Why David Stav Is the Most Talked-about Candidate for Israel's Chief Rabbi

Rabbi Stav, who wants to wrestle the post away from the grip of the ultra-Orthodox, knows that Haaretz readers won't like everything he has to say.

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

I don’t think a candidacy for the post of chief rabbi of Israel has ever generated so many headlines [the election for the new Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis will take place in June]. How do you explain the drama surrounding your race for the position?

The drama is due to the fact that, for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, the position of chief rabbi is being contested by someone who served in the army and whose children serve in the army. By a person who wears a knitted kippa [signaling affiliation with the religious-Zionist movement], who lives within Israeli society, and sees himself as an integral part of that society. I am from the world of Torah and Zionism. I am not subordinate to the ultra-Orthodox functionaries or to the politics of the Haredi Torah world.

Your approach has naturally upset a great many people. What price are you paying?

I am paying a very steep personal price, in several senses. The attacks and slanders from both the ultra-Orthodox world and the Haredi-religious Zionist world are numerous and painful. I hear threats from all kinds of directions: that if I am elected, genealogical tables will be exposed; that a terrible rift will ensue between the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli societies.

My writings are attracting a great many new readers who are trying to find flaws in them. Rulings I have handed down and things I have said are being wrenched from their context. I am under attack from all sides. But, God be blessed, I have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. As the head of Yeshivat Meraz Harav − where I studied − said, “When you see that there are many obstacles, it means that something great is going to happen.”

But you have been hurt.

Very much so. I am hurt and my family is hurt. But we are determined to keep going.

Do you fear for your life?

I want to hope it will not come to that, but I do not rule out that option.

Is there a connection between your candidacy for chief rabbi and the rise of Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party? Are we seeing a tendency by the religious-Zionist movement to take the reins?

There is a connection. Certainly. It also has to do with the fact that Israeli society wants to be Jewish in a way that is not dictated by the extremes. The message arising from last month’s general election is that the secular society is not indifferent. It wants Judaism and it wants Zionism. It wants the State of Israel. At the substantive level this is well understood, so I think this is a propitious moment. We also need to distinguish between the ultra-Orthodox as a public, and the political functionaries who taint their reputation and with whom the Haredi public is fed up.

Can you see a process in which religious Zionism moves away from the ultra-Orthodox sect?

I think that could definitely happen. I will tell you something, and I do not consider it utopian: in my opinion, within 10 to 15 years there will no longer be a division between Haredim and religious Zionists. The division will be between those who work and those who do not work, those who contribute to the society and those who do not contribute, those who take part in culture and those who do not take part. The question of how you dress and whether you say “Hallel” [prayer of praise and thanksgiving] on Independence Day is secondary.

The question is whether you choose to be insular or to open up.

Exactly.

Why did you decide to become a candidate for the post of chief rabbi?

I feel that it is essential to restore the confidence of Israeli society in one of our central institutions, one which to a large degree − whether through its own fault or not − does not have the public’s confidence. If it were only a lack of confidence in the institution, we could perhaps live with the situation. However, this lack of confidence is liable to cause a growing break with the country’s institutions of marriage, which will lead to assimilation and turn us into two nations. It is here that I feel we have to give our heart.

You are one of the founders of Tzohar, which acts like a kind of shock absorber for secular people who want to be married by the Chief Rabbinate. Isn’t that enough?

Tzohar is in the business of being nice. It had no interest in clashing with the establishment. On the contrary: we always told the rabbis, “We want to be your long arm.” But in the past two or three years, we suddenly realized that the situation is so delicate and complex that in another ten years there might not be a place for that institution [the Rabbinate] altogether. If the whole of the State of Israel opts for civil marriage abroad, then de facto that is what will happen.

What is your view of civil marriage?

Haaretz readers will not like what I am about to say. The institution of religious marriage is the last guarantee of preserving some sort of common fabric of Israeli society. Not at the cultural level, but at the ethnic level. For us to be one people.

But aren’t you actually trying to close the stable door long after the horse has bolted? The fact is that much of the nation wants to bypass the Rabbinate. Maybe the Rabbinate should consider support or recognition of civil marriages?

No. On the day we support civil marriages, we will effectively be saying that we have despaired of the state’s Jewishness. That the Zionist dream is over, that the vision of Rabbi [Zvi Yehuda] Kook has faded. Many people tell us, “Thanks to Tzohar, people are still getting married through the Rabbinate. If it weren’t for you, we could just as well shut down the Rabbinate.” That is true. We are the last barrier before the collapse of the Rabbinate. And we believe in the importance of that institution, because we believe in the state and we believe in Judaism.

It is the state’s role to provide everything that is necessary, at the bureaucratic level, in order to remove every obstacle. In regard to the halakha ‏(Jewish religious law‏), I do not intend to compromise in any way.

What happened to the Rabbinate after its initial incarnation under Rabbi Kook? How did it arrive at a situation in which even you, a rabbi in Israel, are looking at it from the outside and saying “We are wrong”?

That is inevitable as soon as sectarian politics become involved in the rabbinical system. There is no competition and there is an alternative: you can go to Prague or you can just not get married. The system didn’t even notice that it is a monopoly created from political deals.

How is this reflected on a day-to-day basis?

At the fundamental level, the question is what I, as a public official, see in front of me when a person comes to me. Is it just another person whom I doing a favor by dealing with him? Or am I a salesman, who will do anything to get the person to buy my product? Again without any halakhic concessions, I am a salesman who is selling Judaism. The Rabbinate needs to understand that we have a supreme interest in having every person who visits us emerge with the feeling that he received inspiration.

Isn’t what you are proposing here merely a cosmetic solution? Is that what’s really important − whether the official will be nice or not?

Well, for example, in Israel we have a million and a quarter new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and they require proof of Judaism. We in Tzohar don’t say “Too bad” and throw them out. We help them prove they are Jewish. We operate a unit called “Roots,” which has hired the services of Russian-speaking rabbis who conduct investigations and help these people.

We opened an office in Moscow and another in Kiev, in order to burrow through the records of the Red Cross, the KGB and documentation from World War II. We handle 1,000 cases a year, but the [actual] numbers are far higher. We need to gird our loins and help these people, because if they are unable to marry through the Rabbinate, they will simply get married in Cyprus − and not because that is what they want. They simply have no other way. That is what I am out to change. Without that I have no interest in this job. Really.

I am trying to understand the practical element of you walking on the seam: the desire to accommodate the secular public without forgoing anything from the halakha. As a secular woman, I can volunteer my take on the Rabbinate − let’s say, in connection with all the instructions that are given to brides. For someone who doesn’t come from that background, it’s science fiction.

As far as I am concerned, there is no reason in the world not to outsource bridal instruction. Let the bride choose the group that suits her best.

But that doesn’t address the deeper problem: that people don’t really want to maintain the religious laws of niddah [concerning menstruating women, with whom marital relations are prohibited] and have no intention of ever doing so. They go for the instructions under duress.

That is truly a very, very difficult question. I assume that the rationale behind the institution of instructing the bride is the desire to expose her to certain principles of Judaism. Obviously, there is no way to enforce this. The idea is that the couple will have this one opportunity to hear. What they do afterward is their decision.

But in the final analysis, people who want to get married by the Rabbinate are forced to lie. For example, to lie about the bride’s menstrual period so that it will suit the date of the wedding. And again, the system knows it is being lied to, but collaborates with the lie. So really, what’s the point?

I am deeply pained by this. I once cynically said that the first lesson a person learns when he enters the Rabbinate is how to beat the system with lies. The first bureaucratic change that needs to be made is to revise the regulation under which registration takes place three months before the wedding, because that simply does not leave a person any choice but to lie.

Where do you stand on the issue of sharing the military burden?

The need and importance for every person to serve in the army is our ideological faith. The big question is whether Torah study among certain groups has become a type of excuse − that is a question that has to be looked into. Certainly it is untenable for Torah study to be a cover for lack of involvement and partnership. I understand and esteem and respect the right of the Torah world and the pupils of the sages; but I do not accept an entire society not sharing the burden on the pretext that they are prodigies − which they are not.

An arrangement has to be found under which those who are not studying and are not part of the Torah world will bear the burden, and I am talking about very large percentages. Never in the Jewish world was there a situation in which tens of thousands of people are supported by the state’s coffers. There were always some who were supported, chosen groups − but a whole public? That is not what our teachers always taught us. Anyone who is not truly involved, who does not devote himself exclusively to the Torah, has to work. “Torah and work” [as the saying goes].

What is your position on the question of an agreement with the Palestinians?

I believe in the importance of our hold in the Land of Israel and in our commitment to it. If you are asking me whether I was for or against the [Gaza] disengagement, I was against it.
What do you think about the fact we are the occupiers of another nation?

I believe in the right of every person to live in freedom. And I believe that sometimes the fact that one group rules over another group can cause damage. At the [Passover] seder we are used to saying, “Vayareiu otanu hamitzrim” − in other words, the Egyptians turned us into bad people, in the sense that they made us hate and kill others.

We are used to uttering the comment that Golda Meir made: “We might be able to forgive the Arabs who harmed us, but we will not be able to forgive them for making us harm them.” On the other hand, we are not pacifists. Certainly to rule over someone else who does not want that is not a good thing. But the alternative − being massacred by him − is even worse. I will tell you a story from the period of my reserve duty in Hebron.

You were in the Armored Corps.

Yes. I was in Hebron and my tank commander was from Kibbutz Barkai. We had to check papers. When an old Arab arrived he coarsely shouted at him, “Show me your papers!” Afterward I said to him, “Look, I want to stay in Hebron. You do not want to stay in Hebron. If I want to stay in Hebron, it obliges me to be determined and completely faithful to the army’s orders, but also, no less, to preserve my human morality. I have to live with this Arab. I don’t want there to be hate between us. I have no wish for that. I have to carry out the order in full, but with maximum sensitivity and humanity.”

Rabbi Kook, who created Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful], always said, “We have a quarrel over the Land of Israel, but we have no quarrel with the individuals Ahmed and Mohammed. On the contrary. At the personal level we will treat them with respect.” That is ABC, as far as I am concerned. Respect for every person, even if he is an Arab. And at the same time, of course, I have to do everything so that my nation will be sovereign.

I suppose that the success of Habayit Hayehudi in the election makes you very happy.

No one has ever heard what my political opinions are.

I understand that the party is strongly promoting your candidacy.

I don’t know. And even if it is true, it is not relevant. Many parties support my election, thank God. Along with the attacks, I am also receiving tremendous waves of support from all sides. Including from the ultra-Orthodox.

Yesh Atid is also pushing for your appointment.

I have a very good friend in that party.

Rabbi Shay Piron.

Correct.

What is the price you will not be prepared to pay to bond with the secular public?

I will not deviate from the halakha as it was accepted by our forefathers − neither to the right nor to the left.

Is the halakha compatible with the world we live in?

Our Torah is eternal. Naturally, it needs to be translated all the time.

How far? What do you think about gay people?

What the Torah prohibits, I prohibit. Can I permit what the Torah prohibited? It’s clear that I prohibit.

A prohibition from the Torah.

Exactly. The question is how I will speak to him, what I do with him. Whether I ostracize him and spurn him, or try to conduct a dialogue with him. But what is prohibited is prohibited.

Nevertheless, in the utopian world you describe, gay people will not be able to be married by the Rabbinate.

No.

How do you feel about that?

I will be hurting together with him. Certainly.

How does one reconcile your personality, your openness and sensitivity, with a code that is so dogmatic and brooks no deviation?

Yesterday, someone asked me what to say to children whose parents were killed in an accident. How do you explain something like that to them? What do you say? I told him I don’t know how to explain; I know what I do: I embrace. I say “I am with you and I will not leave you.” Just as I cannot fight against the Lord, who allowed someone to be killed in an accident, I also cannot help in the halakhic sense. The only thing I can do is to love. To help.

Your opponents accuse you of ingratiating yourself with secular people.

Tell me, did I ingratiate myself with Haaretz readers in this conversation?

No, but that doesn’t really answer the question. How do you feel when people talk about you like that?

I will say what Rabbi Kook said: “It is better for me to fail through groundless love than through groundless hatred.”

Rabbi David Stav.Credit: Gali Eytan

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