Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has come under intense criticism from leading figures in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community for what they consider his overly lenient attitude toward conversions performed under the auspices of the Israel Defense Forces.
On Monday, aides to Amar tried to defuse the controversy by denying that he ever gave his blessing to conversions performed in the military.
"The rabbi hasn't decided anything," said one official close to Amar.
Senior rabbis from two Ashkenazi Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) groups - the extreme anti-Zionist Eda Haredit and the Lithuanian Haredim led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv - have signed two letters denouncing Amar. One is scheduled to appear either today or tomorrow in Yated Ne'eman, the daily newspaper affiliated with the Lithuanian community.
"We heard with fear that some rabbis have deigned to accept religious conversions performed by the military rabbinate without [the convert] accepting the commandments as mandated by the religion of the Torah," reads the letter bearing the imprimatur of the Eda Haredit. The notice has also been posted on bulletin boards in ultra-Orthodox communities.
The second letter, which is considered more important, does not explicitly mention Amar by name. But according to a draft obtained by Haaretz, the Lithuanian rabbis protest "the ratification of goyim as Jews." The letter also urges marriage registrars in religious councils not to register converts who do not maintain a religious lifestyle.
Last month, Amar's office issued a press release stating that the military rabbinate cooperates closely with Israel's chief rabbis in performing conversions in the army. Amar was responding to a request by the Knesset State Control Committee, which sought the rabbi's position on the validity of conversions performed in the IDF.
Amar, who is the top state official responsible for conversions, wrote in his press release that all soldiers who underwent conversion in the army "were married according to Jewish law," a statement signifying that their Judaism was never in doubt.
But his aide said Amar has not yet ruled on the issue of army conversions, and that the press release had said he planned to raise it with the chief rabbinical council before staking out a final position.
The Sephardi chief rabbi has been the target of withering criticism in the past for what many Haredim consider his exceedingly accommodating stance toward official state institutions. Past chief rabbis, including the late Shlomo Goren and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, have suffered similar criticism.