The Israeli political system is in turmoil, following a letter sent by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Harav David Lau to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett protesting plans to promote a reformed system of giyur in Israel and to remove Rabbi Moshe Weller as head of the Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office.
In the letter, Rav Lau writes, “The role of the head of Conversion Authority is to implement the halachic instructions of the president of the Great Rabbinical Court. And the head of the Conversion Authority has an obligation to ensure that the halachic instructions are followed.”
The reforms to Israel’s conversion system, initiated by Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, would,among other things, allow city Rabbis to operate conversion courts in the hope of helping tens if not hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens of Jewish heritage who are not recognized as Jewish to convert. The conversion reform bill is due to be presented to the Knesset plenum for a first reading on Wednesday.
In his letter to Bennett, Rav Lau also writes, “Removing from office the person who is in charge of implementing halachic instructions cuts off the connection between the conversion system and the Chief Rabbinate, and will lead to a disconnection and lack of halachic responsibility for what happens during conversions.”
In addition, Rav Lau warns, “Unfortunately, this step is part of a dangerous trend to promote a system of conversion that is currently being discussed. I once again state that the proposed conversion reforms will cause a massive rift in the Jewish people that cannot be healed.”
According to Rav Lau, “If the conversion reforms are implemented, it will split the Jewish people, who in the future will have to grapple with the question, ‘Who is Jewish?’ whom they can marry or – chalilah – not marry, a terrible situation of two states for two peoples, a split Judaism rather than a united one.”
Rav Lau concludes by informing Bennett “with great regret” that if the reforms are passed and Rabbi Weller is removed as head of the Conversion Authority, “I will be forced to remove myself from any responsibility for conversions, and will immediately stop approving any conversion certificates issued under [the new system].”
Responding to Rav Lau’s letter, Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana said, “It’s painful to see that the Chief Rabbi intends to stop conversion in Israel just because a functionary’s job has not been extended.”
Kahana said that in an attempt to reach as broad a consensus as possible, the government was promoting a conversion reform bill that would allow Israelis to want to convert to do so in accordance with Jewish law.
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party responded by calling for the Chief Rabbi to be fired, and to be subject to disciplinary action.
“We call on the minister of religions to dismiss the Chief Rabbi of Israel immediately and to prosecute him like any other civil servant,” a statement by Yisrael Beyteinu read.
The chairman of the Committee on Jewish Religious Services, MK Yulia Malinovsky from Yisrael Beytenu, also condemned the threat and wrote: “The Chief Rabbis work for the state and not the state for them. It is inconceivable that the Chief Rabbi gifted the performance of his duties in the continuation of the tenure of one or another official and further threatened to embezzle in office and posed threats to the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers.
“If something is not right for Rabbi Lau, he is welcome to terminate his employment,” she wrote.
Communications Minister Yoaz Handel also called for the dismissal of Rav Lau, in an interview on Wednesday morning on Kan News.
“A public servant should fulfill the government’s decisions, and if he does not do so – he should not be in office,” Hendel said. According to him, “those who served in the IDF are more Jewish than those who are not.”
On the other hand, the chareidi MKs come to the defense of Rav Lau. The chairman of Torah Judaism, MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, said Wednesday: “The true face of Liberman, Kahana and [Yoaz] Hendel has been revealed. They just want to turn the Chief Rabbi into a clerk who receives instructions from a group of inferior politicians who do not have a basic knowledge of halachah.
“The Jewish people in Israel and around the world will condemn them and stand by the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Harav David Lau.”
In the Knesset plenum, Rabbi Gafni responded to Liberman’s comments with outrage, saying “Liberman is cheeky and on the verge of antisemitism to threaten to fire the Chief Rabbi just because he stated his opinion. The Chief Rabbi will do what the Torah requires of him. Rav Lau will not rule according to what you want, but according to what the Torah requires. You are zeros and those like you should take off your shoes when you talk about a Chief Rabbi. A chutzpah.”
MK Rabbi Yaakov Litzman said: “We strengthen the hands of Harav Lau, who announced that he would not sign a conversion certificate if and when the invalid conversion reforms will be promoted, and if indeed the person in charge of the conversion system would be fired. This is an important decision, one that will prevent harm to the Jewish character of the state and will protect the existence of Jewish descent in the people of Israel.”