Until October of last year, the city of Jerusalem had been without a chief rabbi for more than a decade. Moreover, until 2014, the country did not have a high-ranking rabbinical position filled by a rabbi from the religious-Zionist community.
Both national chief rabbi positions having been filled for many years by haredi figures, with the most prestigious municipal chief rabbi spots also occupied by the ultra-Orthodox.
But following a bruising and tendentious campaign, Rabbi Aryeh Stern, a leading light of the religious-Zionist community, was elected to the prestigious position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the capital.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Stern outlined the necessity for a municipal chief rabbi in light of the fact that Jerusalem managed its religious services without one for so long, while underlining the importance of having a committed and dedicated Zionist rabbi in senior rabbinical office.
In particular, Stern noted it is the “Zionist public, both religious and secular” that is most in need of the religious services made available by the state and by Israel’s municipal authorities.
As opposed to the secular and national-religious community, the haredi public does not make as much use of the services provided by the state rabbinate. Haredim generally eat at restaurants with private mehadrin, or stringent, kashrut certification instead of those with only rabbinate supervision, they often register for marriage through an intermediary for the state and not in the local religious council, and generally pay little attention to the Chief Rabbinate.
“Rabbis must be connected to the community they serve,” maintained Stern.
“This means a rabbi who was educated in Zionist institutions and has a Zionist perspective.
It’s not enough just to come to events and ceremonies and give a blessing,” he said somewhat caustically.
By way of example, Stern explained that a national-religious rabbi – with loved ones serving in the IDF – would be better able to relate to and empathize with families of IDF soldiers on active duty, and those who are bereaved, than a rabbi whose family and society do not have to deal with such traumas.
He was of, course, referencing the ongoing societal divide in which the large majority of haredi men do not serve in the IDF.
“If your son is killed while serving in the IDF, it is important that your rabbi can relate to such a situation directly,” asserted Stern.
And one of the programs Stern is pioneering for Jerusalem is directed towards IDF personnel known as lone soldiers, those who are serving in the military without immediate family in Israel. The rabbi is in the process of initiating different services for such soldiers, including financial assistance along with religious and social activities and programs.
Last month, he pointedly visited the home of an IDF officer who was attacked by ultra-Orthodox extremists in Jerusalem’s radical haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim, condemning the incident and those who perpetrated the attack.
And Stern is also concerned with making religious services in the capital more reliable and more welcoming, approachable and efficient.
The realm of kashrut licensing, an issue which has generated headlines in recent days, is one which he sees as in need of serious improvement.
Stern noted that there are some 1,500 kosher establishments and businesses in Jerusalem, “the largest number of any city in the world.” Due to the absence of a municipal chief rabbi – the public servant who typically has overall responsibility for kashrut supervision – there had been no one publicly accountable for kashrut services in the city, he observed.
Stern, like others, identifies the troubling system in which kashrut supervisors are paid by the restaurant or business owners they supervise as a serious impediment to reliable kashrut supervision, constituting a severe conflict of interest on behalf of both business owner and kashrut supervisor.
The rabbi will therefore shortly be launching a pilot program to change this situation, in which a small number of kashrut supervisors will be independently hired to provide the inspection service, hopefully making it more honest, transparent and cheaper.
“My defining standard for kashrut certification is whether or not the kashrut supervisor would eat in the establishment he supervises,” stated Stern with a wry grin.
Another sensitive issue is that of the mikvaot, built and maintained by the municipality for the benefit of women observing Jewish laws on family purity.
In recent years, dissatisfaction has been voiced by some women with the conduct of the female mikve attendants, who are designated by the local rabbinate to ensure the ritual immersion is carried out in a way commensurate with Halacha.
The Religious Services Ministry recently issued new guidelines forbidding such attendants from asking intrusive questions or insisting on physical checks, but some women nevertheless prefer to immerse without the presence of an attendant – something which is currently not permitted.
Stern said the attendants should be as sensitive as possible to the personal privacy concerns of women using the mikve, but contended that it was nevertheless legitimate for the rabbinate to insist on the presence of an attendant at the time of immersion “as required by Jewish law.” This was a responsibility of the rabbinate, “which we are not interested in abandoning, nor can we abandon.”
Instead, and as a compromise solution, Stern detailed that he is seeking to implement a system whereby a woman can begin the immersion process by stepping into the mikve pool by herself without the presence of an attendant, and then ring a bell to call in the attendant to supervise the actual immersion.
“What a woman does in her own home is her own personal concern, but when she comes to a public place under the responsibility of the rabbinate, then it is the rabbinate which determines how things are conducted... Otherwise, we might as well disband the rabbinate altogether,” insisted the rabbi.
On several issues surrounding state-provided religious services, such as marriage registration, prenuptial agreements and conversion, Stern has adopted a relatively liberal attitude.
However, it is precisely the control of haredi rabbis over the centralized religious establishment that Stern alluded to which is preventing him from implementing such attitudes as policy in the Jerusalem rabbinate.
One such issue is that of marriage registration, which has become something of a nationwide political struggle between the haredi-dominated religious establishment and the national-religious Tzohar rabbinical association.
A law was passed during the last Knesset to abolish marriage registration districts, allowing Tzohar greater scope to perform marriage registration services for couples who approach the organization instead of going directly to their local rabbinate.
The law has been bitterly resisted by Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, who have sought to prevent local rabbinates from implementing the law through a bureaucratic loophole requiring couples to bring a certificate of single status from their local rabbinate – something which entails extra costs and time expenditure.
The Jerusalem rabbinate is one of the municipal authorities which has yet to implement the so-called Tzohar Law, although Stern claims that his hands have been tied by the pressure from the chief rabbinate.
Similarly, the Jerusalem rabbinate does not notarize what are known as “halachic prenuptial agreements,” documents designed to prevent the phenomenon of divorce denial – which frequently leads to long-term suffering for the spouse denied a divorce, usually the woman.
Stern repeated that if it were up to him, he would approve such documents but pointed out that it was the national Chief Rabbinate – and Chief Rabbi Lau in particular – which have prevented progress on the issue.
As with the issue of mikvaot, Stern said he is developing a workaround solution.
For this, he is seeking to obtain the services of a group of lawyers in Jerusalem who will provide extremely cheap notarization services for such prenuptial agreements, thereby bypassing the reticence of the Chief Rabbinate to move forward on this issue.
And a law passed last year by the recently departed 19th Knesset would have allowed municipal chief rabbis such as Stern to establish their own conversion courts, in order to liberalize the conversion system and increase access to it – as part of efforts to convert the approximately 330,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union who are not considered halachically Jewish.
Leading figures in the national-religious community are concerned this situation will lead to mass interfaith marriages between members of this sector and Jewish Israelis, seeing in it a threat to the cohesiveness of the Jewish state.
Stern described the possibility of such interfaith marriages as “a very serious and grave problem,” and one which he says he would address by establishing his own conversion court if the recently passed law was implemented.
However, as the rabbi noted, this seem highly unlikely following the bitter war waged by Chief Rabbis Lau and Yosef against this decentralization of the conversion system; along with the recently signed coalition agreement between the Likud and United Torah Judaism, which will likely gut the law.
While Stern’s hands may be tied to a certain extent by those with greater bureaucratic and political power above him, he nevertheless continues to extol and give prominence to his Zionist credentials – which he emphasizes as a vital component for the national vision and identity of the state.
Referring to the upcoming celebrations for Jerusalem Day on Sunday, Stern said the symbols of the Jewish nation were of paramount importance to the identity of the state, with Jerusalem foremost among such national emblems.
“Scripture tells us that ‘The Torah will emanate out of Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem,’” he stated.
“The state’s Jewish identity is expressed by its dedicated and emotional attachment to its capital, Jerusalem.
Before the Jewish people and the State of Israel had Jerusalem back in its hands, we were not complete – something acknowledged even by Ben-Gurion,” he continued.
“For all Jews, our center of focus is our capital and our sovereignty over the city, and we really cannot imagine the Jewish people and the Jewish state without Jerusalem.”
Stern’s tenure as Jerusalem’s chief rabbi and its most powerful proponent of religious- Zionism is just beginning.
And as the rabbi has acknowledged himself, he faces significant challenges in implementing his personal vision in Jerusalem for the state’s relationship between its religious identity and its citizens.
The next few years will be critical in the evolution of this process – as they will be for the similar and more bitter struggle over parallel issues on the national level.
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