A battle for the rabbinate, and for Israel’s soul

If Israel doesn’t take a more inclusive approach to Jewish conversion and marriage, the country will ‘splinter to pieces,’ says David Stav, who hopes to lead a revolution in the Chief Rabbinate beginning this spring

David Stav (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)
David Stav (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)
Israel's survival depends on creating "an elementary common denominator around which the society can unite." Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)
Israel’s survival depends on creating ‘an elementary common denominator around which the society can unite.’ Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)

A battle is brewing for control of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — an institution which regulates important parts of the lives of Israeli Jews and is generally mocked, hated or ignored.

Jews in Israel cannot get married, divorced or buried without the rabbinate, which also controls conversion, making it the Jewish state’s official arbiter of Judaism. While the institution started out as part of the modern religious Zionist movement, in recent decades the national rabbinate and the local rabbinates of Israeli cities and towns have become largely controlled by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their stricter interpretations of Jewish law. This has put the institution at odds with the mainstream and has caused tension with more liberal Israelis and Jews abroad.

Control of the rabbinate and the two key posts in the institution — those of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis — will be decided in an election slated for the coming spring. An organization of religiously moderate Orthodox rabbis in Israel, Tzohar, hopes to return the institution to Zionist — as opposed to ultra-Orthodox — hands, accusing the rabbinate of alienating Israelis and warning of an impending crisis in Israeli society if problems of Jewish identity are not solved soon. The rabbinate is still necessary, the rabbis of Tzohar insist, but it must be changed.

Tzohar recently launched an ad campaign targeting the rabbinate and plans to field a candidate for chief rabbi. The group’s leader, Rabbi David Stav, is the most likely nominee. The Times of Israel interviewed Stav — a 52-year-old father of nine from the community of Shoham in central Israel — in Jerusalem this week. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

What’s wrong with the religious establishment in Israel?  

Let’s look at the results of the current situation: There are more than 1.25 million Jews here who moved to Israel and whose Judaism is officially in doubt. One third of secular couples get married in civil ceremonies outside of Israel.

What is the most pressing problem with the system?

The most urgent problem is that in 10 to 20 years Israel society will splinter to pieces. It will be a society in which people won’t believe that their friends or neighbors are Jewish. This society is one that won’t be able to survive. To avoid this, we have to create a common Jewish denominator that is as broad as possible.

What’s the cause of the problem?

We don’t treat Israeli Jewish society as customers — we treat them like the income tax department does, as people who owe us. People don’t need us, we need them. That’s the basic point that must change. When a Russian or American Jew comes here, we don’t help him prove that they are Jewish — we say, bang your head against the wall and prove it. We tell them it’s their problem, not ours. This has to change.

A Tzohar poster calling for change in the rabbinate, with the face of early Zionist rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)
A Tzohar poster calling for change in the rabbinate, with the face of early Zionist rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)

Couples are afraid to get married in Jewish ceremonies, not only because they are concerned about the wedding but even more so because they fear what will happen when they get divorced. We have to guarantee their right to get married in a respectful fashion and to get divorced in an efficient and respectful fashion. And we must ensure that the conversion problem is solved.

What’s the solution?

To create motivation among young children to pursue conversion, starting with children in religious schools. Today there are thousands of children of immigrants who are in religious schools but are not being converted, because their parents are not Jewish according to Jewish law and may be prepared for their children to convert but do not want to convert themselves. There are solutions to this problem in the boundaries of Jewish law.

The early Zionist rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the first to envision the institution of the rabbinate, stars in your new campaign against the country’s current rabbinic leadership. What is the gap between what Kook proposed and what exists today?

Rabbi Kook always saw the entire nation of Israel – not a specific group or party. Unfortunately, some politicians see the rabbinate as an institution they can use to take care of the specific group they represent and don’t see the needs of all of the people of Israel.

You’re saying that the ultra-Orthodox sector, which does not see things through a national perspective, took over an institution that was supposed to be Zionist.

I’ll put it differently. It’s not the ultra-Orthodox, but rather political operators who see the rabbinate as a source of power and are not concerned with the broader good of the people of Israel. I am sure there are good people in the ultra-Orthodox sector who care about the needs of the state. But the political operators who have taken over the system see only the small group from which they came.

How did the rabbinate slip from the grasp of Zionist rabbis?

It was the cheapest thing politicians from the right or left could sell in coalition negotiations — in return for something the public does not quite understand or see as important, they got the votes they needed in the government. The rabbinate was the cheapest thing to sell.

What’s the solution you suggest?

We want rabbis who care about the state to believe once again that the rabbinate can be returned to the state, and we want them to return to the rabbinate on the local and national level.

The establishment, right and left, often sees the national religious camp as a threat because of its political views. If there is a peace process, the leadership might understandably prefer to have an ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, which is more flexible on issues like territorial withdrawals.

True. The ultra-Orthodox sector is willing to sit in any government, and they are more convenient to deal with for many politicians than the national religious sector, which is ideological and political.

I grew up in Toronto in a largely religious neighborhood that was part of a thriving Jewish community. There was no rabbinate. The same goes for anywhere else in the Diaspora. Why does Israel need one? 

In Toronto or any other city in Canada or the US there is no Jewish state and no struggle of that Jewish society for survival. No one cares if you want to be Reform, Conservative – do whatever you want. But here you need to create an army, a society, a country, and it has to survive. You need to create an elementary common denominator around which the society can unite. That denominator is that we are Jews. Beyond that there is nothing. As soon as this denominator is broken, there will be a question about how this society can continue to live. Because the People of Israel A, who are religious, won’t necessarily risk their lives for the People of Israel B, who might not even be Jewish, and vice versa.

Trying to create a religious monopoly called the rabbinate can do more harm to Judaism than good.

There is a price to having a monopoly, this is true. I think Judaism suffers from it. But I think that in the existing circumstances there is no choice. Right now the alternative to the existence of the rabbinate is the disintegration of the components of Jewish identity in Israel. The common denominator created by the rabbinate is minimal, it’s tiny — don’t get confused, no one is trying to create a common denominator that is too deep — but the minimum must be preserved.

But many people already ignore the rabbinate. They don’t convert and get married however they want. The breakdown you fear already exists.

What you’re saying is true. We say that if this mess continues for 10 more years it is doubtful whether the rabbinate will have meaning, because the threads holding Jewish society in Israel together will have completely disappeared. If today a third of secular couples are getting married outside the rabbinate, in 10 years it will be half, and as soon as it’s half the story is over. This is why the upcoming elections for the rabbinate are crucial.

Do you have any chance of success?

We’re not committed to success. We are committed to a 100 percent effort. God will do what he needs to do.


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