Anticipating A New Israeli Chief Rabbi

Many Jews who are concerned about ultra-Orthodox control of religious life in Israel are looking to the election in June of a new Ashkenazi chief rabbi as an opportunity to set the country on a more moderate course. Those seeking change see Modern Orthodox Rabbi David Stav as their best hope.

But even if elected — and Rabbi Stav is not favored to win — a “progressive” candidate would face formidable opposition to even modest liberalization in religious standards. Like a pope battling an entrenched curia, a chief rabbi must deal with a religious bureaucracy that has its own agenda.  But unlike a pope — who has no “equal” within the Catholic religious hierarchy — a moderate Ashkenazi chief rabbi would likely be constrained by his Sephardi counterpart, along with the Israeli political system that funds the rabbinate.

Nonetheless, a moderate chief rabbi would have a bully pulpit from which to promote religious tolerance and help move toward gradual change in policies and practices. This could lead to progress in small steps.

And small steps are the most that can be hoped for at this point in time. In the case of Rabbi Stav, those steps include proposed structural innovations that are commonplace in the Diaspora, such as letting citizens pick from among the approved
Orthodox rabbis who will marry them, or having couples sign a prenuptial agreement to address the agunah problem, where a husband will not grant his wife a divorce, thereby interfering with her ability to remarry.

Continued ultra-Orthodox control of religious life in Israel is coming under increasing attack and is likely not sustainable in the long run.  Indeed, the current lack of religious choice, and the limitations that religious requirements place on nonobservant citizens alienate a significant percentage of Israelis.  This dissatisfaction could lead to louder calls to abolish the rabbinate and bolster efforts to promote the separation of religion and state.

The alternative is modest, incremental change, which preserves “tradition,” but which is open to innovation in both tone and detail. Given the deeply engrained nature of the religious establishment in Israel, such measured steps and gradual movement are the most promising prospects for helping to make Jewish life attractive to the majority of Israeli Jews.

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