Reform The Rabbinate

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Rabbi David Stav

Rabbi David Stav Lashes Out At Religious Establishment

By Sam Sokol

At the Ticho House restaurant on Rav Kook Street in downtown Jerusalem, inside a private dining room, are seated several journalists for English-language Jewish and Israeli publications. Yishai Fleisher from Galei Yisrael radio, Ruthi Blum from Israel Hayom’s English edition, and Jeremy Sharon from the Jerusalem Post all chat and eat their breakfasts, courtesy of Tzohar, as they wait for Rabbi David Stav, the director of the rabbinic organization, to show up.

Stav founded Tzohar as an alternative for Zionist Israelis, religious and secular, seeking Orthodox religious services outside of the framework of a state rabbinate widely seen as inefficient and not particularly customer-service oriented, and is currently “unofficially” running for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.

His organization recently ran a campaign urging Israelis to vote a national-religious candidate into this top spot, without specifying Stav’s aspirations, in order to return the state rabbinate to its Zionist roots.

It is therefore no surprise that Stav has invited these journalists to a restaurant on Rav Kook Street, only yards from the house of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the founder of the chief rabbinate during the British Mandate era.

While many of the journalists arrived expecting Stav to officially announce his campaign, he declined to do so, dodging the issue in a most unsubtle way. Discussing his problems with the direction that the rabbinate has taken, the white-bearded, middle-aged rabbi mentioned what he would do if elected, but did not utter the words that would make his candidacy official.

Reiterating arguments that he has made time and again, he stated that while Israel is a Jewish state and nation of laws, mandating some sort of religious governmental authority, it is not acceptable that the same malaise and contempt for the public that is widely perceived as existing among the secular arms of the government exist within the chief rabbinate.

A rabbinate in which the leaders belong to ultra-Orthodox sects that do not recognize the state and who do not eat at restaurants that they certify as kosher, he stated, undermines public support for religion in Israel. Citing an event in which several rabbis from the rabbinate felt the need to “kasher” a restaurant that they had certified with a rabbanut certificate so that they could feel comfortable eating there, Stav said that a change had to be made.

While Tzohar performs weddings and provides religious services in competition with the rabbinate, everything that his organization does is in consonance with Israeli law, he said, emphasizing the need for a reformed rabbinate as a force for good in Israeli society. However, just as Tzohar provides free-market services for secular Israelis fed up with a tarnished rabbinate, so too must religious services such as kashrut be privatized, Stav asserted.

“The role of the rabbinate,” he said, “must be to act as a supervisory body” that oversees competing kashrut certification organizations. This would allow for an increase in service comparable to what he says Tzohar brought about in the realm of marriage. “If we make marriage easier,” he stated, “fewer people will go abroad to marry in civil ceremonies” that are then recognized by the state upon their return.

Another problem with the rabbinate that Stav brought up is the cronyism that he says has infected the religious body. Big rabbis, he said, put pressure on members of their communities that they helped gain employment in the rabbinate to hire other members of their respective communities. This, he accused, has made the rabbinate a hotbed of nepotism.

While none of these accusations are particularly new, and many of the journalists at Stav’s breakfast press conference did not look particularly excited or enthused to hear these talking points again, the very fact that Stav held this event shows that despite not announcing his candidacy in any real way, he is set on changing the public discourse about the rabbinate, either for his own election or to create an environment in which another national-religious rabbi can be elected.

That being said, he has all but officially announced his candidacy, and the explanations of his close associates regarding his reasons, being convoluted and a little bit nonsensical, don’t play very well.

However, unless a wedge can be placed between the United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Likud parties following this coming election, the chances of a national-religious candidate for office actually winning in this most politicized of elections (which usually follows coalition lines) is slim to none.

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