Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, is silhouetted as he talks to students at a pre-army training course as he campaigns in the Shapira Center near the southern city of Ashkelon.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The announcement of a new independent network of conversion courts by a group of senior national-religious rabbis has seemingly divided Bayit Yehudi, with party chairman Naftali Bennett expressing cautious support for the step while Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan heavily criticized the move on Tuesday.
The new conversion courts, called Giur K’halacha and headed by Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, are a response by mainstream national-religious rabbis to what they believe is the failure of the Chief Rabbinate to deal with the threat of Jewish intermarriage posed by approximately 330,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered halachically Jewish.
Speaking to Army Radio on Tuesday morning, Ben-Dahan harshly denounced the initiative, arguing that there should be just one centralized body in the Jewish state to deal with conversion and other religious concerns.
“It’s impossible to agree to this solution, just like if we would have criticism of the Supreme Court and its decisions, we would not agree that everyone could establish his own court or Supreme Court,” said Ben-Dahan. “We returned to the Land of Israel in order to establish a single sovereign entity.”
Bennett, however, took a more supportive stance for Giur K’halacha Monday night, saying while he would prefer for conversion and all other religious services to be provided by the Chief Rabbinate, “unfortunately, the rabbinate is not working properly and therefore alternative bodies for conversion have been set up.”
Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of the most senior national-religious rabbinical figures who is close to both Ben-Dahan and Bennett, also disavowed the Giur K’halacha initiative.
“Conversion must be within the framework of the Chief Rabbinate,” the rabbi told Arutz Sheva. “I am totally opposed to alternative conversion, even if it is in accordance with Jewish law, because all such alternatives harm organized Torah life in the State of Israel.”
Along with Druckman, several other senior national- religious rabbis in the conservative wing of the community criticized the new courts, saying they constituted an injury to the authority and legitimacy of the Chief Rabbinate.
Rabbis Dov Lior, Tzvi Tau and Haim Shteiner issued a statement saying that “we have in our generation merited the establishment of the State of Israel. At the center of its Jewish identity stands the Chief Rabbinate, which was established by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook. Private conversions constitute a severe injury to the statist approach and undermine the foundations of our country as a Jewish state.”
In response to the criticism, Rabinowitz issued a statement saying that the alternative would be a severe split within the Jewish people.
“It’s important to underline that a failure to deal with the issue will not eliminate the problem, but rather would see the destruction of the wholeness and holiness of the Jewish people,” said the rabbi. He emphasized that “the new rabbinical conversion courts are operating 100 percent in accordance with Jewish law.”
The criticism from Druckman, Lior and others represents a serious rift in the ranks of the national-religious rabbinical leadership – for whom the issue of conversion has become one of the most pressing concerns of current times.
Rabinowitz is recognized as a highly authoritative arbiter of Jewish law, as are other participating rabbis in Giur K’halacha, including rabbis Yaakov Medan and Re’em Hacohen. These figures, along with rabbis David Stav and Shlomo Riskin, see the threat of intermarriage as so worrying that they are willing to split from the long-term statist approach of the national-religious leadership toward religion in Israel.
Druckman and others from the more conservative national-religious community are still very much wedded to the idea of having one central authority in the form of the Chief Rabbinate, established by the forefather of religious Zionism, Kook.
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman – who has long pushed for conversion reform – also expressed support for the Giur K’halacha movement. He said, however that converts through the new system would still require recognition by the state as legitimate converts, which the Chief Rabbinate is likely to withhold.
“Therefore the only solution is for the prime minister to retract his shameful subjugation to the haredi political parties and for the government to restore the conversion law that we passed in the last government,” said Liberman.
A government resolution was approved by the last government to liberalize and increase access to the state conversion system, but the reform never saw fruition as the Chief Rabbinate and other elements stymied its implementation until the current