Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.
(photo credit: screenshot)
The ongoing developments regarding Rabbi Haskel Lookstein and the refusal of the rabbinical court to respect conversions he officiated is a reflection of a problem far bigger than this individual case – and is in fact symptomatic of a major challenge facing Jewish society today. And even while in the wake of the controversy and public criticism officials including Chief Rabbi David Lau have expressed opinions that the conversions should be accepted, the fact that such an issue would have even reached this level of debate should remain a source of legitimate concern.
Rabbi Lookstein is a personal friend, but also someone every Jew should respect and admire. I would therefore humbly suggest that if the relevant officials within the rabbinate had taken the time to investigate his credentials and speak with him directly, they would have discovered a rabbinical leader who is both a halachic master and someone who loves each and every Jew and knows how to reach their hearts.
His accomplishments in building a leading Jewish community in the United States – a community that despite its location stands firmly in support of the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people – are likely without parallel. Simply put, not only should his conversions be accepted, his rabbinic leadership should be a model studied and lauded by every rabbinical student and communal leader.
In the wake of this latest “scandal” and in the interest of trying to help a friend, I called a colleague on the rabbinical court, who while not directly involved with Rabbi Lookstein’s case would likely have some influence and insight. I argued that the decision had no basis in Torah or halacha. His response, while deeply saddening, was not shocking: “There’s nothing that can be done... this is the policy.”
In other words, the rabbinical court was not guided by rational respect for others or by Halacha, but a cold bureaucracy with clear personal and political motivations.
Last week, with that response still ringing in my ears, I had the opportunity to meet with Rabbi Lookstein in New York. In our meeting, I shared with him my personal frustrations as well as the support of many – if not most – in Israel’s rabbinical community.
My meeting was also intended to express support for Diaspora Jewry as a whole. Because the affront of this decision regarding Rabbi Lookstein is further reflective of a growing divide that the Chief Rabbinate and its rabbinical courts are looking to impose on the rest of the Jewish world.
The message I conveyed in our conversation was that we cannot allow a handful of rabbis who hold the “keys of power” to divide our people.
On a very practical level, disallowing Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions leads to several significant and long-term problems. Firstly, Halacha prohibits “oppressing the convert” – causing him or her any unnecessary harm or pain. There is no doubt that the actions taken by the Chief Rabbinate in making conversion far more difficult than necessary is a transgression of this dictate.
Secondly, as mentioned above, the decision further divides Israel from Diaspora Jewry in a way that is completely unnecessary at a time when every indication is that the bond between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world is weakening.
But by far the most troubling aspect of this ill-advised decision is that it fuels assimilation both here in Israel and abroad.
When rabbinical figures callously place obstacles in front of well-intentioned people – whether they be Jews from birth or righteous converts – the message is quickly perceived that traditional Judaism and halachic observance is something not worth being pursued.
That is a tragic lesson that could be so easily avoided if those in the Chief Rabbinate were to simply appreciate the danger of their ways and realize the impact of decisions such as these.
So while Rabbi Lookstein is the unfortunate victim of today, this story is far more important than him as an individual and the conversions he has performed that stand to be cast aside.
It is rather an indication of a challenge and a developing calamity that must be addressed – for the good of the people of Israel and indeed the entire Jewish world.The author is a rabbi and the founder and president of Tzohar (www.tzohar.org.il).