With coalition negotiations still capturing the headlines, it is all too easy to
forget that yet another election looms in Israel. Though this will be one in
which most of us cannot vote, it too may exert tremendous influence on the
future of the Jewish state. These elections will be for the chief rabbis of
Israel. Interestingly, for the first time in many, many years, the upcoming
elections (no official date has been set yet) are actually arousing interest in
sectors outside ultra- Orthodox circles, because of the candidacy of Rabbi David
The minute Rabbi Stav walks into the room, you cannot help but
sense that you’re in the presence of a different kind of rabbi. This is a rabbi
who served in the IDF, as have his children, who cares about the larger issues
of Israeli society.
Seeking evolutionary rather than revolutionary change
in the way that the chief rabbinate works, Stav is known largely for the work of
his organization, Tzohar, which has sought to create a much more user-friendly
rabbinate for the citizens of the State of Israel. More than 3,000 couples have
been married by Tzohar rabbis, and they widely attest to an experience that was
infinitely warm, more respectful and religiously meaningful than what they would
have received through the standard Israeli rabbinate.
Stav’s campaign is
picking up steam.
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party endorsed him
some time back, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has now done so as well. But what’s
interesting is that despite the undeniable breath of fresh air that Stav would
represent, he has received sometimes only tepid responses from non-Orthodox
Diaspora communities, who understandably detest Israel’s hopelessly corrupt,
misogynist, intellectually stultifying, ultra-Orthodox, non- Zionist
This lukewarm response to Stav, though not entirely
incomprehensible, is a mistake. True, neither Stav nor Tzohar as an organization
are pluralists in the American sense of the word. Tzohar rabbis have publicly
stated their opposition to Israel’s recognizing non-Orthodox conversions. At a
meeting I attended with Stav, he noted that as the rabbi of Shoham, he would
allocate funding to any 40 families who wished to create a Reform or
Conservative synagogue, but then added, “Thank God, that hasn’t happened.” For
American Diaspora leaders used to a different form of discourse, there’s nothing
terribly comforting about conversations like those.
But before anyone
writes off Stav, they ought to ask themselves, why have those non-Orthodox
synagogues not come to be? Under Stav, Shoham appears to have become a place
where a much wider swathe of Israeli society feels comfortable in the
“mainstream” Orthodox community. That will be little consolation to those who
believe that Reform or Conservative Judaism have something important to offer
Israeli society, and that the message must get out. Understandable though their
perspective is, it’s a short-sighted one in this instance.
von Bismarck noted, is the art of the possible. Stav’s candidacy ought to be
viewed in that light, even by those who might prefer a radically different
system in Israel. There is going to be no separation of “church” and state in
Israel anytime in the near future. There is going to be no non-Orthodox chief
rabbi. American pluralist notions are just that – they are American, largely
foreign to European and Israeli culture. That may change, or it may not, but in
the meantime, Jews who care about the future of Israeli society would be wise to
seize opportunity where it awaits them.
Israel faces a plurality of
existential threats. Iran is the most obvious, but others are equally dangerous.
And one of those is the danger that young Israelis will simply stop believing in
the importance of the Zionist project. When young Israelis no longer believe
that Israel matters, they will leave and Israel will fade away. There is
absolutely no guarantee that Israel will still be around in 65 years, but if it
is to survive, it needs a younger generation of Israeli Jews that
Yet there is little reason for these young Jews to be terribly
committed to Israel if they know virtually nothing about the Jewish tradition,
or if what they do see of it turns them off. Jews of all walks of life ought
therefore see Stav’s candidacy as infinitely more than a painful compromise due
to the lack of any alternatives.
It represents a decision to give Judaism
in Israel another chance, and in so doing, to extend Israel’s lease on
Stav would undoubtedly conduct the rabbinate in ways Diaspora
leaders find either distasteful or problematic. An example: Tzohar rabbis have
not sought to abolish the classes for prospective brides that the rabbinate
requires. A skeptical critical might ask, “Why not? If even Tzohar rabbis insist
on teaching these classes to couples who have no intention of conducting their
private lives in accordance with the dictates of Jewish tradition, isn’t this
more of the same?” But no, it is not. To abolish the classes would mean engaging
in conflict with the chief rabbinate and undermining Tzohar.
rabbis use the classes to speak about issues of Jewish identity, the Jewish
values of the Jewish home, and in the process, do discuss nidda, too.
it a bad thing for the Jewish state to hope that couples getting married will
have at least some discussion of how Judaism might infuse the character of the
home they are about to create? The evaluations of these courses suggest
Nachman Rosenberg, Tzohar’s executive vice president, asserts that
the preponderance of those completing evaluations wrote that they did not know
that there were in Israel religious Jews who were so open, that they had
expected the worst from these classes but had had very positive
That’s more than a curiosity; it’s an indication of how
critical a renewed rabbinate could be to restoring Israelis’ sense of purpose,
and how much we’ve lost by having the rabbinate we’ve had for far too
Israel’s last elections illustrated that one day of voting can
usher in a radically more hopeful period for the Jewish state.
Most of us
are not eligible to vote for the chief rabbi, but we have reason to express our
views, to support those who support change, and to recognize what is at
The Israeli rabbis and politicians who will vote for the chief
rabbi have an opportunity to embrace a critical strategic objective that ought
to be shared by all Jews who care about the future of Israel.
We have an
opportunity to end the long festering conflict between the Jewish state, the
Jewish tradition and Israel’s Jewish citizens. We have an opportunity to renew
that which had always made Israel great – a sense of shared purpose, a belief in
shared destiny and a commitment to mutual responsibility. The writer is senior
vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College, Israel’s first
liberal arts college, in Jerusalem.
His newest book,
The Promise of
Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength,
was recently named by Jewish Ideas Daily as one of the best Jewish books of