Several of the country’s most senior national-religious rabbis have written an open letter in support of the controversial decisions to indefinitely freeze the Western Wall agreement and advance haredi-backed legislation on conversion. Among the signatories to the letter, mostly from the conservative wing of the national-religious community, are Chief Rabbi of Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu; Chief Rabbi of Petah Tikva Rabbi Michah Halevi; dean of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva Rabbi Shlomo Aviner; and regional chief rabbi of the Samaria district Rabbi Elyakim Levanon. They addressed their letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describing his support for the two measures “in the face of growing and heightened pressure from the Reform” as “courageous.”Netanyahu had strongly backed the Western Wall agreement approved in 2016 by his cabinet, but agreed to all but cancel it last week due to intense pressure from United Torah Judaism and Shas.
The prime minister also allowed a bill proposed by the haredi parties to grant the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly on conversions to be approved for passage to the Knesset last week, but subsequently negotiated a six-month freeze on the legislation in the face of fury from US Jewish leaders and the heads of progressive Jewish movements.“It is our wish to welcome and strengthen the government of Israel and the person who heads it, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, for his important decision to preserve the sanctity of the Western Wall and his efforts in strengthening the state conversion system, steps that fortify the Jewish character of the state and protect the unity of the Jewish people,” the rabbis wrote.They said the Western Wall, together with all other issues of Jewish life and law in Israel, should be conducted under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate in accordance with the founder of that institution Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook.The centrality of the Chief Rabbinate to Jewish life in the Jewish state for large parts of the national-religious community and its leadership is almost an article of faith despite the fact that the institution is almost entirely in the hands of haredi rabbis who oppose important ideological principles of the national-religious movement.One particular policy of the mainstream national-religious leadership used to be a commitment to converting en masse the large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel in the 1990s who were not Jewish according to Jewish law.Following years of failure to implement policies that would advance this goal, several moderate national-religious rabbis, including the highly respected arbiter of Jewish law Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, set up their own independent, Orthodox conversion court in 2015 to tackle the issue.Sunday’s letter reflects the ongoing opposition of conservative leaders from within the community to this new rabbinical conversion court for decentralizing a key issue of Jewish life and personal status away from the Chief Rabbinate.The rabbis are also vociferously opposed to Reform and Conservative influence on religious life in Israel.Other prominent rabbis who signed the letter included Rabbi Haim Steiner of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva; Rabbi Haim Gantz, dean of the Tel Aviv Yeshiva; and Rabbi Baruch Wieder, dean of the Hakotel Yeshiva.
Israel freezes plan for mixed-sex Jewish prayer site at Western Wall (credit: REUTERS)