From their offices at the Contemporary Jewish Life Division of the American Jewish Committee, Prof. Steven Bayme and Dr. Dov Zakheim criticize the Chief Rabbinate and provide their prescription for reform (“Whither the Chief Rabbinate?” – December 26, 2012).

Apparently, having recognized their failure in leading the Jewish community in the United States, which suffers from an assimilation rate of more than 50 percent, the AJC leadership believes it will be more successful if it turns its focus, from thousands of miles away, on Israel in general and the rabbinate in particular. And even if they fail, these pundits will not suffer the consequences, since they and their families do not live in Israel, their children do not go to the army in Israel, nor will their children face the issues which the authors treat in their article.

Bayme and Zakheim open their remarks with a critical quotation against the Chief Rabbinate from an “independent” expert – the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the bastion of Conservative Judaism in the USA, who cannot find a “scintilla of moral worth” in the office of the Chief Rabbinate. We would not have expected anything else. Indeed, one could safely assume that the Chief Rabbinate would say something similar – although probably less radical – against Conservative Judaism as a whole. So much for setting the stage of the discussion.

What do the AJC authors seek from the Chief Rabbinate? “A welcoming attitude toward Jews outside the religious mainstream” including “those converting to Judaism.” As precedent, they cite former chief rabbi Shlomo Goren, who – they posit – was more “inclusive” on questions of status, marriage and conversion.

LET US call a spade a spade. The authors want the Chief Rabbinate to depart from halachic requirements – it’s as simple as that. Under Jewish law, a person cannot convert unless he accepts the “yoke of Jewish law.”

To do so, the convert must first study, be tested and thereafter declare his allegiance to Halacha.

It is incontrovertible that 90% of conversions in Israel are a farce. I once asked a counselor in the army’s conversion school how many converts are actually observant after their conversion.

The answer was: “almost none.” How should the rabbinate react, according to the AJC authors, if a person declares on Thursday: “I am an observant Jew,” and then on Friday night celebrates his conversion at a disco which serves pork? If the reader is interested in more data concerning this situation, he is referred to Rabbi Nachum Orenstein’s book on the conversion travesty.

Yes, as the authors argue, the Chief Rabbinate has a public role. Rabbi Goren understood this very well. In the interest of public acceptance and in order to curry favor with the political leadership in his quest for the role of chief rabbi, he made a farce out of the Halacha, with overnight conversions and daytime annulments of weddings to “kasher” mamzerim (persons born as the result of forbidden relationships, or the children of such persons).

Change is indeed needed in the Chief Rabbinate’s office. For a long time I have argued that the state should get out of the business of religion.

Civil marriage should be instituted; conversions and kashrut should be left to the hands of private authorities.

Those who want to be strict will continue to do so. Those who want to be liberal, even to the point of farce (like many Reform clergymen in the United States), should also be permitted to do so. It makes no sense for the secular Supreme Court to tell the rabbinate if it should grant a kashrut certificate for produce grown on land “sold” to a non-Jew in the shemita year.

It makes even less sense for the court to decide if a conversion is valid under the Halacha. A Jew who is strict about kashrut will not decide what he will eat or whom he will marry based on the court’s decisions. A secular state cannot and should not control a religious establishment.

But the rabbinate should not in any way relax its strictures. The authors complain that the rabbinate is not acting as a moral force. I would complain that the authors are being hypocritical by asking the rabbinate to act against their religious conscience, which is well grounded in Halacha.

Hypocrisy is also not “moral.”

According to the authors, the voice of Diaspora Jewry should be heard in the forthcoming elections to the Chief Rabbinate. I wonder what the authors would say if one argued that the voice of the government of Israel should be heard in the election of the American president? The writer teaches at the Achim kollel in Ra’anana.

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