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What I Would Have Told the New York Times…

That's how I would have described the race for the office of Chief Rabbi of Israel

Last week, I was asked to make myself available to be interviewed by the New York Times. The paper of record wanted my opinions/observations on the upcoming elections for the Chief Rabbinate. Obviously flattered, I thought carefully about what I wanted to say (and what I would not say). I even made sure that my cellphone was always fully charged.

The call, however, never came. I was, or so I was informed, the victim of what is apparently called ‘a short news cycle.’ In any event, it is more appropriate for me to share my ideas for the (New York) Times with the Times (of Israel). Here, at least, one need not mince words or pull punches.

From any number of perspectives, the present race for the office of Chief Rabbi of Israel has been the most vicious, divisive and sacrilegious in recent memory (if not in history). The dealing, double-dealing, in-fighting, personal assaults and insults that have characterized the campaign have besmirched the Rabbinate, the Torah and, most egregiously, Desecrated the Name of God, whom the Chief Rabbis would purportedly represent.

This is not to say that there are not pure motives behind some of these condemnable acts. Yes, a significant part of the in-fighting is  motivated by the desire for control over Kashrut, Jobs, perks and power. And, that part of the in-fighting is revolting and salacious. It is not, however, the whole story.

Part of the Haredi, along with the Haredi-Leumi, leaders really think that only their reading of Orthodox Halakha is correct. They really are terrified that any change to the system, even a cosmetic change, will lead to the destruction of the Torah. Part of that fear is based on an ill-defined fata morgana that they call ‘Reform.’ By ‘Reform,’ they basically mean anything that is unfamiliar to them, even if it is totally justified by strict halakhic reasoning (and backed by the endorsement of great Torah authorities who, albeit, lived in the Diaspora). Their fear might be understandable, in light of the radical direction that non-Orthodox Judaism has adopted over the past two centuries. It is less, however, much less understandable when you consider that the object of their wrath, e.g. the Tzohar Rabbis and a fortiori Beit Hillel, are very far from anything that resembles any type of non-Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, leading figures in Tzohar would actually fit in nicely on the right wing of American Modern Orthodoxy.

So, why the visceral (largely unexplained) opposition to the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav? Part of the answer is fear of change. A larger reason appears to lie in a tectonic realignment of the Orthodox Population in Israel. Once, the key fault lines lay between Zionist and non-Zionist Orthodoxy. Now, it seems that key sectors of the Religious Zionist Rabbinate (and their followers) view themselves as culturally and religiously closer to the Haredi World (which has not accepted them, as yet). Put differently, the Hardali world’s point of orientation is Haredi Society.

Rabbi Stav, and his supporters, represent a different orientation. Their  point of departure is that the Rabbinate (if it is to survive) needs to recast itself as user friendly to the entire Jewish Population. They recognize that more and more Israelis want to be qualitatively Jewish. How many people, how many of my students at Bar Ilan have told me: ‘I respect Judaism, but can’t stand the Rabbinate’?

Responding to that reality means not only a change in form in the Rabbinate. It means cleaning out its Augean Stables. It means bringing into play the full array of normative tools that Halakhic Tradition allows in order to maintain the connection of the entire Jewish Community of Israel to Tradition, especially in those areas of life such as marriage and divorce, that impact upon the ethno-religious unity of the Jewish People. This is in marked contrast to the type of Halakhic retrenchment that has marked Haredi and Hardali approaches to Jewish Law, and which has driven religious, traditional and quasi-secular Jews from the Rabbinate (and Judaism) in droves. In other words, this group (which has absorbed ‘the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune’), has broadened its population of orientation to include the entire Jewish Population. In this divide, this realignment of values and purpose, may be found the tectonic shift that has produced so much venom, so many ‘emotziyot’ (to use the Hebrew slang).

Personally, as I’ve noted here before, this shift is part of a very positive development. For the first time in decades, perhaps ever, Israelis really care who their Chief Rabbis will be. This is true not only for those who wish to exploit the position. This is true not only for those who can only imagine a new Rav Kook in the position. This is true for Jewish Israelis who in ever larger numbers want to be Jewish, want to respect Tradition and want there to be a recognized Jewish Common Denominator to bind us together, as their hearts say they should be bound. It is borne out by the recent polls taken regarding the Chief Rabbinate campaign, as well as by the phenomenon of secular Jews who have organized to advance the candidacy of R. David Stav (and, by implication, support the vision and activity of Tzohar).

As I said, this is one more indication of the Jewish Renaissance that has been the best news from Israel in years. Want more proof? A Poll published yesterday found that while only 22% of Israeli Jews fast on Tisha B’Av, a full 75% honor the day in some way. This is a stunning shift. Not a decade ago most Israelis had no clue what Tisha B’Av was. Now, programs such as ‘Tonight we don’t study Torah’ are ubiquitous and draw Israelis from all over the Jewish spectrum. The ongoing Jewish Renaissance is getting stronger, Indeed, for me, it is the truly positive message of this Tisha B’Av.

Someone should tell this to the electors in the upcoming elections.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.