When the Israeli Chief Rabbinate decreed that Haagen-Dazs ice cream is no longer kosher because it is not based on Chalav d’Yisrael – milk extracted under authorized Jewish supervision – it is imposing the most stringent interpretation of kashrut on all Israelis. There has never been a rabbinical precedent anywhere imposing such an edict on an entire community.
Symbolically outrageous though this may be, it does not dramatically impact on the nation or our lifestyle. In contrast, had the Supreme Court not prevented the annulment of the heter mechira, approved for over a century by former Chief Rabbinates and enabled farmers to work during the sabbatical year - a large proportion of the agricultural sector would have suffered bankruptcy.
Clearly, the haredi establishment is determined to turn the clock back and impose the most stringent standards of observance on the entire nation, irrespective of the consequences.
The most damaging aspect of this haredi controlled Chief Rabbinate is the utterly myopic attitude towards conversion which it has transformed into an obstacle course, imposing requirements frequently beyond those of the Talmud, Maimonides or even the Shulchan Aruch.
Nowhere is the term halachic blackmail more appropriate than in this area in which any rabbi challenging the stringent insensitive approach is invariably deemed heretical and subjected to vicious character assassination. This was exemplified by the defamatory abuse directed against respected rabbis like Rabbi Chaim Amsalem formerly from Shas and national religious Rabbi Druckman when they demurred from the halachic approach of the haredi establishment.
Today the Chief Rabbinate not only limits the right of individual rabbis to conduct conversions but even endorsed a ruling by Rabbi Avraham Sherman of the haredi Rabbinical Court enabling the retroactive annulment of thousands of conversions conducted by Rabbi Druckman – something unprecedented in Jewish history. Maimonides, one of our greatest sages, states that even a convert who returns to idol worship is still considered a Jew.
In this regard, a remarkable book has just appeared co-authored by David Ellenson, the President of the Hebrew Union College (the US Reform Academy) and Daniel Gordis, a Conservative Rabbi who made aliya and is now president of the Shalem Foundation.
Many Orthodox Jews will instinctively dismiss as tainted any work produced by non-Orthodox scholars. Yet the joint authors of this fascinating work avoid expressing their opinions or promoting their personal attitudes towards Halacha. They merely quote Responsa, dating from the 18th century until today, by universally respected giants of the Orthodox rabbinical world from all corners of the world, including Israel. They highlight the broad range of attitudes which prevailed towards conversion, ranging from the most stringent to the most liberal, including some who maintained that even ulterior motives in the first instance should not be considered a barrier to conversion. The Responsa also demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt that, like other halachic issues, rabbis took into account the social, cultural and religious trends of the time.
In this context I also recommend the current volume of “Ideas”, a quarterly orthodox journal published in New York, which is devoted to essays by the highly respected American Orthodox Sephardic Rabbi Marc Angel, and includes extensive reviews of the various approaches of distinguished rabbis over the ages towards conversion.
There are innumerable responsa which could apply as precedents for a more liberal approach. Most notable was former Sephardi Israeli Chief Rabbi Uziel (1880-1953) who considered it a mitzvah to accept converts even if initially, they were unlikely to be fully observant. He quotes Maimonides who ruled that the convert is not required to observe all the rituals of Judaism and that it is a mitzvah to accept converts with the hope that they will become observant in the future.
Rabbi Uziel was particularly emphatic of the need to convert intermarried couples because of our responsibility for the children who will be born of these marriages. He wrote: “If we push the children away completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we shall be brought to judgment and they shall say to us “You did not bring back those who were driven away and those who were lost, you did not seek.” (Yechezkel 34:4).”
Rabbi Angel also contrasts the opposing views on conversion of two revered Israeli Chief Rabbis – Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel – not in order to demonstrate who is right and who is wrong, but to highlight the fact that there are frequently contrasting interpretations of Halacha in which “ellu ve’ellu divrei Elokim hayim” i.e. both positions are acceptable in the eyes of God.
Likewise Ashkenazi Israeli Chief Rabbi Herzog ruled that “for the sake of heaven” was a justification to convert gentile women who had saved their Jewish husbands by refusing to adhere to Nazi dictates to divorce them. He also defined aliya, joining the Jewish nation, as “being for the sake of heaven” and a factor meriting conversion.
Chief Rabbi Goren maintained that conversion was frowned upon in the Diaspora but welcomed in Israel. Similarly Chief Rabbi Unterman opposed conversion in the UK but recommended an especially lenient approach towards Russians in Israel who, even if initially converting for ulterior motives, may at a later stage accept the tenets of Judaism.
Overall, it is clear that prior to the haredi hijacking of the Chief Rabbinate and state rabbinical institutions, the approach towards conversion in Israel had been far more accommodating.
Rabbi Amsalem published a number of scholarly books providing halachic justification for being more compassionate and inclusive in terms of conversion in Israel and called for special leniency towards intermarried Jews from the former Soviet Union whose sons serve in the IDF.
There are halachic grounds for employing maximum flexibility in the case of 350,000 non halachic Jews living in a Jewish state. One must take into account that intermarriage in the Soviet Union was a byproduct of Jews forcibly estranged from their heritage for 70 years by a hostile regime. That millions of them came to Israel or joined other diaspora Jewish communities should be seen as an extraordinary miracle. Yet, the intransigence of the current haredi rabbinate represents a ticking time bomb which may inflict personal tragedies on the lives of future generations of Israelis with the potential of undermining the stability and social cohesion of the nation.
Those promoting the more stringent approach argue the need for the highest common denominator to ensure that all Jews recognize the validity of conversions. But the reality is that although differing halachic interpretations have prevailed throughout our history, to this day many haredim deny the validity of conversions not inducted under their own rabbinical auspices.
There are of course major halachic differences relating to the Jewish identity of Russian and Ethiopian olim. Yet, what is required today is religious leadership of the caliber of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who refused to be intimidated by those denying the Jewishness of the Ethiopian aliya and ruled that they were halachically Jewish and not obliged to undergo conversion. That to this day, some Jewish religious factions continue to refuse to recognize them as Jews does not bother him.
This issue is of such supreme importance, that it alone warrants the dissolution of the current Chief Rabbinate or at least the creation of an alternative modern Orthodox Bet Din, which must deal with a wide variety of issues beyond conversion such as marriage and divorce, gender separation, kashrut etc. in accordance with Halacha but in a moderate and compassionate manner, befitting the needs of a modern nation-state.
Many observant Jews, exasperated with the determination of a haredi Rabbinate to impose their stringent lifestyles on the entire nation, would enthusiastically welcome the creation of such a Bet Din.
There are organizations like Bet Morasha and ITIM supported by a handful of courageous rabbis like Rabbis Haim Amsalem, Benny Lau, Shlomo Riskin and Seth Farber whose observance and level of learning is beyond reproach, who are resisting the extremists. They should unite and encourage other rabbis to join them in order to save Judaism from the control of a haredi minority which exploits its excessive political leverage to coerce the people and in so doing alienates and marginalizes Judaism from the nation.
Rabbi Benny Lau does not mince his words, observing that “There is no logic in allowing the ultra-Orthodox to run the rabbinical courts. There are many rabbis in Israel who serve in the army, send their children to the army, and are full partners in all the challenges of Israeli society. The country deserves to have religious court judges who are committed to its future and its fate, and to free itself of judges estranged from the public”.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom