It’s time to abolish the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

On June 25, when Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu reneged on a promise to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, I was not up in arms. Part of it was I never expected Bibi to keep his word on this issue (his promises can be found here) and part was that I personally prefer the egalitarian prayer space at Robinson’s Arch over the Kotel. Both are part of the retaining wall of the Temple, and while the Kotel has far greater historical significance, I personally feel more of a spiritual connection when I go to Robinson’s Arch.

The development on that Sunday that was far more frustrating for me was to learn that the Chief Rabbiniate would be given full authority over all conversions, further empowering it to continue to reject even Orthodox conversions. We have seen prominent Orthodox rabbis in both the US and Israel, including Haskel Lookstein, Avi Weiss and Shlomo Riskin, have their conversions rejected in the past by the Chief Rabbinate, and now they can be emboldened to go further.

To add insult to injury, the rabbinate released a list of 160 blacklisted rabbis who are not trusted to confirm the Jewish identity of immigrants to Israel. These rabbis are from all Jewish denominations including even rabbis at Yeshiva University. These were rabbis who had written letters to Israel verifying the Jewishness of prospective immigrants who were rejected by Israel in 2016. 160 is just the number of United States rabbis-there are lists of blacklisted rabbis from 24 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Israel. Some of these rabbis passed away years ago, so apparently are blacklisted “from the grave.” The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, said he did not know of such a list yet whether of not he knew it is now printed for all to see.

This week I will  bring my third conversion student before a Beit Din and to immerse in a Mikveh after his having undergone Hatafat Dam Brit. I find no greater joy than learning with these students and seeing first-hand their growth in Hebrew reading and Jewish observance. In my first meeting I go over the requirements for conversion and also mention that my conversion  will not be accepted by the religious authorities in the State of Israel so that they know what they are getting into.

Of course I hope this will change and support the work of Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush to create an Israel where all rabbis can officiate at marriages and funerals as well as bring people into the Jewish fold. It is frustrating to follow the halachic conversion procedures yet know that the people I am bringing under the wings of the Shechinah will not be accepted as Jews in the Jewish homeland.

The Shulchan Aruch, the preeminent code of Jewish law from the 16th century, teaches (יורה דעה הלכות גרים סימן רסח) that after instructing a convert in עקרי הדת, the essential part of our religion as well as מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות, some of the easier commandments and some of the harder commandments. It specifically says ואין מרבין עליו ואין מדקדקין עליו, we do not elaborate with him nor do we go into all the fine points. After that, we circumcise him (for a male convert) and then bring him to the mikveh. As soon as the dunking is done, הוא כישראל, he is a Jew.

Why then would the Chief Rabbinate seek to make it so arduously hard for someone to convert? This is not a matter of halacha but rather of politics. Similarly, Bibi retracted his promise on the egalitarian section of the Kotel not as a matter of halacha but rather to save himself as Prime Minister amidst a fragile coalition.

When an institution like the Chief Rabbinate claims to act under the auspices of halacha but rather acts with the goal of increasing its own political hegemony, it is not serving the Jewish people. Instead of opening its doors to welcome people who genuinely want to join the Children of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate is continually making them jump through more and more hoops. An organization as rigid and as exclusionary as the Chief Rabbinate has no place in making policy decisions that impact the lives of all Israelis. It’s time for this institution to fall by the wayside, opening the ranks for a more inclusive approach to conversion and Jewish identity while concurrently being able to maintain the halachic requirements for conversion as written in the Shulchan Aruch.

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman joined Bet Shira Congregation in 2019. He values personally engaging with each individual he meets and hearing their story. Karina and he are the parents of two beautiful girls: Ariela Shira and Leora Rose.