of deference to Yosef, three Sephardi candidates dropped out of the race over the last few days. Thus, while the other Ashkenazi and Sephardi candidates were lobbying electors at the Leonardo Hotel until the polls closed, Yosef reportedly abstained and told the press he’d see them at his victory party.

Yosef’s election reasserts the dominance of his father within the Sephardi religious and political establishment. But it will also doubtless come as a relief to many Israelis and diaspora Jews, who were gravely concerned by the candidacy of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu. Eliyahu is on record prohibiting Jews from renting to Arabs, and advocating other troubling views. Israel’s attorney general had stated that he would not defend Eliyahu in the event his election was challenged in the courts. With Yosef’s election, these worries can be put to rest.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.