Next election: Israel’s chief rabbi

There must be zero tolerance for any compromise in Halacha with tolerance for dealing with people politely and respectfully.

Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate 300 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate 300
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A few short weeks ago the electorate made a bold proclamation; while security remains an obvious concern in Israel, interests such as education and social responsibility took center stage and dictated the outcome of the election.
In fact, the people of Israel pronounced that the only way to ensure the security of the country is by strengthening a sense of responsibility among its citizens across the board. This was made obvious not only based on the outstanding success of Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi, but also by the diminishing power of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties who, assuming opportunity presents itself, may be forced to compromise on some of their principles to vie for a place in the new government (something which Shas has not had problems doing in the past).
Although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has enough work cut out for him in trying to form a majority, on the same day that he was invited by President Shimon Peres to start forming a government another important challenge regarding the nation’s leadership surfaced. An organization called Kiruv Levavot (bonding of hearts) ran an add in Haaretz which read: “The election for the Chief Rabbinate is no less significant than that for the Knesset.”
The ad went on to explain that the election for the Chief Rabbinate is held once in 10 years, and the results are no less significant than the government elections in terms of its impact on our lives. It then claims that the haredim have taken control of the rabbinate and have succeeded in imposing themselves upon the secular majority.
We have come to expect politicians, with their inflated egos, to be involved in scandalous affairs, but we expect otherwise from an institution bearing the title of Chief Rabbinate. However, this is simply not the case; the Chief Rabbinate itself has become a political institution rather than a religious one.
I AM often reminded of Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, chief rabbi of Israel from 1964 to 1972, who lobbied for tolerance toward secular Jews and wrote mostly about religious conversion and marital law.
He explained that the difference between the American and Israeli rabbinate is that “the American rabbinate has no power and tremendous influence; while the Israeli rabbinate has tremendous power and little influence.”
I am an Orthodox rabbi who frequently travels abroad to speak in various communities. I come across rabbis of varying denominations, mostly Conservative and Reform, many of whom are far more cognizant of the concepts of Derech Eretz (sensitivity and respect toward others) than many of their Orthodox counterparts.
They often confront me with questions regarding the Israeli rabbinate’s inflexible nature and lack of consideration regarding the interpretation of Jewish law, as well as its unwillingness to include them, let alone engage in dialogue.
Upon reflection it is clear to me that religious- Zionist rabbis experience similar frustrations. Granted, perhaps not the same level of frustration because we are Orthodox like the chief rabbinate, however frustration nonetheless; certain institutions of my Orthodox rabbinic training, such as broad-mindedness (becoming increasingly scarce in the Orthodox world) are not being advanced by its representative rabbinic body.
Personally I do not have the answers to many of the questions posed by my Conservative and Reform rabbinic counterparts, but I do know it is the responsibility of the Chief Rabbinate as the religious representatives of all members of the State of Israel to address or at the very least not to dismiss these legitimate grievances.
Over the past 10 years little has been done by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate concerning the problem of defining and possibly ratifying “who is a Jew.” Little has been proposed regarding conversions and there has certainly been insufficient if any response by either chief rabbi regarding the Conservative (Masorti) and Reform Rabbinate and movements, which have aggressively demanded some sort of credibility.
While the Chief Rabbinate must uphold the proper standards of the Halacha (Jewish law), it must also recognize that it is a people’s institution and that the people in Israel thirst for tolerance, patience, understanding and diplomacy, particularly from their religious leadership. Once this is accomplished I believe the rabbinate will be surprised to find how thirsty the secular population in Israel is for knowledge, and for enlightenment as well.
We need to draw our attention to the ideas expressed by the advertisement quoted above and to respond accordingly in this election, in similar fashion to the general election, particularly now as the religious-Zionist and haredi parties struggle to figure out how to maintain strong yeshivot which promote consistent study of Torah together with the lawful demands by many parties for all Israeli citizens to fulfill their mandatory service in the army.
This issue may not be resolved overnight, but it is certainly not going away, and strong rabbinic leadership over the country could perhaps finally have the positive influence which many are looking for.
In order for this to happen the person elected to the post of chief rabbi must be a Zionist, which means that he served in the army, his children serve in the army and he identifies with religious-Zionist institutions. Secondly, and perhaps even more pressing, the appointee must be someone who is scholarly and creative enough to make halachic decisions.
He must be able to confront a haredi rabbinate which has dictated many halachic policies to the current Chief Rabbinate.
RABBI DOVID Stav has expressed his interest in serving as chief rabbi. Rabbi Stav is not only a scholar and a Zionist but he brings something else to the table as well, something which is often overlooked in the appointment of government officials but should not be overlooked in the appointment of the rabbinate: experience.
Rabbi Stav established the organization called Tzohar, an organization which does everything to avoid coercion and which looks for creative ways to engage in dialogue and cater to the larger Israeli public by helping them feel more comfortable with their Judaism. The Talmud declares: “The words of the wise are adhered to when they are said in a soft tone”; it would appear that Rabbi Stav subscribes to this axiom. Consider his comments in a recent interview on Israel radio: “We learn from Rav Nachman that anything that has been broken by mortal man can also be fixed by man, and I am committed to work to doing just that.
There must be zero tolerance for any compromise in Halacha accompanied by 100 percent tolerance for dealing with people politely and respectfully, reaching out to those who do not know how to turn to rabbis and representing the rabbinate in a different light.
“What Halacha dictates that a young couple seeking to get married must be treated harshly? What Halacha compels a resident of Beersheba studying in Tel Aviv University to register with the rabbinate in Beersheba when Tel Aviv is infinitely more convenient for him/her? What Halacha prohibits accommodating the schedule of young people seeking to register for marriage? What Halacha compels a young couple to open their file exactly 90 days before the wedding instead of six months if that better suits them? “Why can’t we assist the immigrants from the former Soviet Union? Yes, many of them must prove their Jewish roots, but instead of throwing a list of demands at them, why not use the Chief Rabbinate’s vast resources and connections around the world to facilitate that process? It would be in the interest of all.”
Rabbi Stav seems genuinely interested in reintroducing consideration, a very basic institution which has somehow become excluded from rabbinic liturgy.
At the end of their advertisement, Kiruv Levavot suggests that “the rabbinate should bring hearts closer and not promote hate.” It would appear that Rabbi Stav would like to facilitate an approach in which rabbis demand less power and seek more influence.
The writer teaches at Yeshiva Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a lecturer for the IDF Rabbinate, as well as for the Menachem Begin Heritage Center Israel Government Fellows. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, religious Zionism and Jewish education.