Israeli Minister Calls to Sack Chief Rabbi Who Threatened to Halt Conversions Over Reform Debate

Yoaz Hendel took fire at Rabbi David Lau, who in protest of the government's proposed conversion reform, said he would withhold Jewish status from converts

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem in 2015.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem in 2015.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

A member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s cabinet has called for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau to be removed from his post after he threatened to withhold Jewish status from numerous proselytes in order to protest the government’s conversion reform plan.

“A public servant should fulfill the government's decisions, and if he does not do so, he should not be in office,” Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel declared during an interview with the Reshet Bet radio station on Wednesday.

Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef have been harshly critical of Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana’s proposed reforms, which would remove their exclusive monopoly over kashrut certification and conversion. Under Kahana’s conversion plan, municipal rabbis will be empowered to perform conversions which, while adhering to Orthodox Jewish law, will in some cases likely be handled more leniently than by the ultra-Orthodox dominated rabbinate.

Lau made his threat to Bennett on Tuesday, in response to Kahana’s recent announcement that he intended to replace Rabbi Moshe Weller, the head of the Chief Rabbinate’s Conversion Authority. Kahana stated that in light of the chief rabbis' opposition to conversion reform, he did not see the senior functionary as the right person to push through the planned changes.

The chief rabbi warned that should Weller be fired, he would no longer sign conversion certificates, asserting that Weller's removal would “severely impair the functioning of the conversion system” and break “the connection between the conversion system and the chief rabbinate.” This, he said, would result in “the severance and removal of halakhic responsibility for what is done in the conversion system.”

In a letter to Bennett, Lau asserted that the passage of the “dangerous” plan would “cause a significant rift in the People of Israel that will not be reconcilable” and “endanger the continuation of our existence as one people in the Land of Israel.”

In response to Lau’s letter, UTJ chairman Moshe Gafni stated that “the Jewish people stand by Chief Rabbi Lau in his announcement that he will not sign conversion certificates if [the government] advances its fake conversion outline and fires the head of the conversion system.”

Kahana, who is Orthodox, also responded to Lau's letter, tweeting that Lau’s decision to “stop conversion in Israel only due to the non-extension of the term of office of a clerk "would hurt immigrants from Ethiopia, soldiers seeking to convert and thousands of other converts.” The status of numerous conversion candidates, including 100 Ethiopian immigrants, is threatened by Lau's declaration.

"With the intention of reaching as broad an agreement as possible, the government and the coalition are currently promoting a conversion law that will allow Israelis who wish to do so to convert according to Jewish law,"Kahana wrote. "I call on the chief rabbi to back down from his intention to halt conversion in Israel and to continue the discussion in order to reach agreements in favor of state and halakhic conversion.”

This is not the first time that Israel's chief rabbis called for non-compliance with government policies. In October, Lau and Yosef signed a joint letter regarding Kahana’s kashrut outline, warning of what they called “spiritual destruction under the guise of this reform” and insisting that Israeli rabbis should refuse to cooperate with the reform efforts and refrain from granting certification to any establishment without the authorization of the Chief Rabbinate Council.

Without explicitly mentioning conversion reform, the pair warned that changes to the kashrut system would lead to “conversion and marriage outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate, which will inevitably lead to the separation of communities in Israel.”

Ultra-Orthodox political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism recently promised to launch a joint national struggle to preserve the state’s “Jewish character,” with one lawmaker objecting to the fact that rabbis of “Zionist yeshivas” would soon be allowed to perform conversions.

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