(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern has accused Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett of failing to act on behalf of Diaspora Jewry in the wake of the controversy surrounding a convert of prominent US rabbi Haskel Lookstein.
Last week, the Supreme Rabbinical Court upheld a decision of the Petah Tikva rabbinical court which ruled that Lookstein was not on a list of North American rabbis whose conversions are approved by the rabbinical courts system.
The Supreme Rabbinical Court itself declined to recognize Lookstein’s conversions and made the convert in question undergo an expedited form of conversion in court so as to enable her to get married on the date she and her fiancé have set for their wedding.
Following the Petah Tikva court’s ruling at the end of June, Stern submitted a parliamentary query to Bennett in his role as Diaspora Affairs minister asking what he was doing to resolve the crisis.
Specifically, Stern asked Bennett if he was trying to get the chief rabbinate to formulate criteria by which to approve conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in North American and the broader Diaspora.
Currently, all decisions on whether or not to accept a conversion are done on an ad hoc basis and are made by the chief rabbinate’s department of Marriage and Conversion, which is staffed by just one individual, Rabbi Itamar Tubul.
In response to Stern’s query, the Diaspora Affair’s minister said that it did not have the legal authority to formulate such criteria, and referred Stern to the Prime Minister’s Office, under whose auspices the state conversion authority operates.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Stern acknowledged that the Diaspora Affairs minister does not have the legal authority to create such criteria, but said that as a member of the cabinet and a key coalition partner, Bennett could act more forcefully to uphold the standing of Diaspora rabbis.
He also questioned what the purpose of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry was if not to act on issues such as the conversion controversy.
“This is an evasion of responsibility towards the Diaspora,” said Stern.
“Whether or not the State of Israel accepts converts from the Diaspora has a direct affect on Diaspora Jewry but the Diaspora Affairs Minister is sacrificing Diaspora Jewry and Rabbi Lookstein’s converts because of the coalition agreement he signed allowing the religious status quo to be preserved.”
The MK argued that “the government depends as much on Bennett as it does on the haredi parties,” and said that the minister should use “all his political power” to remedy the problem.
“He doesn’t stand his ground on anything apart from ministerial portfolios and money,” alleged Stern.
A spokesperson for Bennett pointed out that the Bayit Yehudi leader called on the chief rabbis on Thursday to draw up the criteria as soon as possible.
“The Rabbinate must publish, without delay, criteria for the recognition of rabbis whose conversions it accepts, so that decisions about the future of the Jewish people are done in a thoughtful, transparent and responsible manner,” said Bennett last week.
ITIM, a religious services advisory group which represented the convert in the Supreme Rabbinical Court case last week, said that the chief rabbinate has been aware of the problem for several years and is still yet to formulate criteria.
In response to an ITIM legal petition on the matter earlier this year, the chief rabbinate said in April it was in the process of formulating criteria.
“Though both the chief rabbi’s representative and the judges on the Supreme Rabbinical Court stated that the Council of the Chief Rabbinate is meeting regarding criteria for certifying rabbis from overseas, ITIM has received no indication that any discussion is going on regarding this sensitive matter,” said Farber. “Since the chief rabbinate seems unwilling to take responsibility for the question of who is a Jew, it is only a matter of time before this issue flares up again.”
Following an inquiry through relevant sources, the Post has indeed learned that there has been no progress within the chief rabbinate since April on creating the criteria, and neither is there any date in sight for the completion of the criteria.