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Much More than Just Nicer

March 8, 2013

Stav1With coalition negotiations still capturing the headlines, it is all too easy to forget that yet another election looms in Israel. Though this will be one in which most of us cannot vote, it too may exert tremendous influence on the future of the Jewish state. These elections will be for the chief rabbis of Israel. Interestingly, for the first time in many, many years, the upcoming elections (no official date has been set yet) are actually arousing interest in sectors outside ultra- Orthodox circles, because of the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav.

The minute Rabbi Stav walks into the room, you cannot help but sense that you’re in the presence of a different kind of rabbi. This is a rabbi who served in the IDF, as have his children, who cares about the larger issues of Israeli society.

Seeking evolutionary rather than revolutionary change in the way that the chief rabbinate works, Stav is known largely for the work of his organization, Tzohar, which has sought to create a much more user-friendly rabbinate for the citizens of the State of Israel. More than 3,000 couples have been married by Tzohar rabbis, and they widely attest to an experience that was infinitely warmer, more respectful and religiously meaningful than what they would have received through the standard Israeli rabbinate.

Stav’s campaign is picking up steam. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party endorsed him some time back, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has now done so as well.

But what’s interesting is that despite the undeniable breath of fresh air that Stav would represent, he has received sometimes only tepid responses from non-Orthodox Diaspora communities, who understandably detest Israel’s hopelessly corrupt, misogynist, intellectually stultifying, ultra-Orthodox, non- Zionist rabbinate.  [DG: It takes a particular kind of rage to evoke this rather distasteful graffiti, which can be found in many part of Jerusalem:]stav3

This lukewarm response to Stav, though not entirely incomprehensible, is a mistake. True, neither Stav nor Tzohar as an organization are pluralists in the American sense of the word. Tzohar rabbis have publicly stated their opposition to Israel’s recognizing non-Orthodox conversions. At a meeting I attended with Stav, he noted that as the rabbi of Shoham, he would allocate funding to any 40 families who wished to create a Reform or Conservative synagogue, but then added, “Thank God, that hasn’t happened.” For American Diaspora leaders used to a different form of discourse, there’s nothing terribly comforting about conversations like those.

But before anyone writes off Stav, they ought to ask themselves, why have those non-Orthodox synagogues not come to be? Under Stav, Shoham appears to have become a place where a much wider swathe of Israeli society feels comfortable in the “mainstream” Orthodox community. That will be little consolation to those who believe that Reform or Conservative Judaism have something important to offer Israeli society, and that the message must get out. Understandable though their perspective is, it’s a short-sighted one in this instance.

stav2POLITICS, OTTO von Bismarck noted, is the art of the possible. Stav’s candidacy ought to be viewed in that light, even by those who might prefer a radically different system in Israel. There is going to be no separation of “church” and state in Israel anytime in the near future. There is going to be no non-Orthodox chief rabbi. American pluralist notions are just that – they are American, largely foreign to European and Israeli culture. That may change, or it may not, but in the meantime, Jews who care about the future of Israeli society would be wise to seize opportunity where it awaits them.

Israel faces a plurality of existential threats. Iran is the most obvious, but others are equally dangerous. And one of those is the danger that young Israelis will simply stop believing in the importance of the Zionist project. When young Israelis no longer believe that Israel matters, they will leave and Israel will fade away. There is absolutely no guarantee that Israel will still be around in 65 years, but if it is to survive, it needs a younger generation of Israeli Jews that cares.

Yet there is little reason for these young Jews to be terribly committed to Israel if they know virtually nothing about the Jewish tradition, or if what they do see of it turns them off. Jews of all walks of life ought therefore see Stav’s candidacy as infinitely more than a painful compromise due to the lack of any alternatives.  It represents a decision to give Judaism in Israel another chance, and in so doing, to extend Israel’s lease on life.

Stav would undoubtedly conduct the rabbinate in ways Diaspora leaders find either distasteful or problematic. An example: Tzohar rabbis have not sought to abolish the classes for prospective brides that the rabbinate requires. A skeptical critic might ask, “Why not? If even Tzohar rabbis insist on teaching these classes to couples who have no intention of conducting their private lives in accordance with the dictates of Jewish tradition, isn’t this more of the same?”

But no, it is not. To abolish the classes would mean engaging in conflict with the chief rabbinate and undermining Tzohar.  So Tzohar rabbis use the classes to speak about issues of Jewish identity, the Jewish values of the Jewish home, and in the process, do discuss nidda, too.  Is it a bad thing for the Jewish state to hope that couples getting married will have at least some discussion of how Judaism might infuse the character of the home they are about to create?

The evaluations of these courses suggest not.  Nachman Rosenberg, Tzohar’s executive vice president, asserts that the preponderance of those completing evaluations wrote that they did not know that there were in Israel religious Jews who were so open, that they had expected the worst from these classes but had had very positive experiences.
That’s more than a curiosity; it’s an indication of how critical a renewed rabbinate could be to restoring Israelis’ sense of purpose, and how much we’ve lost by having the rabbinate we’ve had for far too long.stav4

Israel’s last elections illustrated that one day of voting can usher in a radically more hopeful period for the Jewish state.  Most of us are not eligible to vote for the chief rabbi, but we have reason to express our views, to support those who support change, and to recognize what is at stake.

The Israeli rabbis and politicians who will vote for the chief rabbi have an opportunity to embrace a critical strategic objective that ought to be shared by all Jews who care about the future of Israel. We have an opportunity to end the long festering conflict between the Jewish state, the Jewish tradition and Israel’s Jewish citizens. We have an opportunity to renew that which had always made Israel great – a sense of shared purpose, a belief in shared destiny and a commitment to mutual responsibility. 

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