Is David Stav the Naftali Bennett of the chief rabbi race?


David Stav, the chief rabbi candidate, had to walk a fine line when he addressed a crowd of Tel Aviv immigrants in English on Sunday.

Stav sent his usual message: Israel is in danger because of a growing divide between Israelis who are halachically Jewish and those who aren’t. The way to close that divide is to make the rabbinate more user-friendly and appealing, which would convince more people to convert and get married in Israel.

But Stav won’t break or change halacha to get that done. He doesn’t support instituting civil marriage in Israel, or other major religious reforms.

“If the question is whether I’ll recognize Reform or Conservative conversions for the implementation of the law of marriage and divorce, the answer is no,” he told attendees of the Tel Aviv International Salon series. “I cannot accept the Jewish identity” of patrilineal Jews, he said, “because Jewish law does not accept this.”

That message might play well to Israelis accustomed to Orthodoxy (only 7 percent of Israeli Jews call themselves Conservative or Reform). It’s a harder sell to Americans accustomed to religious pluralism and separation of church and state.

To appeal to that crowd, Stav sounded the same notes that punctuated a speech Naftali Bennett, the hard-right Jewish Home chairman,  gave to a crowd of Tel Aviv “Anglos” leading up to January’s Knesset election. Both men couched their essentially conservative philosophies in a language of free-market values, eliminating bureaucracy and putting the consumer – or voter – first.

Neither man hid his agenda: Bennett talked about why he resolutely opposes a Palestinian state, and Stav talked about why he opposes giving Reform and Conservative Judaism equal footing with the current Orthodox monopoly.

But in both speeches, those respective messages took a back seat to the idea that Israeli bureaucracy is bloated, and that the most important priority should be to increase competition. For Bennett, that meant leading his speech off with heavy criticism of Israel’s housing policy, and getting to the Palestinian issue only later. For Stav, it meant starting with a condemnation of religious coercion, and declaring that the rabbinate “continues to act like a monopoly.”

To fix those problems, Stav recommends putting different local rabbinates in competition with each other regarding obtaining marriage licenses and helping people without the proper documentation prove their Judaism. Bennett, the religious services minister, has also recommended the marriage reform, and backs Stav’s candidacy in the July election.

Stav hopes that Israel’s rabbis will be more professional, more punctual, more sensitive to secular values and friendlier. The crux of the rabbinate’s policy, though, will remain the same.

“I’m flexible with people,” he said. “I’m not flexible with halacha.”

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