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?
In early 2010 Takanah’s leaders felt obliged to go public with their accusations against Elon, who had allegedly not honored his private promises to them. He was eventually indicted in late 2011 on two counts of indecent assault allegedly committed against two 17-year-old boys between 2003-2005. Similar actions involving young men 18 and over were reportedly known to Takanah but could not be prosecuted legally. Several months ago, in February of 2013—the month in which his father died—the Jerusalem Magistrate Court dropped one of the charges against Elon, following the refusal of a witness to testify.
The rather tawdry spectacle that is now unfolding in Israel makes one wonder whether the country will ever again have a chief rabbi who is more than a mediocrity—quite unlike, it must be noted, the period from the British Mandate through the Jewish state’s early years. In 1983 Menachem Elon, already a member of Israel’s Supreme Court, was the candidate favored by Menachem Begin’s center-right coalition—which included the religious Zionist Mafdal party, the ancestor of today’s Jewish Home—for the largely ceremonial position of president. Somewhat mysteriously the secret ballot among members of Israel’s Knesset granted the victory to one of their own, the recently elected MK Chaim Herzog, who had served as an officer in both the British military (during World War II) and in the IDF, where he had twice been head of Military Intelligence. Of greater relevance was Herzog’s more recent stint as Israel’s envoy to the United Nations (1975-1978)—a post previously occupied by his brother-in-law Abba Eban—especially his famous speech in response to the General Assembly’s resolution condemning Zionism as racism, during which he tore up the official document in front of the assembled delegates.
With this dramatic gesture, Herzog was following in the footsteps of his revered father Isaac (1888-1959), Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. In May of 1939, when Isaac Herzog was chief rabbi of Palestine, he led a march in Jerusalem against the notorious White Paper on the future of Palestine issued by the British government. During that demonstration he symbolically tore up the document, which called for limiting Jewish immigration despite the perils faced then faced by European Jewry. Herzog’s elder son Chaim joined the Hagganah in 1936 and then enlisted with the British army to fight in Europe. His intellectually gifted younger brother Jacob remained behind but served in Hagganah intelligence. Unlike David Stav, Rabbi Herzog could not claim that both he and his sons had served in uniform, but he did fight the White Paper ferociously.
No less courageous was Rabbi Herzog’s address in early June of 1944 at the eighth All Palestine Conference of the Mizrachi Organization held in Jerusalem—the religious Zionist organization that spawned the political party now headed by Netanyahu’s former head of staff Naphtali Bennett. Herzog opened by mourning the “horrible slaughter of millions of our brethren” as well as the destruction of great yeshivot such as those in Vilna, Grodno, Lublin, and Lomza—the last being his own birthplace. The chief rabbi also expressed his gratitude “to the Christian Churches—Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, as well as to the Anglican Churches—for their endeavors on behalf of suffering Jewry” and appealed, as might be expected, to the United Nations to “open the gates of Zion.” He also brazenly called upon the nations of the world “to bring a sin-offering to atone for the historic crime committed by you all against the Jewish people.”
But the most striking part of Herzog’s speech—later published in English as “the Present Gloom and the Prophetic Light”—was its last section, in which he called for a “spiritual revival” of the Jewish people in its historic land and for a Zionism that would not be “a mere secular movement … divorced from the words of God.” Palestine’s chief rabbi denounced Jewish secular nationalism as dangerously close to the “unbridled nationalism … which has brought about the present world destruction” and boldly asserted that “while secular Zionism denounces assimilation, it is itself guilty of spiritual assimilation, inasmuch as it would mold the rebuilding of Jewish nationhood in the form of alien nationalism.” True Jewish nationalism, in his view, drew upon the prophetic “vision of universal peace” and strove for “the spiritual perfection of the whole world.”
Which of today’s candidates for the position of Israel’s chief rabbi—Ashkenazi or Sephardi—could, or would, challenge the country’s political leadership in that way?
Stav’s primary interest is in such things as allowing Israelis to register for marriage with any rabbi in the country so that they won’t opt for civil marriage in Cyprus. But one hopes he will also have something to say, for example, to ultra-Orthodox Jews who like him have nine children but are unable or unwilling to find jobs to feed their own families. Will either he or his erstwhile rabbinical colleague Shai Piron—who ran as No. 2 on Lapid’s list and is now Israel’s education minister—have the courage to confront the Israeli people and its leaders on such issues as the country’s obscenely high poverty rate or its abysmal treatment of dark-skinned refugees from Africa? One can only hope. It may be too much to ask for someone with Rabbi Herzog’s unflinching courage, but perhaps we can at least get someone who cares about “the spiritual perfection of the whole world.”
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