It is Sunday, just before midnight. The workers of the Shoham local council went to sleep hours ago, but in the darkened building one light is still on — in the office of Rabbi David Stav, the council’s rabbi. His day, which began at 6 a.m., seems far from over. He is trying to contact one of the highest-ranking rabbinical judges in Israel to consult with him on a complicated matter of religious law: A woman who had been raped by a non-Jew wants to marry a kohen, a descendant of the Jewish priestly family. A few minutes before he manages to get Rabbi Haim Druckman on the telephone, he is told that a prominent member of the council has passed away and he promises to get to his home immediately.
During the day, the rabbi is busy with his various positions as rabbi of Shoham and chairman of Tzohar, the organization of moderate Orthodox rabbis in Israel. In recent weeks, he has also been running for the post of Israel’s chief rabbi. Elections for that position will be held in about six months. Although they are held only once a decade, it looks like they will provide every bit as much drama and tension as the current Knesset elections.
The position of Sephardi chief rabbi remains under wraps, and the legality of having Rabbi Shlomo Amar remain in the position for a second term is being checked. But Rabbi Stav, Rabbi David Lau (a son of former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau), Rabbi Yaakov Shapira and Rabbi Eliezer Igra are all contenders for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
It is obvious to everyone that this is not just a competition between various religious figures. It is a struggle over the character of the Chief Rabbinate — whether it will remain controlled by the haredim or if members of the religious Zionist movement, such as Rabbi Stav, will succeed in winning the position. Calling this the battle of his life would not be an exaggeration. The rabbi’s people have joined the struggle as well. Recently they hired public relations and lobbying firms to hold parlor meetings and plan a large-scale public campaign.
It’s doubtful whether positive public opinion will help him, since in the end the chief rabbi is chosen by a committee of 150 public representatives. Still, public pressure can only benefit the decision-makers. Rabbi Stav and his people are aware of the urgent atmosphere among rabbis and many public figures, including members of the religious Zionist movement, that revolves around the loss of trust in the rabbinate by secular people, for which the chief rabbinate bears a good part of the responsibility. According to Stav, “We’re at a very dangerous crossroads for Israeli society. We’ve reached a point where people aren’t just flying abroad to get married and risking their children not being considered Jewish anymore, but also where people who marry in Israel feel alienated from everything Judaism represents. A lot of this comes from the bureaucratic problems that secular people encounter in matters such as marriage, divorce, burial and conversion.”
Falling in love with the mikveh
The position of chief rabbi may well be a headache. The rabbi knows this well, but insists on looking on the bright side. “Rabbi Haim of Volozhin said: Human beings weren’t created for themselves, but to help one another in any way they can,” he says.
Stav says that the situation in Israel demands that he take action. “In 2010, 9,300 of 36,000 couples married in Cyprus, Burgas and Prague. In other words, one-third of couples didn’t marry in Israel. In 20 years, most of Israeli society won’t have a religious wedding ceremony. Neither will their children, some of whom won’t be Jewish and will have to undergo conversion. A situation will have been created in which half the country won’t recognize the Jewishness of the other half,” he says sadly.
“Instead of being smart and turning the meeting between Israelis and Judaism into an inspiring, exciting experience, it’s become a tough one. Take marriage, for example. The bride has to lie because according to religious law, the date of the wedding has to accord with the date of her menstrual cycle. But the couple can register at the rabbinate only three months in advance, and this is why they have to lie. Why not open up registration to a year in advance?” Stav asks.
He continues, “Most secular people today marry after living together for a few years. These aren’t people who met through a matchmaker, so bridal classes have to be relevant to their world. You can’t talk about the values of the Jewish home and the importance of keeping the laws of family purity by threatening the couple that if they don’t obey those laws, they’ll get cancer or their children will be born with defects,” Stav says. “The concept of family purity has to be explained in depth — the renewal of relations between the couple, the essence of the connection. Quite a few secular women have fallen in love with the mikveh when the meeting was conducted in the right way,” he says.
“The rabbinate must change its way of thinking,” Stav continues. “The goal is that more and more Jews feel close to the rabbinate, not the complete opposite. At Tzohar, for example, we’ve started the Shorashim Project, whose purpose is to help new immigrants to clarify their Jewishness in cases where clarification is required when they register to marry. A young woman who had come here from Germany came to us. She observes Shabbat and even brought a letter from an Orthodox rabbi stating that she was religiously observant. But the rabbinate wouldn’t accept it because, they said, the rabbi had gone off the path.
“The fact that she’d gone to a Jewish school didn’t help. Neither did the fact that Yad Vashem has photographs of her grandmother in Bergen-Belsen. When I called the person dealing with the case and asked him whether he considered the photographs acceptable proof, he said yes. I almost went out of my mind. A photograph from a death camp was the only thing that would convince them?”
Q. What do you think is the source of the problem?
“The abuses don’t come from malice. We’re not trying to set religious law aside. But the system mustn’t see every secular person who wishes to marry as an enemy of the state or a non-Jew.”
“The wife won’t wait for a religious divorce”
The subject of conversion, which came up this week following Shas’ provocative election campaign ad, doesn’t help matters between the secular population and the rabbinate. “We’ve reached a point where less than 10 percent of people who require conversion want to convert. This creates an existential problem that will lead to assimilation within society. The children of these unions won’t be able to marry in Israel, and very quickly we’ll become two nations, one Jewish and one non-Jewish, living in a single country.”
The quality of Israel’s burial services, which fall under the Religious Services Ministry’s purview, also disturbs Rabbi Stav. “A question that comes up again and again is whether women can deliver eulogies. The opposition to this in Bnei Brak is understood, but it’s inconceivable that it shouldn’t be allowed in secular places. We can’t tell secular people not to hold secular burials and at the same time keep women from delivering eulogies,” says Stav.
Q. What about women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce?
“The major problem is that some of the judges in the rabbinical court belong to the strict Lithuanian sector, so they rule according to the conservative interpretation of religious law, which is opposed to the Chief Rabbinate’s position. They aren’t subject to the Chief Rabbinate’s rulings, and it’s this that creates a situation of illegitimate children and adultery. A religious woman who doesn’t receive a religious divorce doesn’t remarry, but that’s not true of the rest. If you’re part of a community that’s religiously observant, there’s a good chance that you’ll try to reconcile with your spouse. But in Israeli society, most of which is secular, we need to understand that if the rabbinate puts off a hearing about refusal to grant a divorce for another six months, the wife won’t wait.”
Q. What’s the solution?
“We have to encourage prenuptial agreements. In Israel of all places, which has the advantage of no separation between religion and state and a husband who refuses to grant his wife a religious divorce can be heavily fined and even go to jail, these tools aren’t used.”
The mention of the Lithuanian sector’s control over institutions of the Chief Rabbinate almost makes Rav Stav lose his equanimity. “I have nothing against the haredi population, but there’s a small group of haredi politicians who, for the sake of their own personal interests, are making Judaism and haredi society hateful to Israelis, often with no just cause. A haredi rabbi said something harsh to me a few weeks ago. ‘If I were secular,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t let my daughter go near the rabbinate because of the difficulties they’re causing her while she’s getting divorced.’ That’s a shocking thing to say. It’s what happens when there’s a connection between politics and the rabbinate’s institutions.”
Rabbi Stav is familiar with the haredi claims that rabbis of the religious Zionist movement are too lenient in their interpretation of Jewish religious law to the point of nonobservance. Even now, some rabbis call the members of Tzohar “Reform.” “People who say things like that about us are ignorant. They’re the last people who should preach to us about such matters,” says Rabbi Stav.
Stav isn’t disturbed by the haredi threats that if a national-religious rabbi should become chief rabbi, that will push the haredim away completely from the chief rabbinate and its rulings.
“The haredi world hasn’t believed in the Chief Rabbinate since its founding anyway,” he says. “What’s happened over the past 20 years is that the haredi political functionaries discovered the positions in the rabbinate. Some of them don’t go by the kashrut certificates that they themselves issue and don’t accept the rabbinate’s conversions. They don’t accept its worldview or leadership. They have their own Council of Torah Sages and family trees. They’re just taking advantage of the jobs in the Chief Rabbinate, nothing more.”
Rabbi Stav says that this gloomy state of affairs didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of a long process. “It started with the fact that the rabbinate is a monopoly, and when you don’t have competition, you have atrophy. I make supreme efforts to understand the distress of the secular people. The Chief Rabbinate, as a symbol and as an institution, was part of the process of secular people becoming distant from the rabbinate,” he admits.
In addition to his statements such as how the rabbinate needs to change its way of thinking, Rabbi Stav has some practical solutions to offer. “In other countries, there’s no such thing as a rabbi who doesn’t smile. A rabbi like that would be out of a job. Also, when a rabbi is appointed, you have to examine his compatibility with the local community and population, and not appoint him because of connections. You can’t appoint a strongly haredi rabbi in a place where the majority of people are national-religious or secular. It’s not the same language or the same connection.”
Q. What about kashrut — the dietary laws?
“I want to privatize the system. The rabbinate will be a kind of supervisory regulator, but there will be competition, so that everyone will be able to choose the degree of strictness in one's own area. Today, business owners pay several times. They pay the rabbinate, the on-site supervisor and the agency that regulates kashrut. There’s no need for that.”
Rabbi Stav believes that the approaching elections for chief rabbi are the last opportunity to save what’s left of the relationship between the secular sector and the rabbinate. “If the haredi worldview should continue to control after the election, the process of assimilation will worsen to the point where the State of Israel is torn to shreds, which would be a recipe for the destruction of the State of Israel,” he says.
The Chief Rabbinate responds
Regarding clarification of Jewish status: “We find that in many cases, the situation is too complex to be dealt with by the marriage registrar, so couples are sent to the department of clarification of Jewish status in the rabbinical court. The department works efficiently. No complaints of foot-dragging have been received.”
Regarding registration for marriage, the Chief Rabbinate claims, “The procedure stating that marriage registration shall not take place more than three months before the wedding was abolished last year by a decision of the Chief Rabbinical Council.
“The Chief Rabbinate is a government agency. Its employment methods are subject to law and to the tough requirements of the Civil Service Commission. The test of results shows that rabbinate employees in all departments and levels come from a variety of ethnic groups and sectors, and it cannot be said that one particular sector ‘controls’ the rabbinate.
“The chief rabbis who will be chosen, with God’s help, whoever they may be, will meet with a system whose employees labor to draw people close and to provide excellent service to all sectors. One factor that makes this work difficult is that interested parties who want the rabbinate to improve and parties who want to see the rabbinate close have joined with a vociferous chorus that closes the public’s heart to the many improvements that are being made.
“Last month, decisions were made to allow women to testify regarding single status, alert kashrut supervisors to the abuse of animals and revoke the kashrut certificates of leafy vegetables that had been sprayed with pesticides above the legal limit. These are some new examples that contradict the various labels that have been applied to the rabbinate.”