Israeli chief rabbi election could yet make history

By Nathan Jeffay, June 14, 2013

Israel moved a step closer to a non-Charedi chief rabbi earlier this month, when the Knesset’s religious-Zionist party threw its weight behind a moderate candidate.

The modern-Orthodox iconoclast David Stav has built his rabbinic career on making Judaism more welcoming for the non-religious, and he is now determined to break the strictly-Orthodox control over the Chief Rabbinate.

He says that if elected Ashkenazi chief rabbi, he will end discrimination in the rabbinate against converts, make visits to rabbinate offices for marriage licenses and the like less intimidating for secular Israelis, and remodel the Israeli face of Judaism in general.

His outlook not only contrasts with that of the Charedi candidates, but also with the views of the other modern-Orthodox candidate, Eliezer Igra, who believes the rabbinate system, broadly speaking, functions well.

When it first emerged late last year that Rabbi Stav was planning to run this summer — the date is still to be set — he appeared to be long shot in race that generally favours Charedim. But since then, things have gone his way.

The new government turned out to be free of Charedi parties — which, given that the selection process is intensely political, gave an unexpected boost to his chances. Then, last week, another candidate who is modern-Orthodox but more traditionalist, dropped out. Yaakov Ariel, city rabbi of Ramat Gan, was disqualified because he was too old to run.

In addition, Rabbi Stav now has four of the five coalition parties behind him — Jewish Home, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu and Hatnuah.

Rabbi Stav, 53, is the municipal rabbi for the town of Shoham, in central Israel. In the mid-90s, he set up the Tzohar, an organisation to provide an alternative to what he saw as the overly hardline rabbinate.

It provided practical solutions. For example, secular Israelis complained about negative experiences at compulsory pre-wedding bridal classes, so it launched its own user-friendly classes. To help people who were told by stringent marriage registrars that they had to bring obscure documents to prove they are Jewish, it set up a research unit.

He wants to now make progressive changes from inside the rabbinate. However, while he looks ever more likely to get the job, it us unclear what real impact he will be able to make. His proposed fix to intransigent marriage registrars who refuse to trust the Jewishness of people converted by the state’s Conversion Authority hints at what he is up against.

Last updated: 12:45pm, June 14 2013