Rabbi David Stav has focused his campaign to be Chief Rabbi on a biting critique of the current state of the Rabbinate. He has noted the troubling numbers of Israelis who go overseas to marry instead of wedding under the auspices of the state Rabbinate. He has noted the apathy, or worse, of the Rabbinic courts to the thousands and thousands of immigrants who could be fully included into the Jewish people by a flexible and friendly conversion process. He has raised concerns over the sense of injustice and misogyny that are associated with Jewish tradition through the Rabbinate’s overly stringent applications of divorce law.
He is the first contender for the position that I have heard articulate the problems with the Rabbinate so clearly. He has presented himself as the candidate who will address these problems and create a more flexible, user friendly and broadly relevant Rabbinate. His goal is to take an institution that is distancing Jews from their heritage and transform it into an institution that draws Jews closer to the beauty and grandeur of Judaism.
In order to emphasize the importance of this endeavor, it may be instructive to look at a discussion that goes to the very heart of Israel’s significance for modern Jewish history. Decades ago, the Satmar Rebbe challenged the very foundations on which the Jewish state was born. The reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land required the sacrifice of many Jewish lives (not to mention the loss of Arab life). By what right did the founders of Israel make the decision to endanger these lives for the sake of national sovereignty? Pikuach Nefesh – the saving of human life – is the ultimate Jewish value and should have trumped national aspirations. Many responses to this challenge were proffered, but perhaps Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s answer is the most striking.
The Shulachan Aruch indicates that it is permitted to violate Shabbat to save a child who has been taken captive by non-Jews in order to forcibly convert him or her out of the Jewish faith. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s grandfather, the famous Brisker Rav, explained that saving a Jew’s soul is tantamount to saving his or her life. Consequently, just as one violates Shabbat to protect one’s physical safety, so too, one may violate Shabbat to save a fellow Jew’s spiritual safety. Maintaining a connection to tradition and religious heritage has the same weight as saving a life.
Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that the establishment of the state of Israel was a major force in curbing the rampant assimilation of world Jewry. The founding of the state of Israel gave Jews around the globe a sense of pride and connection to their heritage that withered away in the wake of the Holocaust. On this basis, it was permitted for the Zionist leadership to risk the lives of those who fought for the establishment of the state. They were, in a sense, putting themselves into possible risk in order to save fellow Jews from certain assimilation around the globe. (This line of R. Soloveitchik’s reasoning is presented in his student Rabbi Herschel Schachter’s work Nefesh Harav).
As with any argument that justifies the potential sacrifice of human life, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach could be questioned. The relevance here is not so much the legitimacy of this argument, but rather the palpable sense that Rabbi Soloveitchik felt for Israel’s capacity to connect Jews to Judaism and its tremendous significance for Jewish history. This theme of the importance of the state for Jewish continuity is echoed in a number of places in R. Soloveitchik’s written work – from his major essay on the significance of the State of Israel rendered as Fate and Destiny in English to his High Holiday sermons on the theme of repentance. And it is not only Rabbi Soloveitchik who noticed this phenomenon. Various figures in religious Zionist circles, from Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin to Rabbi Zalman Barukh Melamed have noted the impact of the state of Israel on Jewish continuity and observance. In fact, the whole Birthright trips enterprise is based on the notion that deeper connection to Israel produces stronger Jewish identity.
And yet, even a superficial perusal of Jewish publications in recent years, demonstrates a growing trend wherein Israel has turned from a source of inspiration into a source of disappointment or even repulsion for many. Much of Israel’s negative image is undeserved and beyond our control. However some of it is justified, and wherever we can we should strive to restore Israel’s position as a source of pride and inspiration to connect Jews with Jewish tradition. We have an opportunity to elect a Chief Rabbi who recognizes our problems both of substance and of image. He has made his very candidacy into a referendum on this issue. With so much at stake, it is so worrisome to see last-minute machinations that seem to be drawing support away from him. Instead, we should be rallying around this candidate who has made it his mission to restore the luster of an institution that once showed great potential for being a source of inspiration to all of the Jewish people.
Support for Rav Stav need not come without reservations. I for one would incline towards an even more progressive candidate. Moreover, I can appreciate a case for the dissolution of the rabbinate completely. Nevertheless, as long as there is going to be a Rabbinate, it must be an institution that has a sense of responsibility to the entire Jewish people and Jewish History. Rav Stav is the candidate who understands and embodies just such a vision of the Rabbinate and is dedicated to making it a reality.