With the once-a-decade election of Israel’s two chief rabbis scheduled for July 24, Rabbi David Stav, the 53-year-old Religious Zionist candidate for the Ashkenazi post who is attempting to end the two-decade-long reign of the fervently Orthodox, has already achieved a significant victory. Through his long and very public campaign this year he has shed light on a process that has long been kept in the shadows, understandably, because it is ugly, nasty and an embarrassment to Judaism.
It will be far more than a shame if Rabbi Stav is not elected next week; it will mark the end, for at least 10 years, of any real chance of convincing the great majority of Israelis that religion can be a source of comfort, not a stumbling block.
The spotlight now is on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party, the only Zionist party in the Knesset that has not publicly come out in favor of Rabbi Stav. Some say that’s because the prime minister is close to the family of another candidate, Rabbi David Lau, son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Others note that Sara Netanyahu so dislikes Naftali Bennett, the minister of religion and former chief of staff to her husband, that the prime minister cannot endorse Rabbi Stav, the candidate Bennett favors.
During the past year the determination of who gets to vote has been hotly debated —150 handpicked rabbis and political appointees. Candidates have emerged and withdrawn (and been investigated by the police for alleged fraud). Several who remain in the race are honorable scholars. But only Rabbi Stav is calling for radical change. He has characterized the chief rabbinate as a corrupt bureaucracy more intent on funding its own constituents and their fiefdoms than attending to the spiritual and practical needs of Israeli society. He has pledged to end the corruption, open the rabbinic process, engage secular Israelis and make weddings, divorces, burials and conversions more accessible. No wonder he has been demonized by some of his opponents who fear that he will wrest control from the fervently Orthodox. Most notably, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, called Rabbi Stav an “evil man,” while acknowledging that he had never met him.
The level of vitriol has been so high because the stakes are, as well —politically, economically and ideologically.
The choice next week is between a rabbi preaching Jewish unity and rabbis who will maintain a status quo that has seen the chief rabbinate become adversarial in its relationship to those it is meant to serve.
We urge Netanyahu to put aside personal issues and throw his influential support in favor of Rabbi Stav, the one candidate who can best connect Judaism and Jews —for the good of the state, and of the Jewish people. Otherwise the prime minister will bear the responsibility for the sorry status quo in Israeli religious life.