In a weekend article with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Lau, the rabbi declares that the Knesset will not determine who is a Jew (Israel Hayom, January 20). One can understand the rabbi’s angst about the assertion by the state of its authority to establish standards and procedures for matters relegated to state functionaries. Who are they to command the chief rabbi regarding how to implement state policies and apply state resources? The laws of the state don’t apply to the rabbinate of the state, do they?
This highlights the dilemma of these state-appointed and compensated rabbinical civil servants. For the honorable Rabbi Lau’s edification, it should be pointed out that the Knesset is the body that expresses the sovereignty of the State of Israel, not the rabbinate. He and his expansive staff of rabbis, clerks, secretaries, religious councils, kashrut inspectors, burial societies and ritual bath operators are all employees of the state, paid to implement state policy and not to dictate that policy.
It is understandable that Rabbi Lau believes that he has autonomy and a monopoly in deciding who can carry out conversions since the state has prevaricated for decades in asserting its sovereign authority over this and other self-proclaimed rabbinical dominions. Hopefully, that state of self-induced subservience is beginning to fade. The Knesset represents the citizens of this country and their interests – all the citizens, not just the religious and haredi interests to dominate and dictate the religious lives of all the other Jewish citizens of the state.
There has never been a central, monopolist authority over conversions (or any other religious function) in Jewish history, nor does it exist in the present outside of Israel. In the exiles of America, Europe, and elsewhere, conversion is totally decentralized and carried out by each local community based on its standards and customs.
Even in Israel, the multiplicity of haredi dominions and sub-dominions (like the splintered Vishnitz sect or the shattered Ponevezh sect) reject the authority of the rabbinate, including its conversions. Do you think the Belzers intermarry with rabbinate converts whom they did not independently vet and approve?
So the indignation of Rabbi Lau is both historically baseless and disingenuous. There is no conversion monopoly in Israel. The haredim, as usual, do as they please and the rabbinate is subservient to them.
The bottom line is that the rabbinate does not recognize the sovereignty of the state but demands the state’s imprimatur on its decisions. Since they are autonomous from the state and reject its authority, why do they demand, or for that matter even want, an official state conversion certificate? The haredim don’t honor it and even some ultra-nationalist religious rabbis don’t automatically honor it. In the end, it is always about power, money, jobs and dictating the lives of the citizenry that they do not represent or even respect.
If religion is funded and institutionalized by the state, it loses its claim to autonomy. For the sake of religious liberty, free the rabbinate from the state and free the people from the rabbinate.
The writer was the general counsel of Israel Aircraft Industries. He is a supporter of the Center for Women’s Justice, a legal advocacy NGO dedicated to shifting the discriminatory status quo of religion and state regarding women.