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Can a Moderate Chief Rabbi Transform the Israeli Rabbinate? Not Likely

April 30, 2013 By:
Ben Sales, JTA
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David Stav, a moderate, Modern Orthodox rabbi running to be Israel's next Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, hopes to reform the Chief Rabbinate. (Courtesy Tzohar)

TEL AVIV — To get married in Israel, Dima Motel had to bring his family photo album and two of his ancestors’ birth certificates to a rabbinical court.

Then an investigator quizzed his mother in Yiddish. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate often asks Russian immigrants like Motel to prove that they're Jewish, sometimes requiring documentary evidence that can be hard to obtain. Those who won't submit to the process or who can’t firmly establish their Jewish bona fides can’t get legally married in the country.

“I felt like it was an invasion of my privacy,” said Motel, 27, who was declared Jewish after three hours of questioning. “It’s called an investigation of Judaism. It seemed like I was accused, but I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Israelis who chafe at procedures like these have rallied around a new source of hope: David Stav, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in the running to be Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Stav has cultivated an image as the liberals' solution to a Rabbinate dominated by the haredi Orthodox, and he is waging a public campaign in advance of the chief rabbi elections that has won him a strong base of popular support.

“The Chief Rabbinate has arrived at a point where we have to decide whether it will have completed its historical duty or will change itself to the point where it will become a kind of institution that can confront the current challenges of Israeli society,” Stav told JTA.

But even if Stav prevails in the June elections, in which some 150 rabbis and public representatives vote for a chief rabbi, he will have little power to institute reforms -- let alone instigate the sweeping changes many Israelis want.

The Rabbinate controls marriage, divorce and conversion for all Israeli Jews, secular or religious. Changes to the way the Rabbinate handles these matters cannot be made unilaterally, even by a trailblazing, reform-minded chief rabbi. Such a chief would be hemmed in by a sprawling bureaucracy, a potentially resistant Sephardic counterpart, and conservative-minded haredi opponents who can be expected to stridently oppose any perceived liberalization in religious standards.

Perhaps mindful of these limitations, Stav has called for a set of changes that focus more on streamlining the Rabbinate’s services rather than reforming them.

He proposes eliminating a rule that requires couples to be married by their hometown rabbi, which would allow Israeli couples to go shopping around for the rabbi who best suits their needs even as it maintains the Rabbinate’s Orthodox monopoly over marriage. Stav also says he would cut down on the number of women refused a writ of divorce, or get, from their husbands by encouraging the signing of a prenuptial agreement that includes severe financial penalties if the husband demurs. And he wants to transform the Rabbinate into an aid for people like Motel, rather than an inquisitor, by hiring investigators to help establish Jewishness.

Yet chief rabbis -- whose role includes a demanding schedule of ceremonial functions -- cannot insitute such changes on their own. Altering the hometown rabbi rule and hiring investigators both require the assent of the deputy minister of religious services, Eli Ben Dahan, a Moroccan-born rabbi and member of the Jewish Home party. Ben Dahan has personally expressed support for a Modern Orthodox and Zionist candidate for chief rabbi, but his party has not endorsed Stav and it's unclear whether he'd agree to free up money for investigators.

More substantive reforms would require the approval of both chief rabbis, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, as well as the approval of the Chief Rabbinical Council, a 17-member voting body that controls Rabbinate policy. The council, a mix of appointed and elected members, is dominated by conservative elements.

“We need a radical revolution, and Rabbi Stav won’t bring that,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of Israel’s Reform Movement. He said Stav would “just give a cellophane cover to a ruined candy.

“Maybe it matters who the chief rabbi is for formal ceremonies, but it doesn’t really matter for how conversion and kashrut happen,” Kariv said. “The processes within the rabbinic establishment are so extreme that who the chief rabbi is doesn’t matter.”

Even if a reform-minded chief rabbi manages to get elected and push through some reforms, he could be thwarted when it comes to enforcement. Implementation depends on local rabbis and judges in rabbinical courts who are appointed and removed only by an appointment committee, also dominated by conservative elements.

Stav said he's confident he'd be able to get the rabbis to cooperate. “If they don’t cooperate,” he said, “there will be problems.”

Stav's primary competitors for the position of chief rabbi will be several haredi rabbis seen as moderates acceptable to both Israel's haredi and centrist Orthodox communities. Among them are Eliezer Igra, a former Israeli combat soldier and religious judge; David Lau, chief rabbi of Modiin, a booming central Israeli city; and Yaakov Shapira, who heads the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem.

The past few Israeli chief rabbis, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, have been haredi -- a testament to the growing numbers and clout of the haredi community in Israel. Pending the likely passage of an amendment allowing chief rabbis to run for a second term, current Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is the leading candidate in the Sephardic race.

The vote is limited to 150 people: a delegation made up of 70 rabbis, mostly from Israel’s biggest cities and towns, and 80 “public representatives” – mayors, Knesset members chosen by committee, and heads of local religious councils.

Stav's supporters say that even if significant change doesn't happen right away, having a chief rabbi with a moderate, open image will help advance religious pluralism.

“Change happens slowly,” said Dov Lipman, a Knesset member from the centrist Yesh Atid party, which has endorsed Stav's candidacy. “There’s not going to be an overnight overhaul. But as a first step let’s have a rabbi who’s openly Zionist. Even that symbolic change is very significant.”

But other advocates for religious pluralism feel that the Rabbinate is too broken for any chief to make a difference and that the only solution is the most radical one: abolish the Rabbinate entirely and separate church and state in Israel.

"The system has become bankrupt," said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and president of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism and opposes Orthodox control over religious issues in Israel. "The Chief Rabbinate has become a threat to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people. It should be abolished."

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