Last Friday, Haaretz Magazine published a short interview with Rabbi David Stav, entitled “The salesman of Judaism,” by Ayelett Shani. That interview was one of several which Stav has given recently − all as part of a public campaign aimed at helping him get elected as Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Perhaps this is an appropriate way for a person who has a good chance of becoming the next chief rabbi to introduce himself to his flock: the men and women over whose marital lives (and, no less important, divorces) he will soon preside.
The interviews have been quite informative about the rabbi’s religious character. To try to get a handle on him, I would like to talk about three key words that he uses in particular.
Halakha: On two occasions in the interview, Stav asserts his unequivocal loyalty to traditional Jewish law. He said, “In regard to halakha, I do not intend to compromise in any way,” in connection with his opposition to civil marriage. In reply to a question about the price he would be prepared to pay to draw secular people closer to the Rabbinate, he stated, “I will not deviate from the halakha as it was accepted by our forefathers − neither to the right nor to the left.”
Surely it would be difficult to come out with a clearer formulation than this.
However, the problem does not lie in the formulation. The problem is that halakha is completely unconnected to the issue of civil marriage. After all, no one is asking the rabbi to exceed the boundaries of halakha as he understands it. No one is asking him to annul religious marriages for whoever wants them. What is being asked about is allowing registration of civil marriage for those who do not want a religious ceremony. All that is being asked of him is not to force those boundaries on all of Israel’s Jewish citizens.
Does the Orthodox halakha prohibit the registration of a spousal relationship through the state’s civil authorities, or even through a private contract rather than via the Chief Rabbinate? Of course not. Halakha does not even recognize the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, because the ancient arbiters could not conceive of a bureaucratic mechanism of rabbis being foisted upon the public under the aegis of the bureaucratic power of a modern state. Indeed, there are Orthodox rabbis who absolutely believe that civil marriage should be allowed. None of them, of course, thinks he is in violation of halakha.
In our time, halakha is often used as a code word whose meaning for secular people is “I cannot,” whereas its real interpretation, for the religious speaker of the word, is “I don’t want to.” There is no halakhic obstacle to civil marriage. The obstacle lies solely in the worldview of Stav, which, let it be said to his credit, he declares openly.
In another interview (to this writer), Stav explained that he is fearful of a scenario in which over a million “people who require proof of their Judaism” (in his words) will not be obliged to pass through the gates of the Rabbinate and prove their Judaism in order to marry. That whole huge mass of people will wander freely through the country with their ethnic status unclear, at least as far as Stav is concerned. That is a legitimate issue in itself, but it has no direct connection to halakha.
Pain: Twice in the interview, Stav admits that he is pained. When Ayelett Shani asks him about the habit of some secular brides to lie about the date of their menstrual cycle, so that the Rabbinate clerks will not force them to change their wedding date (so as to prevent a wedding from taking place during niddah, when the bride has her period, which to secular women makes no difference and is permitted halakhically), Stav replies that he is “deeply pained by this.” When Shani asks him about the fact that homosexuals cannot marry in Israel, he replies that he “will be hurting together with [them].”
Sensitivity is a fine quality, and sensitivity to the pain of others is noble. Just as he will feel the pain of the lies told by secular brides and the pain of the homosexuals who cannot marry, Stav will also feel the pain of the thousands of agunot (women who have been abandoned by their husbands or whose husbands will not grant them a divorce), who are unable to remarry or have children. He will also feel the pain of tens of thousands of secular and religiously observant couples who want a wedding ceremony that is more egalitarian. He will have to reject all of these people, though he will definitely share their pain and hurt.
I don’t think there is any reason to be worried about Rabbi Stav. His pain is not overly deep. It is a pain that floats lightly over a great deal of personal satisfaction and gratification. This stems from the fact that Stav, from his point of view, has defended halakha and the unity of the nation. He has affirmed his piety, even if at the expense of others. He did not deviate from what God charged him to do, neither to the right nor to the left. His ticket to paradise wasn’t even wrinkled.
Of course, if the Rabbinate did not force Israel’s Jewish citizens to marry through it, the pain of the secular brides and the pain of homosexuals would be prevented, and possibly also the pain of the agunot and the pain of those who want a different marriage ceremony. But that would be contrary to Stav’s outlook. He is not ready for that. What is he ready for? He is ready to be sympathetic.
Love: “Just as I cannot fight against the Lord, who allowed someone to be killed in an accident, I also cannot help in the halakhic sense. The only thing I can do is to love,” Stav says. He apparently sees halakha as a fateful decree − like an accident. Some would say that, as a rabbi, his task is actually to find ways to ease people’s halakhic distress.However, Stav appears to belong to a school of thought which holds that halakha is a kind of unavoidable situation that people get into, an automatic mechanism that “hurts” and grieves us, for which we need consolation after experiencing it, along the lines of: “Doctor, what’s the problem?” “Sorry, but you have halakha.” Still, Stav is ready to love those who have this problem. It hurts him as much as it hurts them.
Halakha can be an ethical and religious structure in the framework of which the individual enters into a covenant with God and worships him. But I believe it becomes a problem the moment it is forced on the individual. It also loses all religious value in that case. This is exactly the difference between accepting the burden of the precepts and religious coercion. Love in this case will not override the moral wrong and the religious vacuity it reflects.
Beyond this, we need to ask whether a situation in which the Jewish religion or the Jewish people can survive only if the halakha forces itself on Israel’s Jewish citizens is a reasonable state of affairs, or is theologically or ethically proper.
If the Rabbinate were not an institution which is forced on all of Israel’s Jewish citizens, there would be no need to offer consolation to anyone. Who knows? Maybe if the Rabbinate does not receive so much power from civil law, halakhic problems will be more quickly resolved. For in that case, the rabbis, like rabbis in Jewish communities throughout the generations that preceded Israel’s establishment, will have to adapt themselves to the demands of the public. But in the meantime, as a powerful monopoly, the Rabbinate has no interest in making things more difficult for itself. Its interest lies in making things difficult for the public.
This piece was originally published in Hebrew at the current affairs, culture and society online magazine http://www.compress.co.il, edited by Aviad Kleinberg. It was later published in Haaretz, 28.2.13.