Religious Affairs: The religion and state iceberg

After pushing through a reform in the conversion law, Hatnua MK Elazar Stern wants to take on kashrut licensing and the issue of Shabbat in the public sphere.

November 13, 2014 21:08
Elazar Stern


When a government was cobbled together in March 2013, the notable absentees from the coalition were the two haredi political parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

This rare occurrence, coupled with the commitment by Bayit Yehudi to present a more welcoming face of Judaism, gave rise to hopes that some of the more knotty problems involving the clash of religion and state in the country could now be solved.

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Although advances have been made on several fronts, progress has often been unexpectedly arduous.

Reformers have come up against fierce opposition from hardline elements within Bayit Yehudi and the national-religious community, as well the haredi parties – which despite not being in the current coalition, continue to hold significant sway over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

No reform in the realm of the state’s Jewish identity was more bitterly contested than Hatnua MK Elazar Stern’s conversion reform law, which was approved by the government earlier this month, but only after one of the most fierce debates within the coalition witnessed during the current Knesset.

Stern, along with the non-political proponents of the law, sees the reforms as a critical component for preventing interfaith marriages in Israel, and he fought fiercely and intensely for the law – with his party chairwoman Tzipi Livni quipping just after its approval that he almost committed political suicide over it.

But the battle to secure implementation of the law is not yet over, especially in light of the vehement and ongoing opposition of the Chief Rabbinate to the content of the law.

In essence, the new law allows chief municipal rabbis to establish their own conversion courts in conjunction with another two rabbinical judges, thereby broadening access to the system and allowing more liberally inclined rabbis to conduct conversions.

Many rabbinic leaders of the mainstream national- religious community attach great importance to converting larger numbers of non-Jewish Israelis who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, and they hope the new law will assist them in this mission in order to prevent interfaith marriages in Israel.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post in his Knesset office, Stern spoke about the bitter fight to secure the passage of the law, delivered some strident criticism of his various opponents during the battle, and outlined the next items on his religion-and-state to-do list.

“For a couple of hours after the law was approved I felt great, I was breathing fresh air, but immediately afterwards I was already worrying how we can implement it,” he said. “How can we bring those thousands of people [non-Jewish Israelis] to the new rabbinical courts, how do we explain to them that there is good and important news.”

And challenges of implementation lie not only with reaching out to the immigrant community, but in ensuring the actual reforms are not derailed.

Shortly before the law’s approval, the chief rabbis threatened not to recognize the conversions in a meeting with Netanyahu, and subsequently said the Chief Rabbinate would establish a committee to examine how it will address the new law.

“There’s two possible purposes for this committee,” said Stern. “The first is that the chief rabbis now understand that the campaign they waged against the law and their various tricks are finished, and that they’re creating this committee in order to work in cooperation with the new law.

“The second possibility is that they’re trying to find ways to fight it, but I hope they are sufficiently smart and responsible to know that the decision has been made, and the best thing for the State of Israel and for the status of the rabbinate is to cooperate.”

In theory, it will be possible for the chief rabbis to opt not to sign conversion certificates issued by chief municipal rabbis that establish new conversion courts, but Stern thinks this unlikely. He said that if it does occur, it would have severe repercussions on the authority of the Chief Rabbinate – since its mandate is ultimately granted by the force of the state’s authority.

“The chief rabbis are elected in a political process, its authority is ultimately political, so they can’t say to the source of their own authority, ‘We don’t accept this thing you’ve decided.’” Stern said that if the chief rabbis were to refuse to sign the conversion certificates without valid reason, the cases would be appealed to the High Court of Justice.

Israeli law grants authority over marriage, divorce and conversion to the heads of the established religious institutions in Israel, but they must nevertheless present valid reasons for their decisions over such matters.

The new law still only allows Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical judges to perform conversions, so an arbitrary decision by the Chief Rabbinate not to recognize them without providing a halachic justification would be legally problematic.

“If these conversions are conducted according to Halacha, which they will be, and the chief rabbis don’t register them as Jewish, then they know this authority will be taken away from them. Authority over conversion will be taken away from them. We’ll appeal to the High Court,” Stern maintained.

“If the chief rabbis really think this new law, which deals only with process and procedure and not Halacha, goes against their religious conscience, then they can resign and vacate their seats as chief rabbis. There are enough rabbis who would be happy to go into the offices of the Chief Rabbinate and who understand the challenges of Judaism in Israeli society,” said the MK.

In the initial fight to pass the reforms as legislation, Stern faced heavy opposition from the right wing of the Bayit Yehudi party, as well as the ultra-Orthodox political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, who were able to wield surprisingly heavy influence over the prime minister.

In a compromise agreement, brokered by the prime minister with the services of senior national-religious figure Rabbi Haim Druckman, Stern agreed to pass the reforms into law as a government order instead of legislation.

But Stern had tough words for Netanyahu, who he accused of failing to stand by his word and personal promises he made on the issue. Although the prime minister initially helped bridge the gaps between Bayit Yehudi and Stern, he pulled his support for the law following political pressure from the haredi parties, which ostensibly threatened not to back Netanyahu to form a government after the next elections.

“There is no doubt that the politics of the haredim are wretched, but these threats are empty; I don’t know who believes them. First there were similar threats if the law for haredi conscription was passed, now it was over conversion. It will probably be about kashrut and Shabbat next time, too, but the haredim need to be part of the government more than the government needs them.”

Stern also described what he felt was “the lack of will to decide, or to stand by promises” on Netanyahu’s part. “I was hurt by this, but I’m looking ahead and I hope that the prime minister learned something from this episode, too,” he said with a wry grin.

THE MK did not mince his words when it came to his views on Bayit Yehudi either.

Some of the most senior rabbis from the hardline wing of the national-religious community went to war with Stern over his law, such as Rabbis Shmuel Eliyahu and Dov Lior, and lobbied the party’s MKs vigorously – especially the four members from the hard-right Tekuma party, which is a constituent of the Bayit Yehudi Knesset faction.

“Bayit Yehudi clearly does not represent the mainstream of the national-religious community at the moment,” said Stern. “It should, but unfortunately on matters of religion and state, it does not represent them.

“A few extremist rabbis control Tekuma, Tekuma controls Bayit Yehudi, and Bayit Yehudi controls issues of religion and state at the moment – so we’re in a situation where a few extremist rabbis are determining the Jewish identity of the state. But we cannot allow this.”

The party leader, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, is known to be more liberal on religion and state issues than the more hardline elements in his party. Yet he has taken a less prominent role on such matters, and the legislation surrounding them, preferring to concentrate on economic and diplomatic concerns.

Stern said Bennett’s stance vis-a-vis the hardliners on the critical questions regarding the state’s Jewish identity was “a question of leadership, as well as political considerations which I don’t understand, or at least I hope I don’t understand.”

He noted that Bayit Yehudi had vetoed his proposed legislation to expand the electoral body for electing the chief rabbis last year, a law that would have given the liberally inclined national-religious figure Rabbi David Stav a greater opportunity for success in his bid to get elected as Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

“They regret this now, and if you ask them they couldn’t tell you why they vetoed it. But they have issued more vetoes on some of my other legislation as well,’ said Stern critically.

“I wish Bennett would take a greater role on Jewish identity issues, but that’s not the case at the moment,” he added.

There are several other arenas of Israeli religious life in which Stern is also pursuing reforms. The first is one aspect of kashrut licensing. Currently, local rabbinates only give a kashrut license to restaurants, catering companies and other food provision services if they close on Shabbat. Businesses must choose between serving customers during the week who only eat at places with kosher certification, or opening on Shabbat, thereby driving away patrons who demand a hechsher.

Stern’s bill would allow restaurants to gain kashrut certification for Sunday through Friday, but open on Shabbat without supervision. It was vetoed by Bayit Yehudi, but Stern said he is now working on a pilot program, in cooperation with the Chief Rabbinate, which will see a few restaurants open on this basis around the country. If it is successful, then the program could be rolled out countrywide.

Stern also said he wants to advance legislation to comprehensively deal with the public debate surrounding Shabbat in the public sphere.

Many cities, including ardently secular ones such as Tel Aviv, have bylaws on their statute books enacted many years ago that prohibit businesses from opening on Shabbat, while public transportation on Shabbat is also largely prohibited.

“We need to make cultural activities much more accessible, and to reduce business activities as much as possible, including shutting places which today are open on Shabbat, such as shopping malls, including those outside of the cities. But the opportunity for local authorities to keep theaters, community centers, museums and other institutions open on Shabbat must also exist,” said Stern.

Ultimately, Stern said he is concerned the situation in Israel and its relationship to the public role of religion is rapidly approaching the point of no return.

“There’s an iceberg up ahead of us, which is separation of religion and state, and right now we’re on course to hit it.

“I am against the separation of religion and state, but I know that if we continue at this rate and on this current path, and if the religious and haredi parties continue to ignore the importance of those who are not religious, then in the end there will be an inevitable separation of religion and state.”

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