It seems that of late, not a day goes by when some aspect of religion causes a controversy of one kind or another in the Jewish state.

Whether it is prayer rights at the Western Wall, rabbis investigated for alleged criminal activity, discrimination against women allegedly justified by religion, or any of the other problems that have reared their heads, it is clear that the image of religion – and its relationship to the state – has taken something of a battering in recent months and years.

In spite of all this, Rabbi David Stav, one of the two leading candidates for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, remains upbeat about the uniting force that the Chief Rabbinate has the potential to assert on the Jewish people in Israel.

At stake, says Stav, is the very future of the Jewish people and its unity in the country.

He argues that the only way to keep the people together as one entity is to persevere with the model of a chief rabbinate that sets the rules, particularly in regard to marriage, divorce and conversion.

“Can established religion lead to nepotism, corruption, and abuse of power? Yes, the answer is yes,” says Stav candidly.

“But do we have a better way for the state to protect the unity of the Jewish people as one united nation without the centralizing force of the chief rabbinate? So far we haven’t found it.”

Stav, as he has shown during his time as chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association, is acutely concerned with the possibility that an abandonment of traditional marriage conducted in accordance with Jewish law would lead to the creation of two separate national identities in Israel.

Such a situation, he warns, could fatally undermine the country’s ability to function as a unified whole with shared national goals and values, and could threaten people’s sense of shared responsibility and commitment to the Jewish state in the face of its many external threats.

“Can we allow ourselves to live in a state in which one group will say that the second group is not Jewish?” he asks. “This is a direct recipe for the destruction of our state.”

Non-Orthodox denominations

Stav says that it is for this reason that he is opposed to recognizing marriage and conversion of non-Orthodox denominations out of the fear that Jews in Israel will be split into different factions, some of which would be seen as non-Jewish by others, leading to profound and irrevocable societal division.

“If there won’t be one institute to be responsible for marriage and divorce and conversion, it will lead to a complete division and the tearing up [of] the Jewish society into pieces,” says Stav.

Of course, there are some who argue that the Jewish people in Israel are, for all intents and purposes, already split. For the most part, haredim do not marry secular people, secular people don’t marry national-religious people, conversions of the state are frequently challenged or disparaged by more severe interpretations of Jewish law by haredi rabbis, and the trustworthiness of the Chief Rabbinate on other issues such as kashrut is not universally accepted.

The Tzohar chairman acknowledges that there are indeed societal divisions, but says that critically, the legal and halachic status of the majority of the population of the country is Jewish, allowing for social relationships and marriages between the different sectors of the population.

“I don’t want to try to ignore or cover up the existence of separate groups [within society], it’s normal. But the nation always consisted of 12 tribes. We shouldn’t feel threatened by that,” Stav says.

“The question is not whether haredim can marry non-observant people. The question is whether they refer to them as Jews,” Stav explains.

“The chief rabbinate is responsible for one thing. Protecting the guidelines that will guarantee and preserve our nation as one united people. That’s our goal.”

Outside of the issue of marriage and conversion, the rabbi says he is not necessarily opposed to the provision of state funds to non-Orthodox rabbis and denominations, although he is clearly not enthused by the idea.

“State funding of non- Orthodox rabbis is a question of government, because it is part of its relationship with its citizens. If this is what the government decides, then okay,” he says ambivalently.

Stav, it seems, is not enthusiastic about what many term as the state-backed Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in Israel, but nevertheless is insistent on it being upheld for the sake of Jewish unity.

The Tzohar way

It was concern for the importance of traditional Jewish marriage, conducted in keeping with Halacha, that prompted Tzohar’s intense focus on its flagship free-marriage service program.

Worried about increasing numbers of people who are getting married in civil ceremonies abroad, the organization under Stav’s guidance has sought to stymie the phenomenon by providing a less hostile and more welcoming marriage process than the one that people often encounter when working with the rabbinate.

The organization has attracted thousands of couples looking for guidance throughout the marriage process and someone to conduct their weddings.

“Tzohar was successful because non-observant Israelis were exposed for the first time in their lives to rabbis who do not belong to any kind of establishment and refer to them as their brothers and sisters, which is the only thing that motivates those non-observant people to be in contact with the Tzohar rabbis,” Stav says.

“This was refreshing for Israeli society and the main thing which attracted secular people.

“I believe that with the right leadership, we can bring local rabbis all over the country to share the same vision and same approach to nonobservant society. In my dream and vision, there will be no need for Tzohar because all rabbinates will be more than happy to adopt our methods and attitude,” he explains.

“Our attitude can be adopted by all rabbis if we insist on the importance of the approach to [the general public].

Not to take money [for conducting weddings], to invite couples to the rabbis’ home, to show up on time, not to perform more than one wedding a night, and so on. I believe we can change the attitude of society to the rabbinate through the ‘spirit of the commander.’”

Proving Jewish identity

Stav also wants to import another of Tzohar’s major programs into the central aims of the Chief Rabbinate, namely a heavy focus on helping Jewish Israelis from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewish identity, often for the purposes of marriage.

The rabbi explains that because of the ban on the official conduct of religious services in the Communist bloc, documentation such as marriage certificates of people’s parents, used to prove one’s Jewish identity, are often absent or hard to track down.

Stav says that of the 1.2 million Israelis from the former Soviet Union, approximately 900,000 are Jewish but are obligated to prove their Jewish identity before marrying, and frequently encounter problems when trying to do so.

Tzohar’s Shorashim project helps such people find the relevant documentation and use it to demonstrate their Jewish identity in the rabbinical courts.

Stav says that as chief rabbi, he would set up a national center to take up this task, with branches around the country in the local rabbinates.

He believes that this goal is directly linked to his opposition toward the growing clamor for civil marriage, as well as non-Orthodox marriage, in Israel.

Civil marriage

Stav argues that the establishment of civil marriage would remove the main motivating factor for such people to bother clarifying and proving their Jewish status, and would also reduce the incentive for non-Jewish Israelis from the former Soviet Union to convert.

For this reason, he says, he is completely opposed to civil marriage, and so-called civil unions, which he argues is the same thing.

“I am against civil marriage and unions, and if there is chance to fight against it, I will. As far as I’m concerned, I will struggle against this as much as possible.”

It is an explicit commitment of Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid to institute civil marriage and obtain equal recognition for non-Orthodox denominations. At the same time, however, the party – and especially its second in command, Education Minister Shai Piron – has strongly backed Stav for Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

Pre-nuptial agreements

Another critical initiative he wants to advance is the establishment of halachically binding pre-nuptial agreements to circumvent the problem of divorce refusal.

Jewish law requires that a husband freely grant his wife a bill of divorce before she can remarry, a condition that can often lead to the extortion of women by their husbands for more favorable terms of divorce.

Stav says that he would institute a halachically binding pre-nuptial agreement that would help shorten the divorce process, which, in instances where the right not to grant a divorce is abused, can be indefinitely delayed.

Such documents, which are already widely accepted in North America, would be created in cooperation with rabbinical judges in order to guarantee that the agreements are implemented, Stav notes.

Plans and politics

“I want to make the Chief Rabbinate an inspiring institution and I want to make it relevant to the population,” he says.

“Those serving in the rabbinate must love, care and embrace the people they serve and make all efforts to help them in all their needs, mental, spiritual or halachic.”

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