The upcoming selection of two new chief rabbis, a once-in-a-decade occurrence, has drawn more public attention than ever this year. The candidate who has energized the race and drawn the most public attention is David Stav — a national-religious rabbi with a reformist platform that aims to make the state’s official arbiter of Judaism more palatable to Israelis, many of whom view the rabbinic bureaucracy as somewhere between archaic and malevolent and seek, in growing numbers, to circumvent it.

In part because of the makeup of the new coalition government, which includes no ultra-Orthodox parties, the religious Zionist camp has a shot at regaining control of the rabbinate, which has edged over the years toward the ultra-Orthodox and ever further from the Israeli mainstream on whose behalf it is supposed to tend to marriage, divorce, burial and conversion.

Though discussion of the race has centered on Stav, he is not the only candidate among religious Zionists. He faces a serious challenge inside his own camp from Eliezer Igra, a religious court judge and the rabbi of Kfar Maimon, a community in southern Israel. In February, a convention of Zionist rabbinic heavyweights selected Igra, and not Stav, as their candidate for the job.

At stake is the job of Ashkenazi chief rabbi. A Sephardic chief rabbi is also set to be selected at the same time.

If Stav is portraying himself as someone who will shake up the rabbinate, Igra is seen as more conservative, a respected insider with a better chance of being accepted by the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who largely control the levers of the rabbinic bureaucracy — and, crucially, of the selection committee, a bewildering 150-member array of rabbis, mayors, religious functionaries, and government appointees. (In the committee’s current makeup, all but two members are male.)

The vote is supposed to take place in June, though no firm date has been set. Other rabbis are also in the running, and because of the complicated and opaque nature of the selection process, the results could be unexpected.

Igra, 59 and a father of nine, was born in Jerusalem. He attended a religious Zionist yeshiva that combined study and military service, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War was sent straight from infantry basic training to hold an airport in Sinai. After the scale of the army’s tank losses in the war became apparent, he and his friends were given a lightning course on armored warfare and tanks from the 500th Brigade, which had just been badly mauled on the Suez Canal. “The tanks still had blood on them,” he recalled this week.

In 1982, he was among the founders of the West Bank settlement of Psagot, overlooking Ramallah, and helped create the first seminary that aimed to train Zionist rabbis as religious court judges, dayanim. He recently completed a temporary appointment as a judge in the country’s highest beit din, or religious court.

Igra spoke to The Times of Israel at the offices of the religious courts in downtown Jerusalem. He wore the long black coat of a religious court judge, which lent him the appearance of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, but his large knitted kippa marked him as a Zionist. He interspersed serious comment with laughter and a story or two.

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.

What impact do you think you can have as chief rabbi?

People don’t always understand the importance of the post of chief rabbi. The most important part of his job, the one that is at the heart of the unity of the people of Israel, is to serve as the president of the highest religious court. The chief rabbi sits on the committee that appoints religious court judges. He’s in charge of conversion. He gets the cases through the courts.

Sometimes people who come from abroad don’t grasp the importance of the religious court system, and we see this on occasion: Someone might come with a get [a certificate of divorce]. Who issued the get? Who said it’s good? The same goes for a confirmation of someone’s Judaism, or conversion. Sometimes it’s a tragedy — someone comes with a get, the woman remarries, there are children, and then it turns out the get isn’t recognized. [According to Jewish law, that would condemn her children to mamzerut, the status of children born in a forbidden relationship, who can marry only others with the same status.]

People don’t understand the miracle that happened here, that there is one respected authority, the rabbinate. It’s not like three people get divorced every year — we’re talking about 11,000 couples. There is one body, and it’s recognized by everybody.

I always compare it to the world of kashrut. I recently met the owner of a hall that caters to the ultra-Orthodox, and he has no fewer than seven different kashrut certificates: One from the rabbi of Belz, from Beit Yosef, Karelitz, Badatz, others. He told me, “A Lubavitcher came and I gave up, I said, take money and buy your own food.”

People don’t understand the miracle that happened here, that there is one respected authority, the rabbinate. It’s not like three people get divorced every year — we’re talking about 11,000 couples. There is one body, and it’s recognized by everybody.

In matters of kashrut, if you eat something that’s not good, you can repent. But in matters like mamzerut, for example, there’s no way to fix it. If a divorce isn’t recognized, it can be a disaster.

The Jews have always known how to splinter into pieces, like the splits in the kibbutzim in the 1950s — no one remembers what they were fighting about. The fact that Israel’s 6 million Jews have one authority is no small matter. The system is creaky sometimes, there are problems. But it’s still incredibly important. It’s the base.

I didn’t get up one morning and say, I want to be chief rabbi. Other rabbis approached me, and there was a convention of the rabbis of religious Zionism, not people I chose. They were told, choose one candidate. I received a clear majority.

I grew up in Toronto, where there was no rabbinate. The Jews lived for 2,000 years and achieved a thing or two without a body called a rabbinate that forces its views on people with the power of law. Why not allow every community to act as it chooses, as is the case in Toronto, or New York, or elsewhere in the Diaspora?

In the matter of marriage and divorce in Judaism, for example, the situation you’re describing is the worst thing that can happen. The tragedies that happen afterward, like when a couple wants to get married and can’t, those are the greatest tragedies.

Take the simplest example, and we see these things every day: A person comes, let’s call him Moishe, and says he wants to get married. With who? With Sarah. Sarah comes and says that yes, she wants to get married to Moishe. Moishe says his mother was married before, got divorced, remarried, and he was born. That’s fine. Where did Moishe’s mother get divorced? He gives the name of the religious court. We’re very sorry, we say, we can’t recognize that divorce, and here we have a tragedy. When you understand that 33 percent of couples get divorced we’re talking about huge numbers.

The nation survived for 2,000 years without the rabbinate’s help.

The nation also survived for 2,000 years without an Education Ministry. Do you want to try to do education now without the Education Ministry? When they dismantle the Education Ministry, they can move on to this.

Members of the Women of the Wall group this month. The rabbinate, Igra says, 'is committed to Judaism as it was given to Moses at Sinai 3,225 years ago' (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Members of the Women of the Wall group this month. The rabbinate, Igra says, ‘is committed to Judaism as it was given to Moses at Sinai 3,225 years ago’ (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Why do you think so many Israelis have negative feelings about the rabbinate, and as a result, sometimes about Judaism as well?

When the state was founded, there were two camps: those who feared God, and those who feared Judaism. In some kibbutzim, you weren’t allowed to put up a mezuzah. There is a struggle against religion. When there’s an agenda against you, it makes every problem seem bigger. Don’t misunderstand me — there are problems. If you sit at Hadassah Medical Center with a sign that says, “Have you seen a medical error today,” you’d be able to fill three pages every day saying that Hadassah is the worst hospital in the country. At the religious courts, where we now have computerized statistics, the average case is closed within 160 days. In general, the system works.

The Israeli public sphere is changing. This wasn’t the case 40 years ago, or 30. People are becoming more and more Jewish.

This is true even though we’re not allocated enough manpower. Look, right now we’re in the office of the president of the High Beit Din. [The office is rather bare, and might be that of a mid-level manager at City Hall or the tax department.] I suggest you go see what the office of the chief justice of the Supreme Court looks like. Every judge there has nine assistants, while every dayan here has three.

Israeli society is changing, and in some cases the extreme reactions are also growing stronger as a result. For example, in the new Knesset there are 40 members who describe themselves as religious. From Moshe Gafni to Elazar Stern. A very diverse group. And there are more who are traditional. The Israeli public sphere is changing. This wasn’t the case 40 years ago, or 30. People are becoming more and more Jewish.

In the Diaspora, most Jews belong to non-Orthodox denominations, and there is unhappiness about the status of these denominations in Israel.  Should there be changes here?

This doesn’t exist here, for the most part, so it’s not something we need to deal with. But as for Torah — there can always be arguments, but there is one Judaism. There is one rabbinate, which is the central body, and it decides. You can have a Reform synagogue, and I might say that’s unfortunate, but no one is stoning it, no one is doing anything bad to it. But the rabbinate is committed to Judaism as it was given to Moses at Sinai 3,225 years ago, and has been passed down to the present day.

Let’s say I’m of Russian descent, I’m a native Israeli, I served in a combat unit, but my mother isn’t Jewish. I want to get married, and under the current system I can’t. What solution should the system provide?

We all know people who match that description. The rabbinate in Israel is set in the status quo agreement from the beginning of the state. The status quo, people often think, is like a coalition agreement that can be changed. But I recently attended a lecture given by a historian who said the status quo is actually like a constitution. It was written down.

‘Someone might not want to send their kids to school, because they can do it better at home. But we still have an education system. Anything run by the state has huge advantages, and also a price’

Yes, there are problems and they have to be solved. I don’t want to propose solutions here. But part of the reason the problems are made to appear big is not because of the specific problem of a specific person, but because of the struggle against Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic country.

You have more than 300,000 people here who match the description I just gave.

There are political solutions, like allowing two non-Jews to get married in a civil union, but when it comes to Jewish law, there are things the rabbinate can’t accept. There might be 300,000, but there are also 6 million Jews here, and we can’t agree to change Israel’s character as a Jewish country. Of course there is a price here, and some people will pay it. That’s like anything else. Take education: Someone might not want to send their kids to school, because they can do it better at home, and in some cases the criticism is right. But we still have an education system. And a health system. Anything run by the state has huge advantages, and also a price.

Should there be changes in conversion?

Jewish conversion is clear, with all the disagreements that might exist: Accepting the yoke of Jewish observance is part of conversion. I think most of the people in question don’t attempt conversion because they’re not willing to lie to themselves. Because they understand that they have to observe Jewish law, and they don’t want to do that. I’m saying this as a point in their favor. Do you know the joke about the fish?

Which one?

There was once a poor Jew in a village, and he had nothing to eat. Someone told him, “Go to the priest, he’ll give you charity.” The priest said, “I only help Christians.”

“What do I do?” asked the man.

“Convert to Christianity,” answered the priest. The man agreed. The priest said, the condition is that you don’t eat gefilte fish on Shabbat. A month later the priest came to the Jew on Shabbat to check in. He saw gefilte fish on the table.

The priest asked him what he was doing — the condition was, no gefilte fish.

The man said, “Your honor the priest, this is not gefilte fish. I poured water on it, and I said, you’re not gefilte fish, you’re not gefilte fish.”

The people in question feel the truth, which is that Judaism is accepting the commandments, and Judaism is belief. Efforts are made today to ensure that someone who wants to convert will have a user-friendly system. But the demands are the demands.

I’m not saying it isn’t a problem. But one of our problems as Israelis is thinking that every problem can be solved.

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