Even people familiar with the nastiness of political campaigns in Israel have been shocked at the conduct in the current race for the state’s Chief Rabbinate.
A low point came last week when Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi and spiritual leader of the Shas party, called Rabbi David Stav, the Religious Zionist candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi, “an evil man” who is “not fit for anything,” though acknowledging the two had never met.
In an interview in Jerusalem with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Stav said he was “insulted” by Rav Ovadia’s remarks, because “one expects a Gadol HaTorah [Torah sage] to behave differently,” but he said that “the real problem” is that the stature of religious leaders has been diminished among both religious and secular Jews.
The police investigation into bribery charges against the outgoing Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, only reinforces the negative impression among the population.
Rabbi Stav has campaigned on a pledge to rid the position of bureaucracy and corruption and to bring a softer, more pleasant and embracing image of Orthodox Judaism to secular Israelis who have come to hate the religion because of the Chief Rabbinate’s strict interpretation of the law.
He has been a target of the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, leadership since announcing his plans last year to run for the position of chief rabbi. His critics on the right are fearful that he will dismantle much of the haredi bureaucracy of the post, which employs hundreds, and that he will liberalize the current stringent laws regarding conversion and end the illegal policy of rabbis receiving payment for performing marriages.
Rabbi Stav was recently surrounded by haredi youth who jeered him when he attended a wedding, and some intelligence experts have expressed private fears for the rabbi’s life, given the fervent opposition against him in some parts of the haredi community.
The election, now set for the third week of July, is held only once a decade and is decided by a select group of 150 people, about half rabbis (mostly haredi) and half local politicians from across the country.
Rabbi David Lau, chief rabbi of Modiin and son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, dean of the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva, are the other announced candidates for the Ashkenazi post, though some say Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, chief rabbi of Migdal Haemek, may also enter the fray. Rabbi Stav is the only candidate who has described the Chief Rabbinate as broken and in need of repair in order to regain respect from the large majority of Israelis.
While asserting that he is fully committed to halacha, or traditional Jewish law, Rabbi Stav said that “religious coercion creates hatred of Judaism and the Jewish heritage.” His goal is to be more accommodating to brides and grooms, and to those getting divorced, since all marriages and divorces in Israel must have Orthodox rabbis officiating.
Rabbi Stav said that if elected, in the first three months in office he would allow couples to choose any Orthodox rabbi they wish to officiate at their wedding (rather than going to a rabbi appointed on the basis of where the couple lives); privatize pre-wedding counseling in a more empathetic way; encourage prenuptial agreements to ease the problem of agunot [women not able to divorce recalcitrant husbands]; and help people prove their Jewish identity so as to be candidates for marriage.