Moderate Orthodox Rabbi Throws Kippa Into Ring for Chief Rabbinate

Rabbi David Stav, current head of the Tzohar organization, is striving for leadership of Israel's ultimate rabbinical authority, a move likely to rile the nation's Haredim.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The chairman of the Tzohar group of moderate Orthodox rabbis is angling for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, a position he hopes will make Israel's ultimate governmental authority on Jewish law "more relevant for Israeli society."

Rabbi David Stav is the current leader of Tzohar, an Orthodox Jewish organization that promotes outreach to Israel's secular community. He is also the current chief rabbi of the central Israeli town of Shoham.

The Chief Rabbinate has two leaders: An Ashkenazi chief rabbi, who follows Jewish practices rooted in the communities of Eastern Europe, and a Sephardic chief rabbi, who follows the practices of Jews descending from Spain, Portugal and the Middle East.

To mark his campaign on Wednesday, Stav released a YouTube video in which he said "fundamental change" is needed to put the Chief Rabbinate back in line with the path set by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who served as pre-state Israel's first chief rabbi. That path, Stav said, "brings people closer," indicating the prospect of a rabbinate that is more welcoming and less alienating, especially for Israeli Jews who don't necessarily identify as religious.

"We are creating with our own hands two peoples – a religious-traditional Jewish nation and a non-Jewish Israeli nation," said Stav. "There is no greater or more significant destruction than that."

There is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel controls all legal unions, and as a result a high number of Israeli couples each year choose to get married abroad in order to avoid having to deal with the organization's stringent policies.

Tzohar is perhaps best known for helping Israeli couples who want to stay in Israel to marry navigate the Rabbinate's bureaucracy. According to its own statistics, Tzohar rabbis perform the marriages of about 3,000 couples a year.

If successful in his bid, Stav, 52 would replace Rabbi Yona Metzger, who has held the post since 2003. Metzger's replacement will be tapped by the 150 members of the selection committee within the next few months.

Although he is the first candidate to officially announce his bid, there is no doubt there will be other contenders. Stav faces two other likely religious Zionist challengers: rabbinical court judge Rabbi Eliezer Igra and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, who heads Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and is the son of the late former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira. There is also a great deal of speculation that two ultra-Orthodox candidates, David Yitzhak Grossman, the chief rabbi of Migdal Ha'emek, and David Lau, the chief rabbi of Modi'in and a son of former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, will also angle for the role.

Of all possible candidates, Stav is expected to generate the greatest opposition from Ashkenazi Haredim. He stoked the flames even higher after recently confronting the Chief Rabbinate by seeking full recognition for marriage certificates issued by Tzohar.

In seeking the top post of the Chief Rabbinate, Stav said, he was not trying to condemn any particular group. Rather, he was hoping to be a source of unity.

"We see connecting the various populations – secular, [non-Haredi] religious and Haredi – as a central goal," he said. "This candidacy is not against any other candidate, this candidacy is in favor. It's in favor of connecting the Jewish people to the Torah, it's in favor connecting all of Israeli society to the creator of the world, it's in favor of bringing us together."

Rabbi David Stav. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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