Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. All Jews. But not all Jews have the same beliefs, observances and customs. It is not the role of government to impose religious practice on its citizens. And religious coercion is decidedly not a Jewish value. It is for those reasons that we have consistently opposed the theocratic monopoly of the Israeli rabbinate and its government-endorsed stranglehold over religious life and lifecycle events in Israel — including the right to convert to Judaism or be considered a Jew.
Historically, the administration of Israel’s rabbinate has been entrusted to highly regarded Orthodox rabbinic leaders as part of the political price successive governments have paid for haredi Orthodox parties to join governing coalitions. For most Israelis — and particularly for secular Israelis who make up the majority of the country’s citizenry — the rabbinate and its rules are part of a Jewish life they largely ignore, and which has little impact on their daily lives.
In recent years, with the rise of the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel, and a heightened focus of Diaspora Jewry on pluralism, pressure began to mount on the rabbinate to soften its grip and to allow for broader and more inclusive practice and observance. The rabbinate’s leaders refused. And, in many respects — fueled by their political power — the rabbinic leaders became even more forceful in seeking to impose Orthodox doctrine and practice on all aspects of Israeli life.
With the recent creation of the improbable Bennett-Lapid coalition government — which has no haredi party partners — and the appointment of Matan Kahana as religious affairs minister, things are starting to change. And that makes the rabbinate very nervous.
Kahana is, in many respects, the rabbinate’s worst nightmare. He is not a secular Jew and is far from a left-winger. He is a lifelong religious Zionist with a storied military career. He is an Orthodox Jewish member of the right-leaning Yamina party, and lives on an Orthodox moshav in central Israel.
In his new role, Kahana has moved to overhaul Israel’s kashrut supervision process, to revamp Israel’s local religious councils to open more opportunities for women and has turned his attention to the vexing issue of conversion. He recently proposed to allow municipal rabbis to supervise the conversion process, rather than leaving sole responsibility to the chief rabbinate. As part of that process, he seeks to end the tenure of the current head of the conversion authority, Moshe Veller. That proposal has so enraged Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau that he has threatened to stop approving all pending and future conversions to Judaism — a necessary step in final endorsement of the conversion process.
Lau’s threat to freeze conversions in Israel is outrageous. And his cavalier victimization of innocent conversion candidates is offensive. Yet, the threat smacks of the same unhealthy politicization of religion that has tainted the rabbinate for decades.
We think it is time to call Lau’s bluff. And we encourage Kahana to do so.