Rabbis representing the Ashkenazi haredi rabbinical leadership were poised on Tuesday to send a letter to Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger demanding that he "clarify" his stance on city rabbis who refuse to recognize conversions performed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
"We want nothing less than a written statement from the chief rabbi detailing his position regarding conversions that a city rabbi deems to be invalid because the convert did not embrace an Orthodox lifestyle," said Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, who has close ties with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the preeminent halachic authority for Ashkenazi haredim.
"The chief rabbi needs to clarify that in no way was the letter [sent to the Knesset Immigration and Absorption committee] meant to convey a message that contradicts Halacha."
Last week Metzger wrote in a letter to the Knesset committee that if a city rabbi refuses to register a couple for marriage because of his refusal to recognize a conversion performed by the Chief Rabbinate, an alternative registrar would be provided.
Metzger's letter marked the first time that either of the chief rabbis promised to provide a solution for dozens of converts to Judaism from the former Soviet Union who are unable to marry in Israel because their local rabbi refuses to recognize their conversion.
The letter comes after the Chief Rabbinate's legal adviser Shimon Ulman told the Knesset Absorption Committee that legal action would be taken against rabbis who refused to recognize the conversions.
Ulman argued that city rabbis, who are appointed and derive their authority from the Chief Rabbinate, were obligated by law to respect the decisions of the Chief Rabbinate.
In the wake of Ulman's comments ITIM, The Jewish Life Information Center, prepared to file a petition to the High Court against the rabbis.
Rabbi Shaul Farber, head of ITIM, said that he hoped he would not have to go to the High Court to petition against the rabbinate.
"We should support rabbis' opinions against intermarriage," said Farber. "But once a person converts to Judaism in a rabbinical court, he or she is Jewish. It is inconceivable that one rabbi can unilaterally decide that a person who went through the entire conversion process is not Jewish."
Farber called Metzger's letter a "positive step".
However, Metzger's letter aroused the opposition of haredi rabbis who claim that large percentages of those converted by the National Conversion Authority, which works under the aegis of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, are not Jewish because they did not embrace an Orthodox lifestyle after their conversion.
Rabbi Gedalia Axelrod, a former head of the Haifa Rabbinical Court, who is working together with Eisenstein, wrote a letter addressed to the "rabbis of Israel" calling to fire Ulman for trying to interfere in religious matters.
"We call to express support for rabbis in Israel who are steadfast in their refusal to marry a gentile with a Jew," wrote Axelrod.
"If a rabbi does not have the power to protect his faith in his refusal to marry a gentile with a Jew, it would be better to permit civil marriages."
There have been numerous cases in which city rabbis, who are responsible for registering the residents of their city for marriage, have refused to recognize conversions performed by the Conversion Authority or by rabbinic courts in the IDF that convert soldiers as part of the Nativ program.
Both bodies convert under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
This summer, Rishon LeZion Chief Rabbi Yehuda David Wolpe refused to issue a marriage license for a couple living in his city because he deemed the bride's conversion was to be invalid, since, he believed, the woman was not living an Orthodox life.
Wolpe made a similar ruling regarding a young man who converted in the IDF.
Ashkelon Chief Rabbi Haim Blau also refused to marry a couple even after the local rabbinical court verified the bride-to-be's conversion.
The rabbis of Rehovot, Beersheba, Ma'aleh Adumim, and other cities do not automatically honor conversion certificates issued by the Chief Rabbinate, but perform further investigations.
About 2,000 non-Jews from the FSU who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return are converted every year. The State of Israel sees the conversion of these non-Jews as a national goal, saying it fosters unity and prevents intermarriage. Many religious Zionist rabbis identify with this goal.
However, Ashkenazi haredi rabbis are opposed to any attempts to encourage mass conversions.
In a halachic decision that received extensive media exposure when it was published over a year ago, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, cast doubt on the validity of thousands of conversions performed by the Conversion Authority and the rabbinical courts in the IDF.
In June, Metzger, who got appointed chief rabbi with haredi backing, praised Sherman's decision at a conference sponsored by Eternal Jewish Family in Jerusalem.