- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

Promising ‘Real Revolution,’ David Stav Jolts Race for Chief Rabbi of Israel

Rabbi David Stav’s provocative campaign for the post of Chief Rabbi of Israel caused quite a stir, and even The New York Times [1] covered the story. In this NYT story I am quoted in support of Rabbi Stav and in favor of religious marriage and divorce.

Promising ‘Real Revolution,’ Israeli Jolts Race for Chief Rabbi of Israel [1]

By JODI RUDOREN [2], The New York Times, July 22, 2013.

rav stav
[3] Rabbi David Stav

SHOHAM, Israel — With his long gray beard and conservative black suit, Rabbi David Stav hardly looks like a revolutionary. But Rabbi Stav, whose upstart campaign has upended the race forIsrael [4]’s next chief rabbi, covers his head not with the signature black hat of the ultra-Orthodox, but with a large knitted skullcap, the symbol of Israel’s national-religious movement.

Rabbi David Stav, 53, conducting a Torah lesson in Shoham, Israel. The race to lead the rabbinate, which controls marriage, divorce and conversions, has become a public and bitter battle.

Similar subtleties characterize the “real revolution” Rabbi Stav promises if he is elected this month after the most public and bitter battle in Israel’s history to lead the rabbinate [5], whose strictly Orthodox control over marriage, divorce and conversion has alienated many of the state’s six million Jews.

Denounced by ultra-Orthodox leaders as “wicked” and “dangerous” [6] for his plans to help people prove their Jew identity and thus make it easier for them to marry, Rabbi Stav insists he would not diverge from Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, or recognize the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, as many here and abroad would like.

Instead, he vows to transform what is widely seen as an obstructionist, divisive bureaucracy into a user-friendly — and unifying — service organization.

“It’s something that changes the approach of the rabbis to their customers: do we see them as our brothers and sisters or do we treat them as a monopoly to its captors?” said Rabbi Stav, 53, currently the rabbi of Shoham, an upscale bedroom community of 22,000 mostly nonreligious Jews near Ben-Gurion International Airport. “For the first time, a rabbi comes and says, ‘I want to have a dialogue with the Israeli society, I want to understand their needs, I want to make Judaism accessible to them.’ ”

The campaign has garnered unprecedented public attention, as many Israelis and American Jewish leaders see Rabbi Stav as a last-ditch hope to save a troubled institution they consider critical to Jewish unity, even if he would liberalize it ever so slightly. It has also set off a backlash among the ultra-Orthodox, for whom the rabbinate is not only a vehicle to impose their religious viewpoint but also a power base and financial boon, and led to growing calls among many on the left to abolish what they see as an anachronistic and irrelevant fief.

The debate is just one of many that Israel has been grappling with over the role of religion in the public sphere [7] and increasingly harsh conflicts among the growing ultra-Orthodox minority [8], the national-religious — or modern Orthodox — camp and the secular, who make up nearly half the Jewish population and whose lives are most often tripped up by the rabbinate’s rules. Controlled for decades by ultra-Orthodox political parties through back-room deals, the rabbinate is up for grabs afterparliamentary elections in January [9] empowered secular and national-religious factions and froze the ultra-Orthodox from the new governing coalition [10].

Rabbi Stav’s main opponent is Rabbi David Lau [11], the son of a renowned former chief rabbi, who is backed by the ultra-Orthodox — and indeed wears the black hat — but also brags of his national-religious and secular connections and speaks about remaking the rabbinate “with a smile.”

“I represent all kinds of groups, and he represents only a group of the national-religious, this is the difference,” said Rabbi Lau, 48, now the rabbi of Modi’in, a city of 75,000 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “You need to think about a rabbi who can speak with the other rabbis, not fight with them. To speak is better than to fight, I think.”

Though the election on Wednesday will be decided by 150 rabbis, mayors and people handpicked by politicians, the campaign has captivated the public like never before, thanks to Rabbi Stav’s agenda, his high-profile media blitz and professional consultants. It has also been unusually ugly: a group of youths shoved Rabbi Stav and hurled epithets at him at a wedding last month [12], after an ultra-Orthodox sage said making him chief would be like “bringing idolatry into the temple.”

Rabbi Stav and Rabbi Lau are two of four candidates for a 10-year term as chief rabbi of the Ashkenazim, Jews of European descent, replacing Yona Metzger, who is under house arrest on suspicion of bribery and embezzlement, charges that have further damaged the rabbinate’s reputation. Five candidates face off in a parallel race for the Sephardic chief rabbi, representing Jews of Middle Eastern origin. One of the Sephardic candidates was questioned by the police for eight hours this month on a possible breach of trust charge, and there have been calls to disqualify him and another candidate for rulings they have made against renting apartments to Arabs [13] and appointing women to public positions, as well as disparaging comments about gay men and lesbians and civil court judges.

All of which has made many here question [5] the very need for the chief rabbinate, an institution with roots in the 17th-century Ottoman era that was formalized by the British in 1921. Once revered as a platform for intellectual and spiritual leadership, the $5.6 million operation, whose chiefs are paid $100,000 a year, has lately been dismissed as an anachronistic patronage farm rife with corruption.

Judaism is famously nonhierarchical, with individual rabbis worldwide having authority to interpret Jewish law for their congregations or communities, but the rabbinate and its religious courts are the only legal authorities here on family law and kosher food.

As many as one-third of Israeli couples marry abroad or live together without marrying rather than follow the rabbinate’s strictures. Jewish law requires that the husband agree to divorce, andabout 3,400 women a year are denied dissolution of their marriages [14]. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, mostly Russian immigrants and their children, are barred from marriage and adoption because they cannot adequately prove their Jew identity; only conversions conducted by rabbinate-authorized rabbis are accepted.

“This institution has to be abolished for the sake of religion, and for the sake of the state,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. “Israel’s identity as a Jewish state has other much more essential components than legislating Judaism.”

Rabbi Stav helped found Tzohar [15], a group of open-minded Orthodox rabbis that has helped 40,000 couples get married through the rabbinate over 18 years, and said he would bring the group’s experience in genealogical research to establish Jewish ancestry to the rabbinate. Rabbi Lau, for his part, said he would nationalize an online marriage-registration system he created to smooth the process in Modi’in.

These ideas are like putting a bandage on a broken bone for many Israelis who advocate the establishment of civil marriage [16] and other ways to wrench religion from government.

“Democracies are not compatible with the notion of chief clergy,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who runs Hiddush, a group that recently rated the world’s countries based on freedom to marry [17]. “It is legally offensive because it imposes their authority over the majority of Israelis who do not heed to their authority other than having it pushed down their throats.”

But David M. Weinberg [18] of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies — who is backing Rabbi Stav — said the rabbinate’s coercive power was essential “to ensure that Jews in this country can continue to marry each other.”

“We’re so different in our outlooks, in our lifestyles, in our beliefs, at the very least we are one Jewish people in terms of Jewish definition,” Mr. Weinberg said.

Rabbi Stav, who, like Rabbi Lau, has spent recent days lobbying electors in one-on-one meetings, said he would end the rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher supervision and encourage organ donation, for starters. But he opposes civil marriage, calling it “the exact recipe for the destruction of the Jewish society in Israel.”

“We have to choose a chief rabbi that will help Israel to be a more Jewish and a more Zionist state,” he said. “Otherwise we will become a nation of tribes that will not be able to survive in the Middle East with all the external threats.”