Jewish Conversion Dispute Pits Israeli Chief Rabbi Against modern-Orthodox Peers

Sephardi Rabbi Yosef says he won’t clear conversions performed under newly approved procedures, which broaden conversion powers of municipal rabbis.

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Israel's Sephardi chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.Credit: Moti Milrod

A major dispute over conversion practices has developed between Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and a number of senior pro-Zionist rabbinical figures, including Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Aryeh Stern.

Yosef opposes changes, approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, that broaden the conversion powers of municipal rabbis.

The key change authorizes municipal rabbis to establish their own conversion courts. The goal is to make conversions more available and to enable the conversion of minors, something rarely done in Israel.

Yosef says Stern distorts Jewish religious law. Yosef says he won’t approve conversions that municipal rabbis perform according to the new procedure, even if the High Court of Justice orders him to.

In a recording disclosed by Kikar Hashabbat, an ultra-Orthodox news website, Yosef is heard accusing Stern of misinterpreting halakha.

He also took the head of the Zohar Orthodox rabbinical-outreach organization, Rabbi David Stav, to task. Stav, who is also the municipal rabbi of Shoham, half an hour southeast of Tel Aviv, led the effort to change the conversion procedures.

The country’s two chief rabbis, Yosef and his Ashkenazi counterpart, Rabbi David Lau, openly opposed the change but were unable to stop it.

Yet now the new method’s prospects for implementation are in question. That’s because the government that takes office after the March 17 Knesset election is likely to include ultra-Orthodox parties and conservative national-religious members who strongly oppose the change.

The recording, which Kikar Hashabbat said was of recent vintage, laid bare an old dispute of principle between ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their religious-Zionist counterparts regarding the halakhic requirement that converts commit to observe traditional Jewish religious practices.

In the recording, Yosef says he met with Stern. “What does he tell me? ‘They don’t need to fulfill the Torah, the converts, and accept all of Shabbat. To accept the Torah, they need to keep Shabbat to a certain extent,’” Yosef says.

“What does this mean? ‘Performing the Kiddush [blessing the Sabbath wine] and then going to a soccer game and then to the sea. The important thing is performing the Kiddush.’”

Yosef says he told Stern: “‘Where does your honor invent this from?’ He’s the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. He’s the city rabbi. Where do you invent this? You don’t have to observe all of the Shabbat, all of the religious commandments?”

With respect to the change in conversion policy, Rabbi Yosef said: “They went and made a law that the municipal rabbis can perform conversions and then they bypassed me. The Jerusalem chief rabbi can perform conversions, the chief rabbi of Shoham can perform conversions, and they have already converted several people in Arad.

“It is the authority of the chief rabbi to stop this. I issued an order to the chairman of the conversion system. I will not sign off on all of the conversions that they are performing now. I will not approve them.

“They told me that the High Court of Justice will be on you and order you. May the Lord have mercy on the High Court, I will not approve them. There is no such thing that is contrary to halakha.”

Rabbi Stern declined to comment on the dispute.

After the recording was disclosed, Yosef’s office said in a statement that he “knows and has high regard for” Stern “and his halakhic writings and he studies them from time to time. ... [It] is certainly not proper to link a halakhic dispute, as heated as it may be, among sages within a religious house of learning [with] ties of mutual esteem and friendship between the rabbis.”

Elazar Stern, a Knesset member from the Hatnuah Party who in the current election is running with Yesh Atid, initiated the plan to expand conversion practice. MK Stern, who is unrelated to Rabbi Stern, called on Rabbi Yosef to resign his position.

The modern-Orthodox Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization labeled Yosef’s comments “extremist.”

The group called on the leader of the Habayit Hayehudi Party, Naftali Bennett, who is religious-services minister, “to firmly act to prevent Rabbi Yosef from harming halakha and respect for the Torah and to remove the monopoly of the conversion system from the hands of Rabbi Yosef and the chief rabbinate.”