The Man and the Symbol: The Two Sides of Rabbi David Stav, Candidate for Israel's Chief Rabbi

The ultra-Orthodox and the conservative branch of the religious Zionist community see Rabbi David Stav as an agent of change, i.e. an enemy of Judaism; but Stav himself believes he is a proud conservative, an ultra-cautious interpreter of Jewish law.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

By law, two chief rabbis serve in Israel side by side. But in the most interesting election campaign in the history of the Chief Rabbinate one candidate has himself been split into two, perhaps involuntarily. There are two Rabbi David Stavs. There is Rabbi Stav the symbol; and there is the actual Rabbi Stav. And there is a wide chasm between them.

Stav, the symbol, is the chairman of the rabbinical organization Tzohar, a liberal rabbi who is seeking to enact a revolution in the Chief Rabbinate that will lead it – and Judaism altogether – to become closer and more popular with the people. Almost everyone who supports Stav's candidacy for the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi are taken in by the symbol: religious Zionists and secular Jewish Israelis, starting with the members of the moderate camp within the Habayit Hayehudi party, up to the Labor party and including those in the middle: Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah.

Everyone is idolizing Stav as a hope for change. On the flip side, the Haredim and the conservative branch of religious Zionism, who are referred to as the Hardalim, take issue with exactly that symbol and have turned Stav into an agent of reform, meaning an enemy of Judaism. It almost goes without saying that the press on both sides cultivates this symbol.

But the flesh and bones Stav had no idea he is like this. The real Stav writes and speaks, however pleasantly, as a proud conservative, an ultra-cautious interpreter of Jewish law who adheres strictly to the biblical command not to stray from the words of the religious sages whether to the right or left. Aside from his friendliness and his pleasant manner, he has never brandished the banners that the street and the media love to attribute to him, from the secular side of the spectrum to the Haredi side.

True, his transformation into a reformist rabbi was also achieved due to the army of expensive and aggressive Tzohar publicists. But whoever listens to Stav himself will understand that the changes he wants to enact in the rabbinate address almost entirely to administrative issues, not halakhic content. In a conversation with Haaretz, Stav himself presented the change he is seeking as, Zero concessions on halakha, 100 percent bureaucratic concessions. Every bureaucratic obstruction - we will revoke it."

There is almost no need to point out that he objects to civil marriage. To the contrary, in Stav's eyes, The Chief Rabbinate has a commitment to halakha, it has one path and it's the central path in Jewish tradition." Accordingly, Stav intends to expand the Chief Rabbinate's areas of involvement and strengthen it as a monopoly for religious affairs, and he also objects to the initiative by Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, which was recently presented to the High Court of Justice, that the state finance community rabbis, including non-Orthodox ones.

Stav is certainly moderate and he is the single candidate who has committed himself to changing the Chief Rabbinate, but he is in no way a liberal, not even compared to his colleagues at Tzohar. Stav is within the middle stream of religious Zionism, which supports both prenuptial agreements and Gemara lessons for women, which he himself conducts once a week.

In order to sharpen the gap between the image and the rabbi, this week the dispute concerning the rabbinate elections reached a new peak thanks to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party, who labeled Stav (in his absence) last Saturday a wicked man who was not fit for anything.

Shas MKs Aryeh Deri and Ariel Attias who appeared to have been asking for such attack didn't think two steps ahead. Just like what happened on the eve of the last Knesset elections, when Ovadia hit hard Habayit Hayehudi (he called them, a home of gentiles, a play on their name in Hebrew, which means the Jewish home). Here too the effect has boomeranged. Jews in Israel and abroad are finding it difficult to accept the brutality of the Shas leader.

Rabbi David Lau from Modi'in is still considered the leading candidate in the race. But Stav, who until Friday last week was a candidate that the religious Zionist camp was torn over, has become the consensus of the religious Zionist sector and a national hero.

Aside from the politicians who supported him, it's enough to note that Rabbi Haim Druckman and Rabbi Zephaniah Drori, two elders of the religious Zionist camp who made Stav's life difficult, declared their support for him this week.

This week we met with Rabbi Stav at his home late at night. In the middle of the interview, in what appeared to be unplanned, a Shas member, who is one of the 150 people who elect the chief rabbis, knocked on Stav's door. The man, who smothered Stav with hugs, came to fraternize with the enemy under the cover of night and didn't think a journalist would record the scene. I promised not to write his name. This Shas member will vote for Stav, even in spite of the opposition of Rabbi Ovadia.

Half an hour later, almost at 11:00 P.M., three Haredi yeshiva students came by to say how ashamed they were by Rabbi Ovadia's words. They had no ties to any voting body, but they see Stav as a symbol for Ahavat Yisrael (Love of the Jewish People). Does this improve Stav's chances to be elected to the chief rabbinate? It's unclear. He's not considered the favorite, but he is still in the game.

This isn't the only mistake made by Rabbi Ovadia and his people. Irony lies in the fact they justify the attack by saying that in Stav's book Bain Hazmanin, he discusses the proper way, in his opinion as a man of halakha, to deal with leisure culture. Shas members attacked his permission for religious Jews to go to the cinema and avert their gaze during immodest scenes. This past Thursday, he was referred to disparagingly as the cinema rabbi in the Shas party organ.

It was interesting to listen to Stav's response following these attacks. Faithful to his opinions, he didn't brandish the banner of modern Orthodoxy or provide an alternative to the Haredi one. To the contrary, he was confounded about what the Haredim wanted from him. I am more Rabbi Ovadia then Rabbi Ovadia's followers, he said.

This is unequivocal, he continued. I am committed to his rulings and his compassionate, sensitive, loving halakhic worldview that cares for the Jewish people and am connected to this view more than half of his students. I admire his greatness in Torah. In my room, I have his books; his rulings have accompanied me all my life; in my eyes, he is truly one of the giant adjudicators of religious law and it pains me. I truly believe that his people misled him, it happens, it pains me and I hope and believe that a way will be found to fix this.

In the Stav family's living room there is no television, but there is a piano. On the walls there are painting and prints. Half of them depict kind-eyed Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox figures. The others are either of scenery or works of calligraphy containing verses from Scripture.

Stav is a religious Zionist Jew but his heart goes out toward ultra-Orthodox. At every opportunity he is sure to mention his family's heritage, that of being the grandson of the Rebbe of Zvhil, a town in present-day Ukraine. In his book Stav permits listening to music of almost all types, but in his living room the CDs are almost entirely of Hasidic music. As for the "cinema rabbi the last film he has been to was when he was in the eighth grade.

I am not a man of concerts, plays and theater, he said. I don't know movies. When I have a free moment, I am busy with Torah, not just because I am commanded so, [but because] I love it. But I understand that there are other people in the world and one needs to relate to them," he added. And I can't say that painting is forbidden if I know that Rabbi Kook said about Van Gogh that he reached spiritual achievements when he painted paintings. Who am I to deny this?

If this is the whole story, why did the Haredim come out against him? Stav is certain that the attacks are coming from those that want to preserve their political hold on all sorts of posts in the rabbinate which they see as means for serving their political and economic interests. He added, This isn't connected at all to Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef].

The Chief Rabbinate elections are so controversial because they are coming at a time of ideological and religious agitation across Jewish society and in the Orthodox world in particular. But Stav, whose symbolic figure is on the receiving end of all this outpouring, seeks to cover over any ideological aspect. We asked him what would have happened if he were a black suit, black hat wearing candidate. Is it just because of his knitted kippa that he is presented as an enemy of Judaism?

Yes, Stav answered decisively and then tried to convince us that even if this election campaign is being waged like a religious war, it's just a battle of kippas. The dress is external, but not for nothing do I go around with a knitted kippa. I am saying that I belong to a certain movement, I am proud of it, I am part of it and I do not intend to give up on this characteristic.

Rabbi David Stav speaking to the media.Credit: Moti Milrod
Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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