Where are Bennett and Liberman?

In this issue of the newsletter we consider two pieces of legislation introduced by the religious parties in the Netanyahu coalition. One of the bills would cancel the compromise that provided a space for women’s prayer groups and non-halachic groups (NHG) – such as egalitarian, conservative and reform – to pray at the Kotel.

Discussing the cancellation of the plan for non-orthodox worship at the Kotel, Haaretz of June 25 noted ‘Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, of the Habayit Hayehudi party, much of the support for which comes from Orthodox voters, said that implementing the current plan would harm the status of the Chief Rabbinate.’ That is the silliest statement of the century. The former Ashkenazic chief rabbi Metzger received a 3-5 year jail sentence on charges of fraud theft and conspiracy. The former Sephardic chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron was also found guilty of fraud offenses. As reported in YnetNews of May 15, ‘Former Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron was convicted Monday of fraudulently obtaining benefits, attempting to fraudulently obtain benefits, providing false identification and breach of trust. Bakshi-Doron was indicted in 2012 along with several other Chief Rabbinate officials for issuing 1,500 false Torah education certificates to members of the security forces, making them eligible for pay raises.’ The two presently serving chief rabbis, Yosef and Lau, were chosen only because of their family connections. And Uri Ariel thinks that implementing mixed prayer at the Kotel is the thing that harms the status of the chief (cheat) rabbinate. Uri Ariel must be an idiot!

There are two issues in the Kotel war. The first is the size and sturdiness of the prayer area for the NHG and the second is the shared governance of the area and the physical setup of the entry to all of the prayer areas at the Kotel. There is a general consensus that the physical area presently available for NHG prayer is inadequate. I expect that a deal will be made to provide better NHG space at the Kotel. Under the terms of the Kotel deal, there was an implied equality of NHG and halachic groups. This shows up in the proposed governance of the NHG site and constructing a single entry to the different prayer areas. This issue is the sticking point. It implies, among other things, that the number of NHG worshipers at the Kotel is about the same as the number of those who are halachicly observant. That is far from true.

Many Jews identify themselves as conservative or reform, but the number of people who actually belong to a non-halachic institution is dropping precipitously. Those who oppose NHG should realize that it is controversies such as this that energize and strengthen NHG.

The second, and more significant, piece of contentious legislation would give the Chief Rabbinate complete control of conversions in Israel. As reported in the Times of Israel of June 25, ‘The measure, which was drafted last month by the Interior Ministry led by Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, appears to constitute an effort to circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those undergoing private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return. The court did not take a stand on the religious question of rabbinic recognition of the converts as Jews, but did require Israeli civil agencies to treat them as Jewish for the purposes of naturalization. The ultra-Orthodox parties at the time vowed to submit legislation to neutralize the ruling.

The legislation would also negate the conversions of the Giyur K’Halacha private Orthodox conversion court, which was established two years ago largely in order to help Jews from the former Soviet Union who qualified as Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel but cannot marry under the auspices of the rabbinate. In Israel, the only route to marriage lies through the religious courts.

The bill would also mean conversions by the national-religious Tzohar organization would not be recognized. Rabbi David Stav, founder of Tzohar, told Israel Radio on Sunday that “when only the Conversion Authority can carry out conversions, then it won’t feel any pressure to do conversions. The Conversion Authority is very suspicious of converts.”

What is the Giur K’Halacha? Jeremy Sharon states in the Jerusalem Post of August 10, 2015, ‘Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, a highly respected arbiter of Jewish law aligned with the national-religious movement and the dean of the Ma’aleh Adumim Hesder Yeshiva – which combines yeshiva study with military service – is to head the new conversion system {Giur K’Halacha}.

Like the ill-fated Conversion Law that was repealed by the current government, Giur K’halacha is to focus to a large extent on minors, boys under the age of 13 and girls under the age of 12, for whom Jewish law allows a very simple process for conversion. The idea is that such children are those who will be of marriageable age in coming years and are therefore the primary targets to prevent intermarriage.

The rabbis of the Giur K’halacha courts called on Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who is responsible for conversions within the Chief Rabbinate, to back the new system, although there is little chance of this happening. The Chief Rabbinate declined to comment. As a matter of policy, the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize independent conversion courts and people who convert through them and refuses to grant a marriage license to those converted in them. The same policy applies to conversions done by a prominent haredi conversion court headed by the highly respected haredi Rabbi Nissim Karelitz.

In response to the announcement, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett criticized the Chief Rabbinate for failing to tackle the issue, and said that the creation of the new courts was a result of this failure.

Avigdor Liberman has come out strongly against this conversion bill and is opposed to the undoing of the Kotel deal. Liberman’s Russian constituency is strongly affected by the conversion issue. Naftali Bennett gave a pathetic interview trying to explain the undoing of the Kotel deal, convincing nobody. He has taken a position opposing the chief rabbinate control of conversions. It is the Dati-Leumi (National Religious) element that is opposed to conversion being left in the hands of the chief rabbinate and it is the Dati-Leumi faction that is the backbone of HaBayit HaYehudi – the party headed by Bennett. The modern orthodox movement in the US is largely aligned with the Dati-Leumi in Israel and should be supporting Rabbi Rabinovich and Rabbi Stav in their opposition to the cheat rabbinate.

Here’s the political arithmetic. Netanyahu’s governing coalition has 67 seats – 61 are needed to form a government.. The religious parties, Shas and UTJ have 13 seats and are threatening to leave the coalition and bring down the government if they do not get their way. Netanyahu, whose only concern is to stay in office, is very responsive to those threats. However the parties of Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Bennett (HaBayit HaYehudi) have 14 seats between them. If they were sincere in their opposition to these bills, they would also be threatening to bring down the government. Their failure to do so says mountains about their priorities.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.