The upcoming election in Israel for Chief Rabbi has become, in typical Israeli fashion, a divisive affair. When Rabbi Dovid Stav (chief rabbi of the city Shoham and founder of Tzohar) began campaigning aggressively for the position, he did so recognizing that he would have to go up against a large contingent of haredi rabbis whose interest was to replace the current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, with another rabbi who they could manipulate and dictate policy to; much like they did with Rabbi Metzger during his term. Rabbi Stav never dreamed that he would also have to face opposition from within the Religious Zionist camp as well, and yet this is the case today as some leaders of the Religious Zionist movement including Rabbi Chaim Druckman, have expressed their disenchantment with the notion of Rabbi Stav holding the position and have endorsed the candidacy of Rabbi Yakov Ariel (Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan and ironically the Nasi/Rabbinic Mentor of Tzohar). Rabbi Ariel is a revered Torah Scholar but he is not the correct candidate for the position when one considers the dynamics of Israeli society today; something which apparently his supporters either fail to recognize or choose to ignore.
A few days ago a rabbi from the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva, the flagship religious Zionist institution founded by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and headed by his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, came to speak in the Yeshiva Hesder where I teach. He concluded his speech by urging the yeshiva’s students to serve as ambassadors of the Torah world and remind those around them that the “people’s choice” for Chief Rabbi is Rabbi Yakov Ariel. Following his comments I realized that the “people’s choice” this rabbi was referring to was representative of only a small portion of people and rabbis who aligned themselves with the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva; a very narrow minded perspective as is often the case with rabbis from Merkaz HaRav, and one which did not consider the entire landscape of Israeli society. This lack of vision is demonstrative of the precise problem with Rabbi Ariel’s candidacy. While I recognize that Rabbi Ariel is both a seasoned Talmudic Scholar and a dayan – judge for the rabbinic courts, he does not and will not appeal to the broader facets of society the same way Rabbi Stav does. This is because while Rabbi Stav has staunchly articulated his commitment to the Orthodox interpretation of halacha, he has also expressed a desire to engage in dialogue with other denominations of Judaism such as the Conservative and the Reform; something which Rabbi Ariel would never entertain. Rabbi Stav has also criticized and intends to actively reduce the bureaucracy involved in the processes of marriage and divorce; a bureaucracy which haunts the Chief Rabbinate today. This is a goal which to a degree Rabbi Stav accomplished when he established Tzohar, an organization which attempts to infuse Jewish identity throughout Israeli society by engaging in dialogue and identifying common goals. I have heard both rabbis speak on numerous occasions and practically speaking Rabbi Stav is a charismatic and dynamic speaker who draws the attention of crowds, religious and secular alike much like former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau does. Rabbi Ariel is a Talmudist whose speeches and lectures appeal to rabbis and less so to the masses. Considering the dynamic winds of change spreading throughout Israeli society as more secular Jews have shown willingness and even a desire to identify with Judaism and understand their religious counterparts, this difference becomes exceedingly important. After posing these arguments to my colleagues in the yeshiva following the speech from the Merkaz HaRav rabbi, they responded by saying that it was imperative to restore dignity back to the Rabbinate and that only a dayan/judge such as the likes of Rabbi Ariel who could serve as a decision maker in all areas of halacha, was qualified for the job. I in turn explained that while Rabbi Stav was not a dayan, he too was a Talmudic Scholar; to suggest otherwise was an insult to the entire institution of the rabbinate considering that he has served as Chief Rabbi of Shoham for many years since its inception. In addition what would be so terrible if Rabbi Stav would consult with other rabbis, even with Rabbi Ariel himself, in certain areas of halachic discourse which were familiar to a dayan but not as familiar to him. In fact this is precisely the model by which the Tzohar organization thrives; Rabbi Stav is the head of the organization and Rabbi Ariel is a Halachic advisor to the organization. This does not detract from the respect Rabbi Stav receives from other rabbis or from the influence he and his organization have had on the populace.
During the course of the past twenty years rabbinic leaders of the Religious Zionist movement have begun to realize that they made a mistake; they consistently promoted the concept of “Eretz Yisrael HaShleima”, preserving the land and territory of Israel by establishing homogenous settlements, instead of concentrating their efforts on “Am Yisrael HaShalem”, promoting ways to perpetuate the identity of the nation of Israel. They distanced themselves from the secular Israeli rather then demonstrating to him the advantages of a wholesome lifestyle combining the ideals of the Torah and how they apply to all areas of our lives such as the army and the workforce.
Ultimately I believe it is Rabbi Stav’s candidacy which will help remind the people, religious and non religious alike, of what both Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook consistently stressed in Merkaz HaRav; we must recognize that every Jew has a pure soul and our job in this world is to penetrate it with inspiration.