Israel’s Next Chief Rabbi Has Illustrious Shoes To Fill—From Long Ago
Can David Stav, who is in line for the post, return it to the stature it held before his immediate predecessors?
Earlier this week, Israel’s religious Zionist party, known in recent years as Habayit Hayehudi (“the Jewish Home”) and now headed by Naphtali Bennett, threw its support behind David Stav, rabbi of the town of Shoham near Tel Aviv, for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Stav, who is 52 and the father of nine children, is best known in Israel as the co-founder of the Tzohar (“Window”) Rabbinical Organization, which seeks to integrate religious and secular Israelis. Elections will be held later this month among the 150 members of a public committee—who may by then number 200: The increase in members—including more women—will probably be beneficial to Stav, whose primary opponent, David Lau of Modi’in, is the son of a previous chief rabbi. Both current incumbents, Yonah Metzger and his Sephardi colleague Shlomo Amar—are approaching the end of their 10-year tenures, but Amar is expected to be re-elected in return for his (widely rumored) agreement to support Stav. On the same day that the Jewish Home made its announcement the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill that would allow Amar to serve a second term.
Political maneuvers on behalf of Stav’s candidacy for the job of chief rabbi were hardly limited to the Knesset. Haaretz reported that Amar and Stav had met in person at the New York bar mitzvah of the son of celebrity Israeli-born wonder rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, where Amar was accompanied by some of his strategic advisers. Nor did his campaign end there. Upon arriving in New York, according to the rabbinic news source the yeshivaworld.com, Stav made his way directly to the nearby shrine (ohel) of the putatively late Lubavitcher Rebbe in Queens, where he “was warmly greeted” by Rabbi Abba Refson, “director of the Chabad house at the Ohel.” The bushy-bearded Israeli rabbi then paid his respects, in the hope, presumably, of being repaid with the support of Israeli Chabad, which unlike most other Hasidic groups is not aligned with United Torah Judaism, a religious party whose leaders are hostile to Stav on account of his championing military service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.
Are there indeed great issues at stake for the Jewish state in these electoral alignments of expatriate wonder rabbis, freshman MKs, and dead rebbes? Stav certainly thinks so. In an interview with Haaretz’s Ayelett Shani on Feb. 22, Stav boasted that “for the first time in the history of the state of Israel, the position of Chief Rabbi is being contested by someone who served in the army and whose children served in the army.” Is this truly any more than a slick PR line?
Let us begin with the outgoing (but hardly extroverted) Ashkenazi chief rabbi, whose ordination—despite his black rabbinical hat—is from Kerem Be-Yavneh, the first of Israel’s now-numerous Hesder yeshivot, which combine Torah study with (reduced) military service. Metzger served as a chaplain in the Seventh Armored Brigade—in which my oldest son served as well, albeit in a nonclerical position; Metzger was discharged with the rank of captain. But Stav apparently knows that unlike his children and mine, Metzger’s have not served in the army.
This, however, is hardly the most disgraceful aspect of the latter’s tenure as chief rabbi, in which scandal has followed scandal with alarming frequency. Shortly after Metzger’s election in 2003, after having served as rabbi of tony North Tel-Aviv (the equivalent of Manhattan’s upper East and West Sides), accusations surfaced (denied by Metzger) of having unlawfully demanded payment for performing weddings and of forging the signatures of witnesses on marriage contracts. There were also more furtive accusations of both homosexual and heterosexual harassment. Two years later it emerged that during Passover of 2005, as well as during holiday periods in previous years, Metzger and his family had stayed free of charge in Jerusalem’s Citadel Hotel although the government provides the chief rabbis with apartments in Jerusalem. Hotels such as the Citadel are heavily dependent, of course, on rabbinical supervision (offered at differing levels of stringency and hence cost) for their business—especially over holidays.
But perhaps most relevant for the contrast with his presumed successor, at an official IDF ceremony that took place in Jerusalem just over a year ago Capt. (res.) Metzger asserted that Torah study was an essential component of national security. “When yeshiva attendance is low,” he confidently announced, “as on holiday evenings or prior to the Sabbath, more IDF soldiers are injured or killed.” Beyond the stupidity of the assertion, for which he of course had no actual evidence, was the insensitivity toward the families of fallen soldiers whose lives might have been saved—he averred—by more yeshiva students spending more time in study. The claim that Torah study contributes as much to national security as commando combat has—until Yair Lapid’s recent showdown with the Haredis—been a hallmark of ultra-Orthodox arguments for exempting yeshiva students from military service. By uttering those words Metzger alienated himself from thousands of religious Zionists who send their sons (and sometimes their daughters) into the IDF’s most challenging units and who were prepared to ignore or question accusations concerning the chief rabbi’s moral standards.
Allegations regarding moral misconduct in the sexual sphere long ago eliminated from the current race a charismatic figure who was once widely expected to become Ashkenazic chief rabbi—Mordechai (“Motti”) Elon, youngest son of the recently deceased former Supreme Court judge and professor of Jewish law Menachem Elon. Elon was born and raised in Jerusalem. In 2006, while serving as head of Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Ha-Kotel—another of Israel’s oldest Hesder yeshivot—Elon was privately confronted by leaders of a recently established organization called Takanah (“Repair”), devoted to monitoring sexual abuse in the world of religious Zionism. He was presented with allegations of having sexually exploited young men, some of whom had remained close with him since his years (1987-2002) as principal of the Horeb boys high school in Jerusalem. The renowned rabbi, whose lectures on the week’s Torah portion had been so popular that they were broadcast live on national radio, quietly left Jerusalem and moved to the north, citing mysterious health reasons.
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