Has the religious minority taken over Israel?

A dialogue with Rabbi David Stav of Tzohar on the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy today – alienation from the religious establishment – and how to fix it.

Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi David Stav
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi David Stav is chief rabbi of the town of Shoham and chairman of Tzohar, an organization that aims to make Jewish life accessible to secular Israelis by promoting moderate rabbinic leadership and public policy initiatives.
In speaking with Stav, it’s clear that he believes that the alienation felt by Jews from their roots and the religious establishment is a tragedy and the most burning issue facing the Jewish people today. It’s also clear that he believes that the religious establishment is to blame for much of this problem. More than anything, he wants to fix it.
In Jerusalem asked Stav to expand on this and a number of issues confronting the Jewish people and the State of Israel. But before delving into what he feels has gone wrong, Stav insisted that we begin with the things that are right.
“Before we discuss the challenges we have, we must express our gratitude to Hashem [God] that these are our challenges. Our forefathers could hardly have dreamed that we would be in this situation, where we have our own country that is safe, where almost 50% of the Jewish people live, with our own culture, industry, agriculture, scientists, army, etc. We must recognize this incredible gift and realize that it is our responsibility to do our part and improve and preserve this gift for future generations.”
That said, Stav was ready to dig into areas that need improvement.
When asked about the recent extremism boiling over in parts of Beit Shemesh, where teens are harassed when they walk through certain areas on Shabbat and a young teen threw a rock at a woman, splitting her head open because he didn’t like her dress, Stav said: “The challenge facing Beit Shemesh is a deeply painful and troubling one, and one should never be willing to accept the notion of terrorism in the name of religion. Still, it is not a national problem but a local one. The broader, national challenge is the continued friction between the haredi community with the National Religious and hiloni [secular] communities, which is leading to continuously heightening tensions on the national level.
“The plight of the non-haredim in Beit Shemesh is a good metaphor for a lot of Israelis who feel under threat because the state is not their state. They see that a minority group controls many aspects of the government and thus many important aspects of their lives. The haredi parties take advantage of the political system to control the personal lives of Israelis, and it causes a lot of damage, leading many Israelis to leave the country. They simply feel that the state does not represent or consider their wants and needs. So they leave for a place where they will have the freedom to live as they choose.”
In what ways do people feel the country is not theirs?
We can start with conversion. I think the vast majority of Israelis would say, Let’s open the market, and whoever wants to convert should come and convert without the interference of the government. The Supreme Court has ruled that any conversion by an Orthodox religious court should be recognized, yet the government has decided to go against this, due to pressure from the haredi parties.
The next issue is marriage. According to a recent poll, most Israelis are in favor of civil marriage. Many Israelis feel resentment that those who don’t pay taxes and don’t go to the army are the ones who decide not only about war and peace (within the government), but also what marriage looks like in this country. The larger parties (Likud/Labor) would actually prefer to follow the will of the people, but because of politics, they give in to haredi parties and give them the power to determine marriage and divorce.
The average citizen is angry, because they feel they are not counted and not wanted, even after they’ve given everything they can to society. And people are voting with their feet. They go to Cyprus to get married, they don’t bother converting, or they simply leave the country. We need to pay attention to them and their concerns. We don’t want to wake up in five or 10 years and find that another half a million Israelis have left the country because they don’t want to live in this society anymore, where a minority controls the reality for the majority.

What about the many Conservative and Reform Jews who feel that the state ignores their needs, that only Orthodox Judaism is considered legitimate? What would you say to them?
This is mainly an issue for Jews abroad. It is true that there are halachic differences, but we don’t need to import these issues to Israel. Ninety-five percent of Israelis don’t deal with these issues. Half of the Israeli population is traditional or Orthodox, and the other half isn’t Reform or Conservative. And yet we need to embrace world Jewry, including Reform and Conservative, without giving up our halachic principles. They need to be embraced, and we must engage in dialogue on where we can be inclusive and where we can’t.
To them I say, “Please come and make aliya and be part of the system. Come be part of the process and influence the country – from over there you won’t be able to make an impact. Here, you can.” I urge all my brothers and sisters, of any Jewish affiliation, to come to Israel. This is your home, too. There are always debates within a family, but this is your place, too. This is the future of the Jewish people.
It won’t be easy, but at the end of the day, in Israel every Jew can express their beliefs without fear. There [abroad], other movements disappear; here, hopefully, the Jewish nation will stay forever, and all tribes will have the chance to influence and debate. Come and fight for what you believe.
What do you think about the government’s decision to halt work on the Western Wall’s pluralistic prayer section?
The government’s decision this past Sunday has only further deepened the divide between the Israeli government and the Jewish people. Both the government and those representatives of religious Zionism within it established that they prefer a coalition including anti-Zionist elements over the unity of the Jewish people. We will continue to believe and act upon the understanding that Israel is the home of all Jews and all deserve the right for us to promote their interests.
Do you believe that women should serve in the IDF?
This decision has already been made. There are 3,000 religious women in the army. It is not reversible. Today’s army is not the army of 30 years ago. We are proud to be a part of the IDF, the tens of thousands of religious Zionists who serve prove that. I think there is a problem halachically and practically with mixed combat units, but I believe these issues can be solved relatively easily.
The issue of agunot is not getting better; in fact, a woman recently went on a hunger strike to get the Knesset to help her – and yet she remains 16 years a chained woman, her husband in jail refusing to free her with a “get” [religious divorce] How do we solve this problem?

I do not know all the details of the case, but in my opinion, they should have starved him until he relented. I would say that someone who has been given an order to give a get and is in jail – the next step is to beat him or starve him until he gives it.
I am in favor of pressuring the system – both the Knesset and the rabbinical courts – to give more physical punishments for the rabbinical courts to use to force on the husbands up till death – as it says in the Talmud. There are rabbis who know that there is more that can be done, but they are afraid to implement these solutions because the rabbinate punishes judges and rabbis who use maverick solutions.
Courageous rabbis who took brave decisions were criticized by the rabbinate! Instead of praising the judge who freed a woman whose husband is in a coma, they tried to cancel his decision. It’s not only that they aren’t helping – they are hindering! Halachic prenups are a solution for the vast majority of these issues. As to cases where a man is in a coma, there are solutions and I know rabbis who can do it, but they are afraid, and I’ve said to them, “Please, don’t fear anyone! Only fear God. Not politicians, rabbis, or people. Do what is right.”
You cannot be the Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish people and approach the agunot issue as though you are in a small shtetl.
The first step should be prenuptial agreements.
Tzohar created a halachic prenup after six years of development with the best experts in Israel. We eventually arrived at a version that didn’t satisfy the most extreme on Left or the Right, which for us meant that it was a good agreement because it satisfied most of the experts in this issue. My wife and I signed a postnuptial agreement [after the wedding]. I believe these agreements can solve over 90% of the problem.
But the rabbinate? Ask them, What are you doing to prevent agunot? What responsibility are you taking on yourself? I am sure that there are specific cases for which we have no solution. Part of our faith is that not every case is solvable, but until we get to that conclusion about a case, we must ask ourselves, “Have we done everything we can do?” I don’t believe that we have.
How do we deal with the fact that the kashrut system is known to be so broken and corrupt?
There is no way to guarantee an efficient system of kashrut, without competition. Monopoly creates bureaucracy and corruption, and, as we know, the reputation of the rabbinate supervision is very low. Most of the supervisors who give certification won’t eat in the places they certify. The way to improve this is with private initiatives. The more initiatives, the more people who use the alternatives, the more pressure will be put on the rabbinate to improve.
That the system is broken, everybody knows. That it’s corrupt, everyone knows. No one should control other people’s lives.
Do you believe the rabbinate should be disbanded?
Do I believe that the damage being caused to the Jewish people by the rabbinate is greater than the benefit it provides? Yes, I do. Is it time to close it? I don’t know.
There is no Chief Rabbinate. There are politicians who own the Chief Rabbinate. [MK Moshe] Gafni and [Interior Minister Arye] Deri basically run the rabbinate. No one would have voted for Gafni and Deri to run the rabbinate, but that’s exactly what we have. It would be different if the Chief Rabbinate understood that its job is to be inclusive, that it must serve all of Israeli society. Still, I think there are things that the rabbinate does that are important and things that they should be doing that they aren’t doing.
We work with them a lot. Tzohar’s Shorashim program works with the rabbinical courts to help prove people’s Jewishness. There are also things they do right, such as postponing Lag Ba’omer [to avoid Shabbat desecration]. Though they attempted to improve the kashrut certification, they ended up making it worse. They destroyed the system of conversion, they destroyed kashrut – they destroy almost everything they touch.
How can we make the change that we want to see?
There are three ways to make change in these areas in Israel. The first is in the Knesset, but chances are low. The second is via the Supreme Court, which is better, but limited. The third is the most important: public actions and protests.
The 5,000 couples that come to Tzohar for marriage is a protest.
The 100 private conversions a year in independent courts is a protest. Having 10,000 would be a better and more effective protest.
By the way, the haredi rabbinic courts for kashrut are also a protest. They reveal a lack of confidence.
Politicians see this and they take it into consideration.
And public pressure?
The 300,000 to 400,000 Russian immigrants who haven’t converted – many don’t want to convert. Maybe because the rabbinate’s policy has turned them off, or maybe they simply don’t feel the need.
If we had 5,000 requests for conversion, then we would have more power to make a case for private conversion. We cannot go to the Supreme Court without the numbers. If we had greater numbers, it would be a better case, and change would be easier with the political, legal and public pressure.
If we don’t have the numbers and pressure, we lose the battle. We need more political pressure and activism.
What do you suggest we do with this population, who are sociologically, yet not halachically, Jewish?
First, we need to remove their fear of the process of conversion and let them know that converting is something that will help them integrate into Israeli society.
Halachically, there will be standards that they need to reach. This is more of a problem for adults, since there are certain requirements. With minors, it’s much easier, so we focus on the approach of Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, which is to convert minors. Especially as it’s this generation that really matters – and wherein lies the danger and the hope.
Every year, nearly 5,000 children are born to non-Jewish families. The rabbinate converts fewer than 2,000 per year. These 5,000 will marry into the general Israeli population, whether abroad or by simply living together.
In addition, we know that those who don’t go through the process of proving their Judaism or converting have a much higher rate of leaving the country.
What change would you like to see?
Our mission is to make Israel the place for all of the Jewish people.
There is no way we can guarantee the future of this country without all of them. And any one tribe that tries to make another feel unwelcome is the one that will lead to the collapse of the whole.
Tzohar wants people to know that Judaism is inclusive and welcoming, and that the rabbinate is not representative of Judaism but, rather, an arm of haredi political parties.
I would like to see Judaism that engages and inspires secular society and to see it included. I would like to see the rabbinate decentralize its power and allow for more competition. I would ask them to not seek to control everything, rather, to make regulations in order to keep suppliers honest and ensure that every customer gets what they are promised.
I would ask them to simply allow the people to live their lives. First, release the chains on society and let them live. Then, inspire them.