Much More than Just Nicer

Stav1With coalition negotiations still capturing the headlines, it is all too easy to forget that yet another election looms in Israel. Though this will be one in which most of us cannot vote, it too may exert tremendous influence on the future of the Jewish state. These elections will be for the chief rabbis of Israel. Interestingly, for the first time in many, many years, the upcoming elections (no official date has been set yet) are actually arousing interest in sectors outside ultra- Orthodox circles, because of the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav.

The minute Rabbi Stav walks into the room, you cannot help but sense that you’re in the presence of a different kind of rabbi. This is a rabbi who served in the IDF, as have his children, who cares about the larger issues of Israeli society.

Seeking evolutionary rather than revolutionary change in the way that the chief rabbinate works, Stav is known largely for the work of his organization, Tzohar, which has sought to create a much more user-friendly rabbinate for the citizens of the State of Israel. More than 3,000 couples have been married by Tzohar rabbis, and they widely attest to an experience that was infinitely warmer, more respectful and religiously meaningful than what they would have received through the standard Israeli rabbinate.

Stav’s campaign is picking up steam. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party endorsed him some time back, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has now done so as well.

But what’s interesting is that despite the undeniable breath of fresh air that Stav would represent, he has received sometimes only tepid responses from non-Orthodox Diaspora communities, who understandably detest Israel’s hopelessly corrupt, misogynist, intellectually stultifying, ultra-Orthodox, non- Zionist rabbinate.  [DG: It takes a particular kind of rage to evoke this rather distasteful graffiti, which can be found in many part of Jerusalem:]stav3

This lukewarm response to Stav, though not entirely incomprehensible, is a mistake. True, neither Stav nor Tzohar as an organization are pluralists in the American sense of the word. Tzohar rabbis have publicly stated their opposition to Israel’s recognizing non-Orthodox conversions. At a meeting I attended with Stav, he noted that as the rabbi of Shoham, he would allocate funding to any 40 families who wished to create a Reform or Conservative synagogue, but then added, “Thank God, that hasn’t happened.” For American Diaspora leaders used to a different form of discourse, there’s nothing terribly comforting about conversations like those.

But before anyone writes off Stav, they ought to ask themselves, why have those non-Orthodox synagogues not come to be? Under Stav, Shoham appears to have become a place where a much wider swathe of Israeli society feels comfortable in the “mainstream” Orthodox community. That will be little consolation to those who believe that Reform or Conservative Judaism have something important to offer Israeli society, and that the message must get out. Understandable though their perspective is, it’s a short-sighted one in this instance.

stav2POLITICS, OTTO von Bismarck noted, is the art of the possible. Stav’s candidacy ought to be viewed in that light, even by those who might prefer a radically different system in Israel. There is going to be no separation of “church” and state in Israel anytime in the near future. There is going to be no non-Orthodox chief rabbi. American pluralist notions are just that – they are American, largely foreign to European and Israeli culture. That may change, or it may not, but in the meantime, Jews who care about the future of Israeli society would be wise to seize opportunity where it awaits them.

Israel faces a plurality of existential threats. Iran is the most obvious, but others are equally dangerous. And one of those is the danger that young Israelis will simply stop believing in the importance of the Zionist project. When young Israelis no longer believe that Israel matters, they will leave and Israel will fade away. There is absolutely no guarantee that Israel will still be around in 65 years, but if it is to survive, it needs a younger generation of Israeli Jews that cares.

Yet there is little reason for these young Jews to be terribly committed to Israel if they know virtually nothing about the Jewish tradition, or if what they do see of it turns them off. Jews of all walks of life ought therefore see Stav’s candidacy as infinitely more than a painful compromise due to the lack of any alternatives.  It represents a decision to give Judaism in Israel another chance, and in so doing, to extend Israel’s lease on life.

Stav would undoubtedly conduct the rabbinate in ways Diaspora leaders find either distasteful or problematic. An example: Tzohar rabbis have not sought to abolish the classes for prospective brides that the rabbinate requires. A skeptical critic might ask, “Why not? If even Tzohar rabbis insist on teaching these classes to couples who have no intention of conducting their private lives in accordance with the dictates of Jewish tradition, isn’t this more of the same?”

But no, it is not. To abolish the classes would mean engaging in conflict with the chief rabbinate and undermining Tzohar.  So Tzohar rabbis use the classes to speak about issues of Jewish identity, the Jewish values of the Jewish home, and in the process, do discuss nidda, too.  Is it a bad thing for the Jewish state to hope that couples getting married will have at least some discussion of how Judaism might infuse the character of the home they are about to create?

The evaluations of these courses suggest not.  Nachman Rosenberg, Tzohar’s executive vice president, asserts that the preponderance of those completing evaluations wrote that they did not know that there were in Israel religious Jews who were so open, that they had expected the worst from these classes but had had very positive experiences.
That’s more than a curiosity; it’s an indication of how critical a renewed rabbinate could be to restoring Israelis’ sense of purpose, and how much we’ve lost by having the rabbinate we’ve had for far too long.stav4

Israel’s last elections illustrated that one day of voting can usher in a radically more hopeful period for the Jewish state.  Most of us are not eligible to vote for the chief rabbi, but we have reason to express our views, to support those who support change, and to recognize what is at stake.

The Israeli rabbis and politicians who will vote for the chief rabbi have an opportunity to embrace a critical strategic objective that ought to be shared by all Jews who care about the future of Israel. We have an opportunity to end the long festering conflict between the Jewish state, the Jewish tradition and Israel’s Jewish citizens. We have an opportunity to renew that which had always made Israel great – a sense of shared purpose, a belief in shared destiny and a commitment to mutual responsibility. 

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

10 Comments on "Much More than Just Nicer"

  • How refreshing to hear a conservative rabbi speak out to the American Jewish community to do something for the benefit for the survival of the Jewish state, even though it means coming out in support of Orthodox Judaism.


  • Moishe (Thomas) Goldstein Toronto Canada says

    Sensitive, nuanced, balanced – what more could I ask for!

    Hope you enjoy a שבת שלום ומברך.


  • TomSolomon says

    Once again, Mr. Gordis stakes out the “passionate” middle ground. However, I have no doubt that the non-Orthodox movements will take the, as stated, short sighted view, and not support R. Stav, because, well, he’s Orthodox. They will hope out for perfection, and in the end, be left out of the process, holding to their principles.

  • Carl Perkins says

    I have no doubt that Rabbi Stav is a decent, caring person and a lover of Israel who wants to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews, embracing them in his love of Yiddishkeit and Klal Yisrael. He is also seeking to become part of a coercive religious regime, however “kinder and gentler” it might be under his leadership. And his own words make clear what he thinks of the liberal “streams.” What does it mean to urge liberal diaspora Jews to ignore their principles (leaving aside their dignity and self-respect) to “support” Rabbi Stav? (I’m not even sure what that would mean in the context of an election in which diaspora Jews do not vote.) It is more appropriate to seek support for Rabbi Stav from people whom he does not consider heretics.

  • George Farkas says

    I agree with Carl Perkins when he says: “I have no doubt that Rabbi Stav is a decent, caring person and a lover of Israel who wants to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews, embracing them in his love of Yiddishkeit and Klal Yisrael. He is also seeking to become part of a coercive religious regime, however “kinder and gentler” it might be under his leadership. ” But none of this will make the Chief Rabbinate a Jewish institution screaming out the words of Torah which says “Tzedek tzedek tirdof”, seek Justice, Justice, nor the words of the prophets which tell people to be just and righteous to others. Judaism does not have and should not have such a pope-like position. The Ari Haqadosh, Rav Yitchak Luria claimed that there is an interpretation of the Torah for each of the souls that were there at Mount Sinai. We were all there. We no not want or need a chief rabbi, even a gentler and more caring one. We need the acceptance of diversity of understanding of Torah and the Prophets.

  • Jennifer Read says

    Having had experience with Israeli rabbinic courts, I’m glad to see that a person with a tinge of openness and moderation is being considered as Chief Rabbi. Even if he gets the job, however, what difference will it make? He’ll say nice things, but so did Rabbi Lau. The system will continue to be run to provide jobs for one’s ne’er-do-well brother-in-law, not to benefit the Jewish people, even the Orthodox without such protekzia. I’ll be glad if Rabbi Stav gets the position, since he sounds not too awful, but I don’t expect any real change to result.

  • Eleanor Weintraub says

    Thank you Rabbi Gordis. I, as an American Conservative Jew was not aware of R. Stav or his work. As a Masorati Supporter in Israel, I am
    pleased to learn that there is the possibility that a modern thinking
    orthodox Rabbi might become the chief Rabbi. Educating the young Israelis to view the beauty of the life one can have in Judaism is so
    refreshing and gives even “US” hope for opening the windows and letting the dust fly from the sterile interpretation of what our Torah and Talmud can teach us as a nation. Who knows? Maybe this is a small step toward accepting even us, loving, devoted, observant Jews
    who love and support Israel will one day be loved and embraced by our brothers and sisters in Israel. One small step is better than being paralyzed forever.

  • George Farkas says

    @Jennifer Read, that’s why we should try to abolish the position of chief rabbi. The questions are 1) Can a good person make a bad position good and 2) Does the homogeneity that such a position creates not stifle the need for Jews to be independent thinkers and creative actors in society?

  • Lilly Nussbaum Tobin says

    ]Dr. Gordis is to be congratulated for trying to narrow the great divide between the established Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel and the ultra-liberal American Jewish communities by introducing Rabbi
    Stav, an example of the many modern Orthodox Jews who are learned, knowledgable and fight for Israel. It is interesting to note the re-action of this readership and what it reveals about the state of Yiddishkeit in most of the American communities. I find it distressing when I repeatedly read and hear the outright hostility from so many LIBERAL Jews when it comes to Orthodoxy and the determination to impose their views on Israeli society. Excepting the very extreme element of the Haredim, I know orthodox religious Jews to be much more tolerant and loving of their fellow-Jews than the Liberals are. Fact is, American Jews are largely ignorant of the value and beauty of their tradition because the homes they come from are bereft of it. The Torah bids us to be a Nation of holiness, to be learned in the laws of our faith and the wisdom of our prophets and great thinkers and scholars. Traditional Judaism advocates for studying and developing your critical faculties. This is what kept us alive for 2000 years of exile. If change is needed in Israel, make aliyah, and strive for change based on knowledge!!!


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