In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s election season in Israel. The candidates are setting forth their manifestos, and — naturally — throwing verbal vitriol at each other. Insults fly thick and fast. Two weeks ago, one of the candidates was actually physically attacked by certain of his opponents. “It’s disgraceful (I hear you say) — but what can you expect of politicians?”
Indeed. However, the candidates I am referring to are all rabbis. The elections they are contesting are the elections for the Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbinates of the Jewish state.
The (Ashkenazi) candidate who was attacked (“roughed up” is I think the most apposite phrase) was 53-year-old Rabbi David Stav, who is currently rabbi of the small town of Shoham, in central Israel.
The previous night, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Charedi Shas party, in the course of delivering his weekly Torah seminar, saw fit to condemn Stav as a man who “has no fear of God”.
“He is,” exclaimed Yosef, “dangerous for the Torah, dangerous for Judaism and dangerous for the rabbinate”. He added for good measure that, to appoint Stav chief rabbi, was the equivalent of “placing an idol in the Temple sanctuary… He is good for nothing,” Yosef suggested. “To make him the chief rabbi? Is such a thing permissible?”
The following day, Stav attended the wedding of the daughter of a friend. He found himself surrounded by Ashkenazi yeshiva boys who, not content with hurling verbal insults, subjected him to physical assault. In Jerusalem — the city of peace.
I am not for one moment accusing Yosef of having instigated this assault. But I am accusing him of having helped create the atmospheric tension that clearly acted as its catalyst.
Rabbi Stav is what some might call “modern Orthodox”. Whether he himself would use that term I do not know. But it is certainly a term that has been used to describe him and, in Charedi circles, that is enough to condemn any man — certainly any rabbi, and most certainly any rabbi who, like Stav, has had the temerity to publish a book examining halachic issues in popular culture.
Rabbi Stav — whose rabbinical credentials are as impressive as you could wish for — is in fact one of the few rabbis currently active in Israel who has openly and proactively challenged Charedi control of the official organs of Jewish religious life.
In 1996, he established Tzohar, a rabbincal organisation that has monitored this control and pointed out its many deficiencies — and has also challenged it.
In relation both to marriage and conversion, Stav has put forward some revolutionary ideas — all naturally within halachah but all designed, in part, to limit the Charedi influence in the lives especially of average Israelis, who do not for the most part boast a religious outlook.
But above and beyond all this is the central fact that Stav is a passionate Zionist. Born in Jerusalem, he himself served as a combat soldier in the IDF; his eldest son is a paratrooper commander. In the current debate about extending military conscription to the Charedim there are no prizes for guessing which side he is on.
Israeli Charedim are feeling particularly bruised at the present time. They have their backs to the wall over conscription. None of their political factions is part of the ruling coalition government. Stav’s chief rabbinical candidature, by contrast, has been endorsed by the Habayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid, Hatnuah and Israel Beytenu parties, all of which are represented in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet.
And, for the first time ever, the 11-member committee that will oversee the chief rabbinate elections will include women: it’s not the number of women (two!) that’s a catastrophe from the Charedi perspective. It’s the mere fact that they will have seats at the table.
I do not have a seat at the table. But as a Jew I feel entitled to a voice. David Stav is not the only candidate whom I might feel inclined to endorse. But he seems to me to be Israel’s best hope, at the present time, of reconnecting the Israeli chief rabbinate with its historic Zionist past.
If I had a vote, I’d happily cast it in his favour.