It seems that hardly a week can go by in which some form of controversy over religious life in the Jewish state does not raise its head.
Whether it is the divide over Shabbat in the public realm, the indictment or conviction of prominent rabbis, controversial legislation regarding religious services, arguments over the Western Wall, or myriad other problems that surface on a regular basis, there is no doubt that the image and role of Judaism is a consistent source of societal tension.
Nevertheless, Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the popular Tzohar rabbinical association and municipal chief rabbi of Shoham, is keen to highlight what is good about religion and Judaism in the country today. He points to the success of Tzohar, and the Ohr Torah Stone educational network where he is co-chancellor, in organizing some 700 prayer services over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for non-observant Israelis to attend.
“Jews who have long forgotten what a synagogue is, who have not heard the shofar for a long time, took the opportunity to meet Judaism in an embracing, welcoming format and it is simply amazing when you see how much Israeli society wants to be connected to Judaism, but in a way that is not coercive,” says the rabbi.
For Stav and Tzohar, the image and stature of Judaism as perceived by the average citizen is of utmost importance, and it is perhaps because of this perspective that the organization is seriously contemplating entering one realm of religious life which is almost synonymous with religious coercion and corruption: kashrut.
The Chief Rabbinate and its local affiliates have enjoyed a monopoly over kashrut supervision since the inception of the state, but it has for many years suffered from inherent conflicts of interest and murky, corrupt practices by rabbinate officials and kashrut supervisors.
This May, the State Comptroller’s Report noted cases in which supervisors “work” 27 hours a day, incidents of nepotistic allocation of work hours by local rabbinates, and the hiring of close family members by senior local rabbinate officials, as just some of the many deficiencies in the state’s kashrut system.
The report went so far as to say that some rabbinates’ kashrut standards were so bad
as to raise the concern that customers were actually being misled into thinking some restaurants and businesses are kosher.
TZOHAR in a minute by Anna Ballin. (YouTube/TZOHAR)
But the monopoly has begun to crumble, having been forced open by the independent, Orthodox kashrut authority Hashgacha Pratit and a High Court petition brought on behalf of restaurants under its auspices demanding the right to declare themselves kosher with supervision other than that of the Chief Rabbinate.
Last month, the High Court partially recognized this right, allowing food businesses to declare what kashrut standards they follow, although still banning them from stating in writing that they are kosher if they do not have supervision from the Chief Rabbinate.
Based on this new freedom, Tzohar is now seriously examining the possibility of establishing its own kashrut supervision authority in order to provide trustworthy kashrut supervision to restaurants and businesses fed up with the rabbinate.
Stav says that his organization is conducting market research and other feasibility studies into establishing their own kashrut supervision system and would make a decision whether or not to proceed in the next few weeks.
“All we want is that kashrut in Israel should be kosher, that it not be a desecration of God’s name and that it not be corrupt,” he says simply. Stav predicts confidently that, given Tzohar’s good name in the realm of marriage registration, there would be “many dozens” of businesses interested in their kashrut supervision and “hundreds of thousands of customers will trust our kashrut.”
Interestingly, Stav is not in favor of totally cutting the Chief Rabbinate out kashrut supervision, and prefers a model where competing kashrut authorities can be established with the Chief Rabbinate as the regulatory body in charge of oversight and defining kashrut standards.
As for the Chief Rabbinate, it has already given its predictable response to the High Court decision by attempting to shore up its crumbling monopoly. Last week it issued a fine to one of Hashgacha Pratit’s restaurants that appears to be unenforceable, in light of the High Court’s ruling.
Despite the ruling, the Chief Rabbinate’s director-general wrote a letter to Stav telling him he would be fired as municipal chief rabbi of Shoham if Tzohar sets up its own kashrut authority, due to the conflict of interests it would represent given the authority of municipal chief rabbis over kashrut in his municipal jurisdiction.
Stav described the letter as “impertinent” and questioned whether the director-general would also be sending letters warning of a conflict of interests to Chief Rabbit Yitzhak Yosef, whose brother runs the Beit Yosef kashrut authority, and to municipal chief rabbis who have positions within other independent kashrut authorities.
Should Tzohar establish a kashrut authority, Stav says there is almost zero chance he would be involved in it and that it would anyway be established as a separate entity without any direct connection to Tzohar.
The realm of kashrut is just the latest field of religious life that Tzohar is getting involved in. Its flagship marriage project continues to help approximately 4,000 couples get married every year, and has in recent years authored a halachic prenuptial agreement to prevent divorce refusal.
Stav himself is also one of the founders of the new Giyur Kahalacha conversion court, which seeks to dramatically increase the numbers of converts from the approximately 375,000 immigrants and their descendants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, so as to prevent intermarriage in the future.
Tzohar’s Shorashim project provides investigators who help immigrants from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewish status for the purposes of marriage. It seeks to double the number of people it assists every year to 70,000.
Besides the issue of immigrants who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, there is the widespread problem of immigrants who are Jewish, but who cannot prove this owing to the suppression of religion by the former regime of the Soviet Union.
A failure to prove one’s Jewish status can result in being blacklisted as ineligible to marry another Jew in Israel. This is a growing problem, with the rabbinate adding ever greater numbers of such citizens to its marriage blacklists.
“We are trying to help Jewish immigrants to integrate into Israeli society without having to undergo conversion, to help those who for decades suffered because they are Jewish. It’s a debt we owe them,” says Stav. He notes the irony that in the Soviet Union such people were considered Jewish, yet in the Jewish state many are unfairly considered non-Jewish.
The rabbi does acknowledge a growing problem in that the rabbinical courts and now even Shorashim investigators increasingly rely solely on Soviet-era documentation, which included national or religious status as the means for immigrants from the region to prove their Jewish status.
This approach has been criticized as counter to the traditional methods under Jewish law of evaluating whether or not a person is Jewish, which included a presumption that someone claiming to be Jewish was indeed Jewish and greater reliance on personal testimonies of relatives.
But Stav says that this is one area he does not want to take to war with the Chief Rabbinate. He notes that the rabbinical courts accept the determination of Shorashim investigators that someone is Jewish in the overwhelming majority of cases it deals with, and is reticent to endanger that cooperation and trust.
Given this wide portfolio of projects, it might seem to some that Stav and Tzohar are establishing an alternative rabbinate in parallel to the Chief Rabbinate. Indeed, critics of Stav from the conservative wing of the national religious community say that he is harming the Chief Rabbinate, an institution which the sector holds dear as a matter of ideological conviction despite its control by the haredi political parties today.
Stav strongly denies that he or Tzohar are weakening or harming the Chief Rabbinate. He insists that he believes in the centrality and importance of the rabbinate and that his efforts are aimed at solving some of the religious problems that the rabbinate itself creates or neglects, while prompting that institution to improve itself.
He notes that, following a legislative reform to marriage registration advanced by Tzohar, some local rabbinates have improved their service so much that Tzohar’s regional offices have seen a decline in demand for their help – something Stav says he is truly happy about.
However, he adds that, as long as the Chief Rabbinate fails to address the deficiencies in the various services it provides and neglects its responsibilities to the Jewish people, he will continue to act to provide an alternative.
“There are people for whom the Chief Rabbinate has become a religion, and they don’t care if people aren’t eating kosher, that there is intermarriage, that there are no conversions,” says Stav.
He acknowledges that the Chief Rabbinate is an important institution and one he wants to strengthen it if serves the goals of the Jewish people. “If it weakens the goals of the Jewish people, then we have no interest in supporting it,” he says simply.
“We’re not the ones weakening the Chief Rabbinate. The fact that politicians are running it is not our fault. The fact that corruption cases are discovered so frequently there is not our fault. The fact that there are thousands of agunot [‘chained women’ who cannot obtain a divorce] is not our fault,” he argues forcefully.
“We will never agree in the name of the sanctity of the chief rabbi to enable people to eat non-kosher or to intermarry just to preserve the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate is important, but the Jewish people is more important.”