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A frank conversation on marriage in Israel with Tzohar’s Rabbi David Stav

Rabbi David Stav visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on July 24, 2013. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Rabbi David Stav visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on July 24, 2013. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

I had hardly sat down for my recent meeting with Rabbi David Stav at Manhattan’s Wolf & Lamb kosher steakhouse when a stream of diners, young and old, approached our table. They introduced themselves and thanked the rabbi profusely for his leadership.

Their praise was not without reason. Stav was the driving force behind the Israeli Knesset’s passage of the “Tzohar Law,” legislation named after the organization of 1,000 Orthodox rabbis who are seeking to reform the country’s Chief Rabbinate. This controversial law allows Israeli Jews greater flexibility in choosing a rabbi to officiate at their wedding and permits couples to register their marriage outside their city or town of residence.

“Marriage is a part of something much deeper,” Stav told me. “It’s a pain point that affects everything.”

Stav, who was a candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel in 2013 and was recently appointed co-chancellor of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone educational network, noted how the country’s current marriage laws prohibit intermarriage and require extensive proof of Jewish heritage. He didn’t need to elaborate on the “pain” aspect. I’ve seen and heard many stories on the issue during my travels in Israel, and many of my secular friends abroad complain about the intrusiveness and rigidity of a system that requires them to conform to Orthodox wedding rituals. Further, they detest paying a rabbi, with whom they have no personal connection, to officiate.

Tzohar, where Stav serves as chairman, provides statistics confirming a spiritual and cultural crisis in Israel. “Over 700,000 Jewish-born immigrants are legally prohibited by the Chief Rabbinate from marrying as Jews,” the organization states. “Twenty-four percent of Israeli couples choose civil marriage abroad. Their children will be considered non-Jews by the Chief Rabbinate.”

“I have friends who were forced to travel abroad to get married,” I explained to Stav, handing him a copy of my book. “Their plight inspired me to write a short fiction story about the situation.” I made my position clear to Stav: I’m for separation of religion and state, and I find it troubling that any governing or religious entity would have the audacity to interfere with matters of the heart, let alone force couples to pay for unwanted services.

Stav is well aware of the strained emotions and sense of injustice that exists. “Most of the rabbis working in the system have no cultural connection to the couples getting married,” he lamented. “Forget the charges of corruption; I’m talking about a problem in the essence of the system. We’re trying to create a friendlier alternative.” Stav’s goal, he elaborated, is to make marriage more accessible and the rabbinate more welcoming to couples that might not necessarily fit the bill for purity.

Indeed, there is little precedent in the history of Judaism for the kinds of reform Tzohar has already achieved. The organization has made significant strides, extending rabbinical services to disenfranchised immigrant families. The passage of the Tzohar Law sent shockwaves across Israel, prompting the country’s Economy and Trade Minister, Naftali Bennett, to remark, “The revolution in religious services has begun!”

“I don’t always go to sleep carefree,” Stav said, acknowledging that the social-religious revolution (as Bennett put it) that Tzohar initiated has also stirred significant opposition.

Stav vividly recalled the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a spiritual crossroads for the Jewish state.

“Society was collapsing,” he said. “What made me stay in the yeshiva and kept me from going into business was the understanding that we have a responsibility to unite Jews.”

An ardent Zionist, Stav is principally concerned about the future security of Israel and even the potential for civil war.

“We all know what happened with the Pew report,” he said, referencing the rattling 2013 analysis on American Jewry by the Pew Research Center. The report indicated a rapidly assimilating Jewish population in the U.S., including a 58-percent intermarriage rate.

“We don’t want to face the same reality [in Israel],” Stav argued. “Israel has to be a place where Jewish identity is intact. Otherwise, we face a divided society.”

Such divisions would cripple the Israel Defense Forces, Stav warned, noting, “The highest motivation for Jewish soldiers is the notion of a Jewish homeland. I cannot imagine solidarity among soldiers who are Jewish and those who question their Jewish identity.”

Faced with the unhappy image of disunity, Stav chooses reform as the best means to bind the nation’s wounds and to steer the faith forward.

Suddenly, we were running out of time. Stav had another meeting to attend. “Why not push for complete separation of religion and state?” I asked him. Stav’s answer showed surprising compassion for opponents of reform and a complex appraisal of what is at stake for Jewish culture amid the marriage debate.

“Religion pays a high price because there is no separation,” he observed. “It’s very sad that the seculars don’t want to inherit anything from the Torah and that Israelis want to distance themselves from being Jewish.” Stav went so far as to say that he understands the “resentment” religiously observant Jews feel toward secular Jews for abandoning and disregarding the laws and rituals that define their faith.

Unsure how to interpret Stav’s parting remarks, I contacted my own rabbi—Scott Glass, the leader of Temple Beth El in Ithaca, N.Y. I asked him why civil marriage isn’t legal in Israel, and why the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has the authority to dictate marriage rituals and define Jewish identity. I questioned the significance of what Stav had labeled my “Jewish inheritance,” echoing the frustrations of secular Israelis.

Through our correspondence, Glass gradually elucidated a perspective I could never have imagined on my own: that of a rabbi officiating at a marriage ceremony.

“To me, a part of what makes a wedding ceremony beautiful and full of meaning is the fact that the couple is part of a continuum of people who have engaged in the same type of ceremony,” Glass explained. “Every time I do a wedding I think of my own. I draw on the spirit and joy and meaning of that occasion, I draw on all that has sustained us through the years and it adds to the significance of the moment.”

Just as it may feel wrong for the Chief Rabbinate to impose religious rituals on congregants, I began to wonder, is it right for citizens to deprive rabbis of their time-honored role in Jewish society?

Glass conceded that, given that he isn’t an Orthodox rabbi, he doesn’t expect to have the weddings he officiates “recognized by the state of Israel anytime soon,” a sign that the Tzohar Law still falls short of the kinds inclusion and acceptance that many young Jewish couples seek. But Glass’s affection for different parts of the Jewish wedding service, including the Sheva Brachot and the Bedeken, reveal the kind of intimacy with the Torah and one’s congregation that Stav and Tzohar are trying to restore in Israel.

“The acts of espousal in the Jewish [wedding] ceremony are as cold and business-like as the civil ceremony,” Glass said. “It’s the liturgy that has developed over the years and the embellishments of each generation that have made it more emotionally satisfying and spiritually uplifting. Of course, if there’s a personal connection between the [rabbi] and the couple, how much more beautiful!”

Glass and Stav appear to agree that what’s needed is more common sense, patience, and tolerance on the part of the Chief Rabbinate. By reforming Israeli law to be more inclusive and adaptable, doors will open, leading to a more meaningful appreciation of a shared Jewish history.

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