Campaign for top rabbis in Israel getting nasty Race is marked by smear tactics

February 15, 1993|By Newsday

JERUSALEM -- Israel's election of two new chief rabbis has become a worldly slugfest this year, so incendiary in tone that the smoke -- and the mud -- are flying.

Since campaigning began in earnest two weeks ago, one of the candidates for the state's top religious posts has been accused of adultery, another of bribing his way out of army service in the 1950s, a third of harboring dangerously liberal ideas. Several candidates claim rivals have bugged their offices.

The race became so nasty that some members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, called for postponing next Sunday's election indefinitely, or at least until tempers cool. They failed, and the balloting -- in which 80 rabbis and 70 lay politicians will choose the winners by paper ballot -- will take place as scheduled for the posts that carry 10-year terms.

All contenders say that they abhor the smear tactics that have made this election for the chief rabbis, one for Ashkenazi Jews of European extraction and the other for Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews, nearly as unsavory as the Israeli political campaigns, known for their dirtiness.

"Personal traits prevail today more than the spiritual or religious ideology of the past," said Simcha Miron, secretary to the chief rabbinate of Jerusalem and an expert on rabbinical contests.

The tenor of the campaign has also revived debate over the role of the chief rabbis, who are the heads of a vast bureaucracy of government-paid local rabbis and of the rabbinical courts. For Israeli Jews, these courts decide all matters of personal status like divorce and marriage.

Few Israelis consider the chief rabbi to be Judaism's highest religious authority. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews follow the rulings of their own top rabbis or councils of Torah sages associated with individual schools, sect or political parties.

Yet the position carries with it political, if not spiritual, weight.

The leading candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi is Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, now Sephardic chief rabbi of Haifa. He is backed by the powerful spiritual mentor of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which is part of the current coalition government.

Yisrael Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, had been seen as the front runner in the Ashkenazi race until charges of sexual misconduct swamped him in recent weeks.

His main rival is Haifa's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, She'ar-Yashuv Cohen. He has been portrayed as a wild liberal whose wife even works with the Israel Woman's Network, a lobbying group for women's rights and services.

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