For the first time ever, Israel has no chief rabbis

Both of Israel’s chief rabbis step down at end of their 10-year terms with no successors appointed, leaving the rabbinate without top leadership.

By Pesach Benson, TPS

A political struggle has left Israel without chief rabbis for the first time in the country’s history.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef stepped down from their positions on Monday as their 10-year terms expired.

Israeli chief rabbis serve 10-year terms and often represent Israel abroad. The Chief Rabbinate has jurisdiction over issues of personal status, such as marriage, divorce and conversions, as well as burials, kosher certification, holy sites, rabbinical courts and religious seminaries known as yeshivas.

Chief rabbis, including for local municipalities, are elected by an election assembly consisting of 80 rabbis representing local religious councils and 70 public officials representing the Knesset and local authorities. By law, replacements are supposed to be elected at least 21 days before the end of their term.

The chief rabbis, local rabbis and public officials on the national and local levels each select a certain number of members to the assembly. But disagreements over the assembly’s makeup persisted and the Ministry of Religious Affairs never convened the assembly.

A vote was originally supposed to be held in August 2023. But the Knesset postponed the vote, at the behest of Religious Affairs Minister Michael Malkieli who argued that the timing would interfere with municipal elections scheduled for October 31.

Critics accused Malkieli of trying to get individuals onto the assembly with more favorable views for certain candidates for the Chief Rabbi, the 15-member Chief Rabbinate Council which oversees the chief rabbinate’s day-to-day affairs, and local rabbinic authorities.

But the municipal elections were postponed to February when war with Hamas broke out.

Matters became more complicated when the Attorney General said both Rabbis Lau and Yosef could not be involved in selecting members of the statutory body over a conflict of interest.

Both come from rabbinic families and have brothers seeking positions in the rabbinate, raising accusations of nepotism. Rabbi David Lau’s father, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, was Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi from 1993-2003. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was Chief Sephardi Rabbi from 1973-1983.

In another twist, the High Court of Justice in January ruled that women were under-represented in the election assembly ordered the Chief Rabbis to include women among their selections.

No clear front runners to replace Rabbis Lau and Yosef have emerged.