Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of the Tzohar association of national-religious rabbis and the chief municipal rabbi of Shoham, strongly criticized the chief rabbis on Tuesday for their vehement opposition to reforms to the conversion process that are currently being advanced.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Stav criticized comments the chief rabbis reportedly made to the prime minister in their meeting with him on Tuesday, and also hit out at Shas chairman Arye Deri who he said is “running” the Chief Rabbinate.
The chief rabbis strongly oppose proposed reforms to the conversion process that would allow municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts.
Currently there are just four conversion courts nationwide.
Despite this opposition, Stav maintains that the reforms proposed are nevertheless implementable even without the support of the chief rabbis and are a crucial step in preventing intermarriage between Israeli Jews and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
Stav and Tzohar have been heavily involved in drafting the reform proposals as well as lobbying in the Knesset for their adoption.
“The authority that the chief rabbis have to recognize someone as having converted comes from the government and from the Knesset,” Stav said, in reference to the manner in which the state grants power over issues such as marriage and conversion to the established religious authorities.
“Since this power is vested in the government and the Knesset, these institutions can also choose to give such rights not only to the chief rabbis but to municipal rabbis as well,” the rabbi continued.
The proposals would still give the chief rabbis the final say over whether to recognize any particular conversion.
but Stav said he did not believe this would be a barrier to the implementation of the reforms, since there would not be any basis for rejecting en masse conversions performed by municipal rabbis who are all ordained by the Chief Rabbinate.
“Everyone understands that the chief rabbis can’t simply annul a conversion; there has to be a reason behind it. And since there will be no substantive claims against such conversions, which will be done according to Jewish law, they will have no choice but to recognize these converts,” Stav said.
The rabbi also condemned the chief rabbis for telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday that allowing municipal chief rabbis to convert would lead to corrupt practices seeping into the process.
“I want to ask from where [do] the chief rabbis have the chutzpah to cast aspersions on the rabbis of Israel?” he said. “Are all city rabbis now suspected of corruption? Do the chief rabbis not support the city rabbis that are under their supervision?” The rabbi continued, saying: “What actually brings about corruption is a concentration of power, like the control over conversion the Chief Rabbinate has, and only dispersing such concentrations will reduce corruption.”
Stav also leveled heavy criticism at Deri, accusing him of playing political games on an issue of national importance.
“The person running the Chief Rabbinate today is Arye Deri. He decides who is a Jew and who is not, who is a rabbi and who is not, but we will not allow a politician to have the final say in such matters,” Stav said, alluding to Deri’s reportedly heavy influence within the office of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Stav said that Deri was trying to prove he was the ultimate authority in the country over issues of religion and state, and attributed blame to the Shas leader for Netanyahu’s decision last week to pull his support for a government order approving the reforms, which was worked out between Bayit Yehudi and Hatnua MK Elazar Stern, following the national-religious party’s opposition to the legislation.
“The prime minister didn’t start looking into the details of the reforms and then decide to pull his support.
He withdrew his backing because of Deri’s pressure,” Stav said. “This kind of political pressure shows an intense lack of responsibility to the Jewish people and must not be allowed to pass.”
He also denied that the reforms would “split the Jewish people,” as is alleged by opponents. Describing such claims as “false threats,” he said that the haredi world generally does not see the state’s conversions as valid and that a de facto split already exists.
Stav and other advocates of the plan to allow municipal chief rabbis to establish conversion courts say that such measures are necessary in order to convert larger numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are of Jewish descent but not considered Jewish according to Halacha.
There are approximately 330,000 such people in Israel, and those backing the expansion of the number of rabbinical conversion courts say that intermarriage between this sector and Jewish Israelis will increase if efforts are not made to convert them and their children.
One of the biggest goals of those advocating the reforms is to enable the new courts to convert minors – girls under the age of 12 and boys under the age of 13 – even if their parents are not themselves interested in converting, but with parental consent.
Such conversions require less demanding terms than those required of converts above these ages.
“These people are part of our society, they serve in the army, they study in university and they are meeting Jewish men and women, said Stav.
“People who care about the Jewish people, who care more about the nation than their own tribe, and who have a sense of responsibility to our nation must find a solution to the conversion problem.
“Otherwise we will see mass assimilation when civil marriage is enacted, as it surely will be at some stage,” he said.