Israeli Chief Rabbinate ‘crucial,’ potential head says

Rabbi David Stav

TORONTO — Rabbi David Stav – chair of Tzohar, the organization of moderate Orthodox rabbis in Israel – has not yet committed to becoming a candidate for Israel’s next chief Ashkenazi rabbi, but he believes there is urgency to the situation.

“The role that the Chief Rabbinate plays in the unity of the Jewish people is crucial,” he told The CJN during a recent visit to Toronto.

Rabbi Stav was here in early November at the invitation of Mizrachi Canada for a series of events at Clanton Park Synagogue, Congregation B’nai Torah, and Yeshivat Or Chaim that were part of the organization’s annual Shabbat Aliyah weekend, celebrating Israel. As well, he spoke at the annual convention of the North American Kolel Torah Mitzion, and at Torah in Motion’s Renewing Our Spirit.

Jerrold Landau, vice-president of Mizrachi Toronto, said the organization chose Rabbi Stav as lead speaker for the weekend because, “as a prominent advocate for inclusiveness and understanding within the religious arena of Israel, Mizrachi felt that Rav Stav would be the ideal spokesman to bring a message of encouragement and optimism in face of the divisions and factionalism faced within Israeli society.”

Rabbi Stav – a 53-year-old alumnus of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav and a former spokesperson for Hesder yeshivot in Israel – said that secular Israelis and even many Orthodox Jews don’t understand why a chief rabbinate is necessary. But it’s “crucial,” he stressed.

Without a chief rabbinate, the rabbi believes the Jewish People would “have been split into two to three nations,” because of the issue of Jewish identity. “Nobody would have recognized the [other group’s] Jewish identity.”

The upcoming end of current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger’s term provides “a real window of opportunity that is open now, and will be closed for 10 years if we don’t take it today, and if it will be closed for 10 years, I guess it will be closed forever.”

Tzohar – a religious Zionist response to the murder of then-Israeli prime minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 – has taken on the task of helping many immigrants from the former Soviet Union prove that they are Jewish, even sending experts to the FSU to search for evidence, such as video footage of a grandparent speaking Yiddish.

Without proof of Jewishness, couples cannot be married in Israel, where all marriages must be according to Halachah.

Without a religious Jewish wedding, the next generation will not have proof that they are halachically Jewish, Rabbi Stav said. “Between 30 and 40 per cent of the Jewish people will have [a suspect] Jewish identity.

Tzohar’s mission has been to take on issues that affect Jewish life and the relationship between observant and non-observant Jews, the rabbi said, noting that Rabin’s killer was from the Orthodox community.

“We wanted to bridge a bit of the gap… We said we have to change the image that Jewish tradition and heritage has to deal with the borders of the Land of Israel. It’s important, but it’s not the only thing Judaism consists of. We have to do something that does not relate to the political issues, and… look after things that hurt or cause pain to secular society. ”

Tzohar rabbis perform more than 4,000 weddings a year, and the organization has more than 250 locations for Yom Kippur services.

With conversion as one of the contentious issues, Rabbi Stav said what’s most important is “whether we encourage [prospective] converts to go through that process or reject them.”

His believes that priorities for the Chief Rabbinate should include pushing for a change in attitude toward olim, so that proving their Jewish identity is not their responsibility but a communal one; encouraging couples to marry and divorce religiously in Israel (instead of going out of the country for a civil marriage), and privatizing the kashrut supervision system in Israel, with the Chief Rabbinate retaining a supervisory role.

Tzohar enjoys support from both observant and non-observant sectors in the community. Its work affects not just Israeli Jewry, but the world Jewish community, he noted.

Although he is frustrated from time to time, he does not feel like a minority voice, he said.

The Orthodox community and the Chief Rabbinate should understand that it’s their responsibility “to make sure that whoever is halachically Jewish will remain part of the Jewish community.”