In June 98 rabbis, 35 mayors and 17 public figures will vote in secret ballot to
elect Israel’s next chief rabbis for a 10-year term. But in truth, the identity
of the new chief rabbis will likely be determined between now and March 17 in
the current negotiations for formation of a new coalition
This decision may be as important as any issue on the
national security or domestic agenda, and I call upon Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu to get behind the right man for the Ashkenazi chief rabbi job – Rabbi
David Stav, head of the Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist “Tzohar” rabbinical
Unlike other countries where “chief rabbi” is mainly an
honorary title and the “chief” primarily serves a ceremonial role, the Israeli
Chief Rabbinate (and its satellite bureaus in municipalities, rabbinical courts
and kashrut agencies) is a powerful governmental agency with thousands of
employees that has a dramatic impact on the lives of every Jewish man and women
in Israel, from birth to death.
Issues such as Jewish status, conversion,
marriage, divorce, burial and more are all legally regulated by the
Moreover, decisions of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate have
enormous impact on the Jewish status, legitimacy, and affiliation with Israel of
Jews around the world.
Unfortunately, over the past 20 years the
increasingly haredi-dominated Rabbinate has misused its powers, applying extreme
stringencies in matters of personal status and conversion, creating many
bureaucratic obstacles to practicing Judaism in Israel, and fostering deep
resentment within both religious and secular society and among Jews around the
In fact, the chief rabbinate has evolved into a force that is
deeply contrary to the inclusive Zionist spirit it once embodied. All Jews –
Left and Right, religious and secular, settler and suburban – pay the price. The
Rabbinate bureaucracy, or “Rabbinocracy,” must be rehabilitated, its mandate
redefined, and its radicalization curbed.
IT WASN’T always this
For Israel’s first 40 years, rabbis of the Religious Zionist (or
Modern Orthodox) community dominated the Rabbinate apparatus, and used it both
to advance Shabbat and kashrut observation in Israel’s public sphere, and to
bridge the cultural gaps between religious and secular Israelis.
general, this community’s rabbis and religious court judges were moderate and
welcoming in their approach and demeanor. They were part of, not aloof from, the
Zionist ethos of the country, serving in the Israeli army and living
side-by-side with their “congregants.”
They believed that they were the
servants of all Israelis, and as such, they ran the Orthodox Rabbinic
bureaucracy with love, relative efficiency, and openness – without compromising
But in the 1990s, the political Left handed the keys
to Israel’s Jewish character to the Ultra-Orthodox, in order to purchase haredi
support for the Oslo process and the disengagement. Haredi rabbis began a slow
but inexorable conquest of city rabbinates, religious courts, conversion courts,
municipal religious councils, kashrut agencies and more, turning the Rabbinate
into a hostile, contrary, backwards force that created more problems than it
It is, sadly, no surprise that today onefifth of Israeli couples
That’s 10,000 couples. If the chief rabbinate doesn’t clean
up its act, researchers estimate that within a decade the number of couples
marrying outside the Rabbinate will jump 40 percent.
Which brings us to
the current crossroads: The ideological approaches to the unity of the Jewish
People of the new chief rabbis (Ashkenazi and Sephardic) will play a major role
in determining the fortunes of Judaism as a creed, as a practice, and as a
national identity for coming generations. Their success or failure in repairing
and revitalizing the “Rabbinocracy” will save or doom that institution, as
Simply put, it is critical that broadminded, moderate, vigorous and
Zionist rabbinical figures be elected to the posts of chief rabbi. We need chief
rabbis who enjoy significant public credibility, have concrete executive
experience, and most of all, come to the job with the right attitude. We need
chief rabbis who will put a premium on synthesizing tradition with modernity,
and on efficient, user-friendly service, while neither compromising halacha nor
insolently stonewalling secular Israel Of course, we also need chief rabbis of
respectable rabbinical standing, but they don’t have to be the “Gedolei Hador” –
the ultimate, high-end halachic arbiters of the generation. The job is
managerial and ideological, not scholarly.
RABBI DAVID STAV is such a
The current chief rabbi of the City of Shoham, he is the
co-founder and chairman of Tzohar, which over the past 20 years has proven its
commitment to Jewish unity, and its creativity and efficiency in making
religious ritual life accessible and relevant to the broad public.
a serious, exacting and halachically- faithful rabbi, endorsed by some today’s
leading yeshiva deans and Torah giants. Unlike many Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Stav
also served in combat as a soldier and reservist, and his eldest son is a
Stav has developed a detailed and responsible plan
for deep and long-lasting reforms of the Rabbinocracy. He would encourage
couples to sign prenuptial agreements to ensure wives can request a divorce, a
right not granted to them in the traditional Jewish marriage contract.
would privatize the kosher certification industry and make the chief rabbinate
its regulator, lowering the soaring prices of kosher supervision and rooting out
corruption in the process.
He would make ritual baths more
handicapped-accessible, require ritual circumcisers to refresh their skills in
training classes every two years, and require strict attendance and performance
standards in the rabbinical courts to clear away backlog and ensure friendly
He promises a massive genealogical research campaign to help
Russian (and other) immigrants prove their Jewish lineage, and to encourage
those who are not of Jewish descent to convert. And he would encourage the
academization of the rabbinate, and make Zionist commitment a relevant
qualifying factor for appointment to senior rabbinical posts.
candidacy is ‘for’ the Rabbinate and not ‘against’ it,” emphasized
“We are for uniting the Jewish people with their Torah heritage,
for bringing all Jews closer to God. We are for uniting the Israeli people as
one. This is what we did for close to two decades at Tzohar and this is the
spirit: Inclusivity, not exclusion or coercion.” Netanyahu has yet to express an
opinion on the qualities he looks for in a chief rabbi, mainly for fear of
alienating his longstanding haredi coalition partners. It’s high time he did so,
and show that he truly wants to be the prime minister of all Israelis and elect
a chief rabbi who will act for the benefit of all Israelis.
It is also
incumbent on the 52 mayors and public figures that are on the voting committee
to speak up and take a stand, if they want a chief rabbinate that truly takes a
“Klal Yisrael” approach.
Naftali Bennett, too, hasn’t yet committed
himself to the campaign for Stav, and this is truly disappointing. Bennett and
his Bayit Yehudi colleagues are under tremendous pressure from conservative
(haredi-influenced or “hardal”) circles within Religious Zionism to support
candidates that are less liberal than Stav.
While the other two Religious
Zionist candidates – rabbis Eliezer Igra and Yaacov Shapira – are worthy
individuals, neither can match Stav’s executive experience in driving change.
Neither Igra nor Shapira have Stav’s proven record in bridging the
religious-secular divide, and neither has the support of any secular
Stav does have the backing of a group of secular Jews who wish
to see the chief rabbinate once again become a positive force for Jewish
identity and affiliation.
Bennett should re-assert the primacy of
religious-secular unity and inclusiveness that was a hallmark of his political
campaign – by endorsing Stav.The writer is the director of public
affairs at Bar-Ilan Univeristy’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.