Tel Aviv — Israel’s Haredim may be on the cusp of losing even more of their power following their exclusion from the new government. If David Stav gets his way, they will no longer control the rabbinate.
The self-styled iconoclast is standing in the election for Ashkenazi chief rabbi this summer, and already has the support of several Likud lawmakers as well as three of the parties in the government — Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu and Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnuah — with a fourth, Jewish Home, looking likely to back him. Though decided by a board of 150 people, many of them not politicians, the selection is heavily dependent on political backing.
Israel’s Modern Orthodox rabbis often complain about Haredi dominance in religious affairs, but few act against it as brazenly as 53-year-old Stav, municipal rabbi for the town of Shoham, in central Israel. In 1996 he set up the Tzohar organization to provide an alternative model for the rabbinate. It has become a kind of watchdog of the rabbinate, in addition to providing practical alternatives for those frustrated by Haredi control of the institutions of religious life.
Answering secular Israelis’ complaints about negative experiences at the compulsory pre-wedding bridal classes, it set up its own user-friendly bridal course. And, responding to criticisms that rabbis arrive late or expect payment in contravention of state rules, it started offering its members for officiation, with the promise that they would tailor the ceremony where possible to the couple’s wishes and act for free.
Talking to the Forward in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, Stav promised, if elected, to change the basic concept of what Israeli’s government rabbinate is all about. Stav, a 53-year-old father of nine, was born in Jerusalem to a prestigious Hasidic dynasty — his maternal grandfather was rebbe of the Zvhil Hasidic sect, Gedalia Moshe Goldman. His father was a rarity — a Belz Hasid who was also a Zionist, hence Stav’s service in the army and his strong Zionist identity. For much of his rabbinic career Stav was co-head of one of the best-known modern-Orthodox rabbinic academies in Israel, Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikva, a post he held until 2009
Currently, he claims, the rabbinate’s policies are “directed towards one sector, to satisfy one sector. It doesn’t see any draw to embrace the whole Jewish community.” Encounters with the rabbinate are disorganized, he said, and sometimes leave people feeling “insulted.” This produces a public that “likes to hate Judaism and the Jewish heritage.”
Stav wants to transform the rabbinate into an approachable and streamlined body dedicated to serving the public, where the visits that people make to register marriages turn them on to Judaism instead of turning them off, and where couples are helped to resolve bureaucratic problems rather than sent away because of them.