Taking the name of Halacha in vain

The Chief Rabbinate supports the rule of law – the secular rule of law, despite the importance of halachic arguments.

Police break up a demonstration by Ultra-Orthodox Jews against the desecration of the Sabbath in central Jerusalem (photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Police break up a demonstration by Ultra-Orthodox Jews against the desecration of the Sabbath in central Jerusalem
(photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
The debate over conversion and the struggle regarding kashrut resemble a masquerade ball. Those who support alternative conversion and those who advocate alternative kashrut supervision rely on halachic arguments. The Chief Rabbinate, on the other hand, supports the rule of law – the secular rule of law, one should add.
A televised debate takes place as to kashrut certificates issued outside Israel. Those who support the certificates wonder why the Chief Rabbinate insists on sending its own supervisors to venues where an Orthodox rabbinate, which supervises the imported products, exists, an insistence that raises the cost of living and harms the low-income sectors.
On the other hand, a shrewd haredi rabbi and attorney who served as the director of the office of the Chief Rabbinate defends the Chief Rabbinate enthusiastically.
No, he does not question the overseas kashrut certificates. Instead, he is shocked by the fact that his opponents are willing to give up the sovereignty of the State of Israel. He raises his voice when pronouncing the word “sovereignty,” so that for a moment one might have thought that a Knesset statute supersedes the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
One may wonder why this enthusiastic patriot of the State of Israel and its legislature sharply criticizes haredi young men who serve in the army.
In his opinion, for a youngster who has dropped out of the classic haredi framework, it is preferable to go to the street than to serve in the army. And he clarifies: “A haredi boy who wanders in the streets is better off than a haredi youngster who serves in the army and later on gets a job. This is so since the street haredi at least wishes that his son will grow up to become a Rabbi Akiva Eiger.”
And if that is not enough, the haredi website Kikar Hashabbat conducted an internal debate on how observant Jews should celebrate Independence Day. Haredi publicist Dudi Zilbershlag responded that he devotes the day to learning and writing, and he explains: “Haredi Judaism strengthened following the establishment of the State of Israel. The world of Torah and the yeshiva world flourish as they never did before, and we should be grateful to God Almighty for that.”
Not so Rabbi Dov Halbertal, who was so shocked by the insult caused to the sovereignty of the Zionist state by the importing of products with overseas kashrut certificates, God forbid. “From an appropriate halachic viewpoint,” he explains, “[Independence Day] is an ordinary day. We are familiar with the views of Torah giants throughout the generations who totally ignored this holiday…. I continue with my routine and do not signify this day at all.”
When asked whether the haredim have turned more Israeli, he responds categorically: “In the deep sense of the notion, the answer is unequivocal: a strong no....
This is the real and traditional view that has been delegated to us by our sages.”
One may, moreover, recall his bitter attack on haredi women who wished to run for Knesset elections.
“What these haredi women are trying to do,” he said, “is a nightmare of the greatest sages of Israel.”
And as though that were not harsh enough, he added: “Women have no moral right to reign…. There where God will not reign, women will reign.”
One may wonder how come Halbertal rules against the sovereign Knesset that categorically ordered in its Basic Laws: “Every Israeli citizen who on the day of the admission of a candidates’ list containing his name is 21 years of age or over shall have the right to be elected to the Knesset.”
Finally, one cannot escape the brave article published by Halbertal some five years ago, titled “Israel must separate religion from politics.” In this article he submitted a clear and unequivocal demand: “Time has come to say ‘enough’: enough to the religious parties; enough to their disgraceful self-centered preoccupation with budgets, as they ignore the rest of the country and the world; enough to the moral and aesthetic corruption of religion; enough to forcing laws down the throat of a public that does not believe in them.” It seems that for such a statement, the talmudic phrase “words of the living God” was designed. Yet how does one reconcile this statement with the demand to enforce secular law, which is not even consistent with Halacha? The defense of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious conversions is not different in substance.
Rabbi Moshe Klein, former deputy head of the Conversion Authority, bitterly attacks the new conversion court, which operates outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate. He claims that the court “tears at the fabric of Israeli society, because it creates first and second classes of converts.”
Again, Klein does not question the halachic stature of the members of the Giyur K’halacha court. Instead, he challenges their secular legal authority. As a trained lawyer, Klein demonstrates his point. He compares the creation of the court to someone who doesn’t respect traffic law and forms a new traffic court.
Bravo, Reb Moshe, for this illuminating example! The traffic court and the traffic law indeed derive their sole authority from the secular legislature. With my naivety I assumed that the authority to perform conversions derives from the laws of Moses. Am I wrong? Moreover, as a trained lawyer Klein certainly knows that even the Knesset did not entrust conversion to the Chief Rabbinate. Fact is that for many years this function has been performed by local rabbis, as it always was and as it should be.
In a radio debate Klein has been challenged with the fact that conversions are being performed by private ultra-Orthodox courts. Klein tried to avoid the embarrassing question by arguing that only a few dozen conversions take place in those courts, and that anyway they cater to overseas people who wish to undergo an Orthodox conversion.
I must admit, I fail to comprehend the answer.
However, I do have news for Klein and for all other critics of the Giyur K’halacha court. In a letter to the Gerrer Rebbe, written in the midst of yet another campaign to amend the Law of Return by stating that the conversion must be in accordance with Halacha, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, then the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, expressed his reservations.
He reported on “batei din [rabbinical courts] in Israel [including ultra-Orthodox rabbis] who supposedly convert, according to proper Orthodox standards, tourists who come to Israel for a few weeks or months and then return with certificates of their Jewish status, though they observe nothing in the way of Sabbath, family purity, and so on.” Jakobovits stated that his London Beth Din did not recognize these certificates and expressed concern over the proposed amendment which might bring about a situation where “every Reform convert will be able to authenticate his Jewish status by an immersion ‘according to Halacha.’” I am aware, of course, of the fact that in the legal training, which both Klein and I underwent, there is no validity in a statement if not accompanied by a proper reference. Well, for those of you who are interested, please consult Jakobovits’s great book If Only My People, page 202.
Prof. Asher Maoz is dean of the Peres Academic Law School and member of the steering committee of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies.