There Are No Moderate Rabbis

The battle for control over the Chief Rabbinate is not between moderates and extremists, or between enlightened members of religious Zionism against the uneducated Haredim, but rather between two aggressive groups that are fighting over the fees paid by the public

Rabbi David Stav’s campaign to be Israel’s Ashkenzai chief rabbi illustrates the rule that there are no moderate rabbis, nor can there be. That the very idea of a liberal Orthodox authority is contaminated by a deep internal contradiction that cannot be bridged. Especially when that authority rests upon state coercion, and not public will.

Stav’s life mission is to ensure the existence of the institution of religious marriages in a secular society that is moving away from tradition. In his eyes, the religious wedding is the key to the existence and future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. To this end he and his colleagues established the Tzohar organization of rabbis, which tries to make the meeting with the rabbinate and its officials easier for secular couples. According to Tzohar’s website, its rabbis marry around 3,000 couples each year.

“Tzohar is in the business of being nice,” Stav told Ayelett Shani ‏(Haaretz, February 22‏). “I am a salesman who is selling Judaism.” There is no doubt that Stav knows how to express himself well to the secular public, but this is deception. In real life, he is not a sales representative for a pleasant petting zoo, but a warrior on behalf of a coercive system. His pleasantness rests upon the rulebook that only allows marriage in a religious ceremony, and only between a man and a woman of the same religion. Those who want a different arrangement are forced to marry outside of Israel, or to live as a “common-law couple” and worry that the rabbinate might harass their children in the future.

Visitors from overseas struggle to believe that citizens of the “only democracy in the Middle East” are denied the basic right to marry who they want, how they want, and are subject to religious rules that most of them do not accept. It is simply incomprehensible among those who have grown up in Western countries − and even in secular dictatorships such as the former Soviet Union. Matrimony laws in Israel are similar to those in Saudi Arabia or Iran. This is the essence of this religious coercion, and Stav will not soften it. On the contrary, he explains that he “will not deviate from the halakha [Jewish law] as it was accepted by our forefathers − neither to the right nor to the left.” According to his ethical perspective it is right to sacrifice individual freedom for “national unity.”

Stav and his friends claim that the secular population hates the rabbinate because of the bureaucracy and the inflexibility of the current leadership, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis. This is ignorance or the pretense of innocence. The secular couples that refuse a religious wedding simply don’t wish to lie to themselves or those around them, and participate in a ceremony they don’t believe in. Stav knows that he will be unable to persuade them without the coercive power of the state. If he really thought it were possible to “sell Judaism,” he could support civil marriage and handle it in the free market. But he knows he will lose, and to support his position he wraps it with ostensibly nationalist arguments: “On the day we support civil marriage, we will effectively be saying that we have despaired of the state’s Jewishness.”

The battle for control over the Chief Rabbinate is not between moderates and extremists, or between enlightened members of religious Zionism against the uneducated Haredim, but rather between two aggressive groups that are fighting over the fees paid by the public. Instead of one agent of coercion with an office and chauffeured car imposing the laws of halakha, we will have another one with the added − and irrelevant − value that he and his children served in the military, in contrast to his Orthodox opponent whose children were exempt from army service. Once again the army is turned from a security organization into a component of our religious lives.

The rabbinate should be privatized. Those who wish to observe halakha can choose their rabbis and go on their way. That is what the Haredim do. The state doesn’t need to engage in religious guidance, certainly not in enforcing it by law. Israel will continue to exist and prosper even if all couples marry at City Hall or with the justice of the peace, and when the majority chooses this way, halakha will change too. But this doesn’t interest Rabbi Stav. He only wants to perpetuate the denial of civil rights, and at most promises that with him, the handcuffs will be covered in fur.

Gali Eytan