Interview'To our enemies we're all Jews, so we should feel like Jews'

A leading Religious Zionist rabbi hopes a post-Oct. 7 Israeli faith resurgence endures

As Israel fights its enemies, Tzohar co-founder Rabbi David Stav sees Jewish Israelis turning to their religion and unifying around it — but he worries about a post-war slump

Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

JTA — A woman from a secular kibbutz on the Gaza border shouts the Shema as she celebrates the release of Israeli hostages. Hundreds of sets of ritual fringes — hanging off combat-green garments — are distributed to soldiers on the front. The mother of a rescued hostage attributes her return to a challah ritual she performed the previous day.

To Rabbi David Stav and others across Israel, those anecdotes and more demonstrate that, in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 massacre and the ensuing war, Jewish Israelis who are not observant have been turning to their religion and marshaling it to create a sense of solidarity during the fighting. Stav, a leading liberal Religious Zionist rabbi, has dedicated much of his career to making Jewish ritual more accessible and appealing to secular Israelis. The war, he thinks, may be a turning point in that mission.

But speaking last month to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Stav said he worries that the day after the war, Israel will fall back into the acrimonious political divisions that defined 2023 before thousands of Hamas-led terrorists killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 240 more to the Gaza Strip on October 7. And for him, that concern is secondary to the worry he feels for his seven sons and sons-in-law currently serving in the Israeli military.

Stav is the co-founder and chairman of Tzohar, a liberal Israeli rabbinic association. He is also the rabbi of the central Israeli town of Shoham and ran unsuccessfully for chief rabbi of Israel in 2013. His goal, he said, is to promote a “normal” Judaism that is less dogmatic and more accepting of the varied ways many Israelis practice the religion.

His professional focus in large part is on drawing secular Israelis closer to their Jewish identity, and that was what he stressed when he spoke to JTA. But the religious revival extends beyond secular Israelis, he said: He also sees Religious Zionist Israelis coping with wartime by filling synagogues and adding to their prayers.

That embrace of Judaism, Stav hopes, will lead Jewish Israelis to come together and stay united. By the same token, he worries that a widespread lack of faith in the government may draw Israelis back into the sparring ideological camps they recently inhabited.

“I think the past month has created a significant crisis of faith regarding the government, the state, the army, but it has also raised very foundational questions in terms of defining our identity,” he said. “And we’re seeing more and more people who understand that the concept of being a Jew has a meaning they’d forgotten.”

Rabbi David Stav, standing, speaks at the Ben Gurion Home on September 10, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Guy Anto)

This conversation has been translated from Hebrew and edited for length and clarity.

JTA: What message do you hope to send to American Jews? 

Rabbi David Stav: I think that the message that I want to send here is, first and foremost, after an argument lasting almost a year that split Israeli society and almost broke Israeli society apart, we see a different spirit: a spirit full of solidarity, full of love of Israel, full of willingness to sacrifice.

But there’s something deeper: Israeli society is in the midst of very difficult questions about defining its identity. What are we more: Israelis or Jews? I think the events of October 7 demonstrated to Israeli society, first, the mutual support between Israeli and world Jewry. But second, and no less, [it showed] that regarding our enemies — Hamas and its partners — there’s no difference between right and left, religious and secular. We’re all Jews, and given that we’re all Jews, we are obligated to feel like Jews, to identify as Jews.

I believe that for many Israelis, that’s a moving experience because many of them thought that we were enlightened, Israeli, Western — and suddenly they realize that before they’re Western and Israeli, they’re Jewish.

It’s not just one instance. It’s thousands of instances. I can’t even tell you how many stories I’m talking about… More important than all that is people’s willingness to talk in the language of Judaism.

Volunteers in Jerusalem prepare tzitzit for IDF soldiers on the front lines, October 19, 2023. (Shira Silkoff)

What message do you hope to take back with you to Israel?

Israelis must understand that what happens in Israel doesn’t just influence Israel. It influences the United States, and antisemitic incidents here are a direct result of what happens in Israel. Just like American Jews know that if in Israel it isn’t safe it won’t be safe here, we need to understand that also, that what happens to us influences not just us.

Many, many Israelis felt in recent years that they were more Israeli than Jewish, that their Judaism has no meaning. They were Israelis because they were born in Israel, so their connection to the Jewish Diaspora or to the Bible was incidental, random, not meaningful.

Now we understand that it’s much deeper than that. Suddenly we see the lone soldiers [soldiers, often from abroad, without close relatives in Israel] who have been killed in Israel. Now the story is much more Jewish than Israeli. To a great extent, the fact that Hamas killed men and women, right and left, lovers and haters of Palestinians, cast the story in a new light.

An Israeli soldier lights candles on the second night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah near the Israeli border with Syria, December 8, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

What do you see as the role of Religious Zionist rabbis like yourself in this moment?

The central role, first of all, is to strengthen unity in Israeli society — not to accuse this person or that person, not to ask the state or the army to do something unrealistic.

What do you mean by that?

To demand right now to rebuild Gush Katif [the Israeli settlements in Gaza that were evacuated in 2005] — even if it’s a moral or religiously justified claim, even if it’s right, and I’m not sure it is, would split Israeli society. It would break it now. We need to bolster our unity, to strengthen Israeli society, to believe in our ability, in our vision, in our morality, in the need to break Hamas, to destroy it. Not to make demands that will tear the state apart again. We suffered enough from division — part of which was created by the Religious Zionist community because of the judicial reform. Enough is enough.

What are people in your community struggling with?

I’ll start with worry. When I speak to my family, our family, every family is worried about its kids. That’s the first thing every family is worried about: their kids in the army.

We should also say honestly — the situation now, the crisis is so great that even if God willing we win… no one knows how it will end, no one knows what will happen in the north with Hezbollah and no one knows what will happen with the Palestinians and no one knows how the state will manage the issue of Gaza.

The second worry of course is economic worry. The crisis in Israel is creating an economic crisis in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people [in the military reserves] aren’t working. If they’re not working they don’t make money. I was in Ben Gurion Airport — when you see Ben Gurion empty, it’s great for people who are flying because there are no long lines… but you understand it’s a problem. It’s a tourism problem, it’s a problem for the industry.

The third problem is a feeling of a general lack of trust in the government and the state’s institutions. That really troubles people, who don’t feel there’s a unifying leadership. We would have expected the leadership to broadcast unity, empathy, sensitivity. There’s a problem with that.

Relatives of the hostages in Gaza march from a solidarity rally to the Begin Gate of the Kirya army base in Tel Aviv, Israel on December 16, 2023. (Courtesy of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

How do you address that? 

Israeli society has demonstrated spirit, volunteerism, initiative and action at the highest levels. Regarding the worry about our kids, we’re increasing our prayers. The number of prayers spilling forth in Religious Zionist synagogues is incomparable to what was in the past. Many synagogues say [the High Holiday prayer] Avinu Malkeinu, this prayer, that prayer. There’s a lot of people waking up to prayer because we understand that we need salvation.

In addition to worrying about the safety of your sons and sons-in-law in the army, what keeps you up at night?

Beyond that, the crisis of Israeli society, the crisis of faith in the state and in its institutions, and the fight that will be here between each side. Each side accuses the other of being culpable for what happened: The left at the right, the right at the left, supporters of Bibi to opponents of Bibi. I worry that the war is tamping this down but the day after the war — I always ask myself, what can we do so this doesn’t happen?

How do you plan to celebrate Simchat Torah, the holiday when the Hamas massacre occurred, next year?

I want to take this question off the agenda — not because we don’t need to think about how to celebrate Simchat Torah next year, but because now we’re focused on how to win the war. Then we’ll talk about Simchat Torah.

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