The failure of Rabbi David Stav’s bid to be elected chief rabbi was a foregone conclusion. I said all through the campaign that some people were making a great deal of money at our expense; that enormous sums were going to waste or into the pockets of talented PR people. A real campaign is supposed to identify its target audience, first of all. The Tzohar organization (which is interested in “dialogue and the search for common elements of identity,” as its website states in Hebrew), and its director, Rabbi David Stav, addressed their campaign to the wrong population — that is, the wrong audience.
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That’s because in Israel the public does not elect its rabbis. The politicians do. This creates a dependence that is one of the factors in the rabbinate’s corruption. The rabbis owe the public no accounting, nor are they dependent on the public. Except for the chief rabbis, who are elected to 10-year terms, rabbis are appointed for life by politicians. As we saw during the term of the previous chief rabbis, Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi Shlomo Amar, neither public criticism nor even criminal allegations against them shook the stability of their power. Who whispered in the ears of important donors of Modern Orthodoxy that a talented PR person could change the minds of 120 politicians? Who led them so far astray?
Tzohar’s gamble looks like a mistake. While it proved its ability to interest the public in religious Jewish weddings via kindness, honesty and generosity, its bid for the Chief Rabbinate was still a misguided gamble, since the trend among donors is to work for change in the character of the rabbinate and the performance of the rabbinical courts. The public sees the Chief Rabbinate as a political institution that is corrupt, cut off from the people, radically Haredi and harmful to women and men. Tzohar never challenged the rabbinate over the years. It never called for a boycott against it or fought it, either in the public or the legal sphere. On the contrary: its rabbis, headed by Rabbi Stav, say over and over that their goal is to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate (and with it, its control over Israeli citizens’ lives), but in a pleasant manner.
Tzohar’s rabbis never took on divorce issues, a particularly severe problem because of the culture of blackmail and recalcitrance that has developed here over the years, following the chauvinist rulings of Haredi rabbis. Tzohar’s rabbis never challenged the Chief Rabbinate over their own conversions, nor did they appeal rabbinic rulings that caused injustice.
The difficult, thankless and sisyphean task of continually fighting institutional corruption in the Chief Rabbinate and the personal injustices caused by the rabbinical courts is being done by social-justice organizations, such as the Kolech Religious Women’s Forum, the Center for Women’s Justice, the aguna-advocacy organization Mavoi Satum, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, Itim and the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women.
Kolech is one example of an organization that has accomplished a great deal in these areas, starting far-reaching feminist revolutions in communities, synagogues and religious life throughout Orthodox society. It led the struggle against the coverup of sexual abuse in the community by fighting for legislation against sexual exploitation by religious authority figures and raising public awareness of this painful issue. It led the fight against the exclusion of women in public space and against the injustice suffered by women in the rabbinical courts. Kolech, an Orthodox organization, receives almost no support from Orthodox donors or groups, while non-Orthodox donors ask themselves why they should contribute to an Orthodox organization.
Kolech — and other religious social-justice groups like it — struggles to exist, with a tiny budget and a volunteer work force that devotes its time — hours and entire days — to these goals. We, the men and women activists of social-justice groups struggling to repair the state of religion in Israel, were astonished and disappointed at Tzohar’s ostentatious waste of money. We asked how the people who had donated so much money to this superfluous campaign, which was groundless to begin with, could have been misled so badly. It was obvious that people unfamiliar with life in Israel were throwing their money away.
Will this dramatic failure lead to soul-searching among the Modern Orthodox donors? Will they begin looking more deeply into the Israeli reality and those who are creating change within it? Will they join hands with the organizations that are working devotedly for a better world and for social justice in the provision of religious services as well? We can only hope.
Dr. Hannah Kehat, a lecturer and researcher in Jewish studies, is the founder and director of the Kolech Religious Women’s Forum.