The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate.
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday that the chief rabbinate would not recognize conversions performed by municipal chief rabbis under the terms of proposals to reform the conversion process that are being advanced in the Knesset and through the government, should they be accepted.
Their comments represent a dramatic intensification over the pitched battle surrounding the conversion reforms controversy, between moderate Orthodox political and rabbinic leaders and their haredi and conservative national-religious counterparts.
The chief rabbis met with the prime minister on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue, after a conversion reform bill proposed by Hatnua Elazar Stern was approved for its final readings in Knesset on Monday.
The chief rabbis vigorously oppose the terms of the reforms saying that will “divide the Jewish people,” while Netanyahu also opposes the proposals due to political concerns he has about harming his relationship with the haredi political parties who are also avowedly against the proposals.
Stern’s bill would allow chief municipal rabbis to establish their own conversion courts thereby broadening access to the system and allowing more liberally inclined rabbis to conduct conversions than those who currently serve on the four national conversion courts.
According to well-placed sources, Netanyahu told Yosef and Lau that there was an automatic majority in the Knesset for passing the bill into law, now that the legislation has been approved by the committee for its second and third readings.
In light of this, the prime minister reportedly said, it was better to agree to a government order that has been proposed as a compromise solution instead of the legislation.
However the chief rabbis view the government order as no less problematic than the conversion bill and say that conversions conducted under the new system would not be reliable.
They told Netanyahu that the chief rabbinate would not recognize the conversions and nor would the majority of rabbis around the world, thus endangering the unity of the Jewish people.
Opposition to the reforms is largely based on opposition to the more liberal stance on conversion of rabbis such as Tzohar chairman and chief municipal rabbi of Shoham, Rabbi David Stav, and the chief municipal rabbi of Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who wish to increase the rate of conversion among non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in order to prevent Jewish inter-marriage, and would establish their own conversion courts if authorized to do so.
The chief rabbis and other opponents argue that such conversions would not be universally recognized and would therefore divide the Jewish people since their subsequent marriages, and the Jewish status of their children, would also be called into question.
The chief rabbis told Netanyahu that the current state conversion system was working perfectly and that the right of municipal chief rabbis to convert, which was in effect until the 1990s, was taken away due to corrupt practices by such rabbis.
Reinstating the right for local rabbis to convert would lead to a recurrence of corrupt practices, and would also be an injustice to the conversion candidates since their conversions would not be universally recognized, they said.
Chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora MK Yoel Razvozov of Yesh Atid condemned the chief rabbis’ comments and said they would need to adhere to the rulings of the government.
“The chief rabbis need to understand that a body which is financed by the government of Israel is obligated to accept upon itself and to enact the decisions of the Knesset,” Razvozov said in response.
“The days in which the chief rabbinate acted as if the state and the public belonged to them are over. It is unthinkable that the chief rabbinate would not trust municipal rabbis who they are responsible for,” he continued.
Tzohar also issued a response to the chief rabbis’ claims about the possibility of corruption, saying that it was “astonishing” that they would make such claims about a large group of municipal rabbis who served during the period in which it was possible for them to conduct conversions.
“Tzohar calls on the chief rabbis to issue formal complaints against any such rabbis, if such claims are indeed true,” the organization said.