A few months ago Rabbi David Stav, the 53-year-old founder and president of Tzohar, a rabbinic organization that strives to make the face of traditional Judaism more appealing to Israelis, was seen as the Don Quixote candidate in the upcoming national Chief Rabbinate election, held once a decade.
After all, he is an idealistic moderate who stresses a compassionate approach to halacha, or Jewish law, in the face of a religious establishment that is increasingly powerful and rigid in its views. His conversations are sprinkled with words like “respect” and “dignity” and “solutions.”
Rabbi Stav, who serves the central Israeli town of Shoham, is in the Religious Zionist camp, while the haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) parties have controlled religious affairs within the government for years, having a direct impact on the personal status of Israelis — and indirectly on all Jews — in terms of kashrut, marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.
Ever more stringent in upholding halacha, the chief rabbis of late have alienated the great majority of Israelis who resent and sometimes defy their rulings.
Rabbi Stav, who believes that the role of chief rabbi is to serve the needs and Jewish identity of all Jews, not just the Orthodox community, was the first to declare his candidacy. However, he was given little chance of winning the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
That was before the national elections in January, though. The outcome produced a coalition government that does not include haredi parties, raising the possibility that Rabbi Stav, a soft-spoken, gray-bearded man who served in the Israeli army, has a serious chance of winning the election scheduled for June.
The resulting change, should Rabbi Stav win, could be dramatic.
At stake is the Jewish character of the Zionist state, and in the view of some, like Efraim Halevy, a former director of Mossad, the very future of Israel. “It’s not just a religious issue or a matter of principle,” he told me, “it’s a strategic one.” He asserts that if a halachic solution is not found for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who came from Russia in the last two decades, allowing them to convert to Judaism, Israel could find itself with a Jewish minority — without even taking into account the Palestinians.
Halevy notes that “close to 80,000 children born in Israel from marriages involving those immigrants are growing up status-less and unable to marry in the land where they were born,” and that these numbers “will increase exponentially as the years go by.”
Under the current chief rabbis — there are two, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic — the requirements for conversion have been tightened so that only those who commit to observing all 613 mitzvot are eligible, dissuading all but a few potential converts.
Several of the other candidates for the Chief Rabbinate post are respected Judaic scholars but none share Rabbi Stav’s commitment to urgent and dramatic change to make conversion more accessible, nor do they deal with other issues that alienate the majority of Israelis from their Judaism.
For example, Rabbi Stav has pledged to continue and broaden the work of Tzohar, founded in 1996 as an antidote to the religious establishment’s unyielding practices. Tzohar rabbis support inclusiveness, tolerance and Zionist ideals, and they started by focusing on marriages.
Many Israeli couples opt for civil marriages and wed in Cyprus in order to avoid religious ceremonies, which are required by law in Israel. (About one-third of Israeli couples marry in civil ceremonies outside of Israel.) There were complaints that mandated pre-wedding courses for brides were offensive, that weddings required strict adherence to the laws of mikveh and religious purity, and that officiating rabbis were charging fees to perform weddings, though that is against the law.
Tzohar created a popular marriage program that emphasized compassionate, personalized rabbinic contact and an openness to honoring requests and concerns. Rabbi Stav also advocates allowing couples to marry wherever they want in Israel, not just in their own city, as is now the practice, where local rabbis often are unhelpful.
Not surprisingly he has met with bitter opposition from the haredi-controlled religious establishment.
Rabbi Stav is the only candidate supportive of prenuptial wedding agreements as a means of preventing cases of agunot, a problem in which women are unable to divorce and remarry. He has pledged to end corruption of the rabbinic court system, privatize kashrut supervision and encourage government-appointed community rabbis to be accessible and welcoming.
Overall, his position is to make Judaism a source of positive identity rather than one perceived as creating walls around the Torah and its laws.
At present he is embroiled in a bitter election struggle that, in typical Israeli fashion, is more about politics than religious ideology or principle. He has garnered public endorsements from Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party as well as from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Betenu and Tzipi Livni’s Ha’Tnuah party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to favor Rabbi Stav but has not made an endorsement, no doubt because he is fearful of alienating the haredi parties he may seek to bring into his coalition in the coming months.
Ironically, the appointment of Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party as minister of religion, widely viewed as a natural ally of Rabbi Stav, has not yet led to more support for the rabbi. That’s because Bennett, whose campaign called for a strong Jewish state and appealed to secular Israelis looking for a fresh start, is getting serious pushback from a strong right-wing element within his party and others insisting that he support a haredi candidate for Ashkenazic chief rabbi.
Among those candidates are Rabbi Eliezer Igra, rabbinical judge of the Supreme Rabbinical Court; Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, dean of Merkaz HaRav yeshiva and son of former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira; and Rabbi David Lau, chief rabbi of Modi’in and son of former Chief Rabbi Meir Lau. While respected figures, they are, overall, satisfied with the status quo of the Chief Rabbinate and its relationship to society, as opposed to Rabbi Stav, who is calling for radical change.
Nachman Rosenberg, the executive vice president of Tzohar, comments: “It is only nice to look at the glass as half full when judging others. When judging oneself, on the contrary, we must look at the glass as half empty.” He said this is true for all public leaders, but especially applies “to the Chief Rabbinate that controls the Jewish future of the State of Israel, and currently leaves very much to be desired.”
Among the efforts to thwart Rabbi Stav’s chances for election, his haredi opponents have approached the popular and charismatic rabbi of Migdal HaEmek, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman, known to many as the Disco Rabbi for his outreach efforts to secular youth, to run for chief rabbi. So far he is not a candidate. There are also efforts to change the law and allow the current chief rabbis, Shlomo Amar (Sephardic) and Yona Metzger (Ashkenazic), to continue for a second 10-year term.
The election process itself is a bit murky. No date has been set for the secret-ballot election, scheduled for June, in which an all-male group of about 150 — half of whom are rabbis and half who hold political positions — will vote for the two chief rabbis. What is clear is that the minister of religion has enormous clout in determining the outcome, with a hand in choosing who votes. In recent years the post has been held by haredim, but Bennett, who also serves as minister of diaspora affairs, is a Religious Zionist. That doesn’t translate into an easy victory for Rabbi Stav, though.
“Everyone wants Bennett’s support, but if he supports a candidate he will have to pay the [political] price,” observed Yedidia Stern, a vice president at the Israel Democracy Institute and astute observer of religious affairs.
Another official close to the issue noted bluntly: “If Rabbi Stav wins, there will be many people who deserve credit. If he doesn’t, you can blame Bennett because he can make it happen.”
Stern himself supports Rabbi Stav because “he understands and identifies personally with the problems, and recognizes that the chief rabbi has a national mission, not just a religious one.” The other candidates have no commitment to make changes, he said. “He’s the man for the job.”
Rabbi Stav enjoys wide, but private, support from a number American Jewish leaders, including those outside the Orthodox world; they realize full well, though, that a public endorsement would only hurt his chances.
There are still many liberal voices insisting that religion and state should be separate in Israel, as it is in the United States. But Rabbi Stav and his supporters note that Israel is not America, and that the Chief Rabbinate can and should play an important role in keeping the Jews of Israel united as one people.
With the election on the horizon, the stakes are high but public awareness in Israel, and certainly here, is low. The more light shed on the situation, the better Rabbi Stav’s chances should be in restoring a once proud title — chief rabbi — and the image of religious leaders who seek to engage rather than distance themselves from the great majority of their fellow Jews.
Gary@jewishweek.org. This is reprinted from the April 19 issue of The Jewihs Week.