Do Israel’s secular politicians and the non-Orthodox public they represent want a modern Rabbinate, or do they want to kill it all-together by electing the Haredi candidate? 

Less than 20 days from now, Israel is going to elect new Chief Rabbis for a decisive ten-year term in office which will determine the face of religion and state for decades to come.

The voting body is faced with a clear choice: Elect the Zionist, “Klal Yisrael” oriented, Rabbi David Stav, who will rescue the Rabbinate from putrefaction and irrelevancy, or elect yet another Haredi-backed rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, who will preside over the continued decomposition and eventual disappearance of the Rabbinate.

If Rabbi Stav is elected, he has a shot at saving an important public institution and offering Israelis spiritual leadership that is attuned to the modern world. He intends to revamp the Rabbinate within his first year in office in significant ways that are critically important specifically to the secular public.

If, however, Rabbi Lau is elected, he will likely be the last Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate won’t survive. The Knesset will curb the institution’s powers or shut it down, and rightfully so.

David Stav promises to advance the re-zoning of marriage registrations across regional jurisdictional lines – allowing for real competition between rabbis in the provision of honest and user-friendly rabbinical services. He will throw the Rabbinate’s weight behind Halachic prenuptial agreements – which will void so many later problems in cases of divorce.

He plans a massive genealogical research campaign to help Russian (and other) immigrants prove their Jewish lineage – which hopefully will encourage more Israelis from the CIS to convert to Judaism. He will bring transparency and new ethical guidelines to the kashrut system – which will reduce corruption and lower the prices of approved foodstuffs.

Rabbi Stav will strengthen moderate practices in the keeping of the sabbatical year (known as “shmita,” through support for the “heter mechira” and “otzar beit din” procedures) – which is vital to the viability of Israeli agriculture, to Israeli public health, and to lower food prices. He will also seek to amend the criteria for appointment of neighborhood and city rabbis and rabbinical court judges to include academic education and national service – which is essential to the emergence of a more intellectual and Zionist Rabbinate over the long-term.

As far as anybody knows, Rabbi Lau has no plans to implement these reforms, or any changes at all. While the young Rabbi Lau has been a successful and well-liked city rabbi in Modiin, he is unwilling to acknowledge the shortcomings and malfeasance of today’s Rabbinate. He is being run for the Chief Rabbi position by his Haredi political patrons specifically to preserve Ultra-Orthodox control of the Rabbinate and to block any reforms.

UNFORTUNATELY, over the past twenty years the Haredi-dominated “rabbinocracy” has misused its powers, applying stringencies in matters of personal status and conversion, creating bureaucratic obstacles to practicing Judaism in Israel, and fostering resentment within both religious and secular society and among Jews around the world. In fact, the Chief Rabbinate has evolved into a force that is contrary to the inclusive Zionist spirit it once embodied. All Jews – left and right, religious and secular, settler and suburban – pay the price. Therefore, the “rabbinocracy” must be rehabilitated, its mandate redefined, and its radicalization curbed.

And thus, it is pressing to elect broad-minded, moderate, Zionist rabbinical figures, who have concrete executive experience and enjoy significant public credibility, and who come to the job with the right attitude.

Rabbi David Stav is such a figure. The current rabbi of Shoham, he is the co-founder and chairman of Tzohar, which over the past twenty years has proven its commitment to Jewish unity, and its creativity and efficiency in making religious ritual life accessible and relevant to the broad public. He is a serious and halachically-faithful rabbi, endorsed by some today’s leading yeshiva deans and Torah giants. Unlike many Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Stav also served in combat as a soldier and reservist, and his eldest son is a paratroop commander.

DESPITE the unambiguous, diametrical differences between the two candidates for the post of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, secular politicians don’t seem to have grasped the importance of this vote for the broad public and have not weighed in sufficiently on behalf of Stav.

Worse still, Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Prime Minister Olmert are actively working behind the scenes to get Lau elected, clearly angling to rebuild their alliances with Haredi parties for the future. Netanyahu’s beef with Bennett also seems to have a role in the Prime Minister’s support for Lau.

This is quite outrageous. Rabbi Stav is the front-runner, understandably enjoying the support of all the Zionist parties in the Knesset and most Zionist rabbis. Yet Netanyahu and Olmert are working for Lau. If Stav loses, it will unequivocally be Bibi’s fault and shame.

With the vote coming down to the wire, pressure now needs to be placed on the 35 city mayors and regional council heads who sit (along with 98 rabbis and 17 public figures) on the election panel. Focus, for example, on Ashdod mayor Yechiel Lasri. Forty percent of his city’s residents are immigrants from the CIS! Who will benefit more from Rabbi Stav’s planned changes in Rabbinate procedures for marriage and conversion than the Israeli-Russian public?

Similarly, mayors such as Shlomo Lachiani of Bat Yam, Yoel Lavi of Ramle, and Yehuda Ben-Chamu of Kfar Saba naturally and inexorably should be voting for Rabbi Stav. Public pressure should be brought on them to act in the best interests of their constituents and vote for Rabbi Stav, instead of succumbing to impure pressures from high offices to vote for Rabbi Lau.

Naftali Bennett too, can work the phones quite a bit harder to back Rabbi Stav. Bennett came out in support of Stav quite late, because of internal divisions within Bayit Yehudi; and the liberal-conservative divide within the Religious Zionist community is still choking full-throttled support for Stav. Bennett should work to ensure that the other Religious Zionist candidates (rabbis Igra and Shapira) – whose chances of being elected are nil – drop out of the race immediately, thus improving Stav’s fortunes.

But in the main, the keys to this momentous race are now in the hands of secular Israeli politicians and the non-Orthodox public they represent. They can ensure that Rabbi Stav stays in the lead, wins the election, and becomes a leading force for Jewish unity. To Israel’s hilonim I say: Wake up, and elect Rabbi Stav!

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