Rabbis throw spicy insults in election race

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SEX, adultery, bribes and phonetaps are the extra spicy ingredients in the race for the head of what is - or was - the highest religious authority in the land: the Chief Rabbinate, the official spokesman of Judaism in Israel.

The two men to be chosen next week - one an Ashkenazi Jew, of Eastern European origin, and one a Sephardi, or Oriental Jew - should provide moral guidance for the nation.

The most deadly accusations have emerged in the campaign for the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. Early on, Haifa's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, She'ar-Yashuv Cohen, accused the front-runner, Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, of leaking and distorting statements he had made to the press in order to paint him as a dangerous liberal. Rabbi Lau's supporters then accused Rabbi Cohen's apparatchiks of bugging his office. Rabbi Cohen counter-claimed that his phone was being tapped.

Then came the sex. This week the Hebrew press has reported that Rabbi Lau has made sexual advances against several women - which he has denied.

'It's more like a US presidential race than an election for the Chief Rabbinate,' says Shakar Illan, a writer on religious affairs for Ha'aretz newspaper. 'Its a tragi-comedy,' says Menachem Friedman, a sociologist and author of books on the institution. He and others have been predicting the decline and fall of the Chief Rabbinate for several years. Now, they believe it is inevitable.

When the Chief Rabbinate was founded in 1921 its purpose was to define the nature of Jewish citizenship, in Mandatory Palestine, before the state was founded, and to make learned interpretations of Jewish law. It is a Zionist body, funded by the state. As such it is largely spurned by anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox religious groups. It makes rulings, for example, on who can be defined as a Jew and supervises the kosher food laws.

Over the years the broad role of the Chief Rabbinate as prime arbiter of Jewish law - Halacha - has become largely symbolic, and cannot be enforced, according to Professor Friedman. In a mainly secular society, Israelis may prefer to listen to their own rabbis. And the Chief Rabbinate has no power outside Israel. As a result the prestige and learning of the Chief Rabbis have declined.

But in one vital area the institution is all-powerful. The two Chief Rabbis are judge and jury in Israel's marriage and divorce courts. It is here that the Israeli state and the Jewish religion are intertwined. While many secular Jews have objected, religious Jews in Israel have always insisted that religious control must be exercised over marriage and divorce to preserve the unity and purity of the Jewish people.

Religious experts say they believe that when the new Chief Rabbis are finally chosen they will have far less status than their predecessors and eventually the institution will be dismantled. But rabbinical control over marriage and divorce is likely to remain.