Chief rabbi freezes all conversions to Judaism in protest of planned reforms

David Lau tells PM framework being proposed by religious affairs minister will split the Jewish people

Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau attends a ceremony of the Israeli police for the Jewish new year at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau attends a ceremony of the Israeli police for the Jewish new year at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Chief Rabbi David Lau told the prime minister Tuesday that he will not approve any future conversions to Judaism as long as the government continues to advance a plan to ease the process and dilute the Chief Rabbinate’s control over it.

Lau’s move, which drew condemnation and demands that he be fired, came as Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana pushes reforms on some key religion and state issues, including conversion and kosher certification.

Kahana’s proposed legislation would allow for conversions outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, authorizing municipal rabbis to supervise the process.

As part of his changes to the system, Kahana intends to end the tenure of the current head of the Conversion Authority, Moshe Veller.

Lau’s authorization is currently required for all conversions in the country. Halting the process will impact two significant segments of the population — immigrants from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union. Some members of these two groups require Orthodox conversion to be recognized as Jewish in Israel.

In a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Lau wrote that if Kahana’s plan advances and Veller’s tenure is not extended, “I will be forced to declare myself no longer responsible for anything to do with conversions.

“Implementing the proposed conversion outline will result in a split of the Jewish people: two states for two peoples, divided Judaism instead of united Judaism,” he warned. Such a divide, he wrote, “will be irreparable” and will cause future uncertainty regarding who can marry whom when Jewish status is in doubt.

Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin speaks during a press conference, presenting new reform on housing, at the Finance Ministry, Jerusalem, October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the right-wing New Hope party slammed Lau in response, saying the chief rabbi was “blackmailing the government” and using “the wrong approach.”

“The conversion of Ethiopian immigrants needs to be dealt with as it has always been,” Elkin told the 103FM radio station.

Opposition MK Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, backed Lau, saying the chief rabbi was fighting “against the destruction of the conversion process and severe damage to the unity of the people.”

Channel 13 news reported Tuesday that Lau had already instructed that conversion processes be stopped, including notifying Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who is herself an Ethiopian immigrant.

There are currently 100 Ethiopian immigrants whose conversions are on Lau’s desk, but he is refusing to sign off on them, according to the report. An unnamed cabinet minister told the station that Tamano-Shata intends to fight fiercely against Lau’s new policy.

A statement on behalf of Lau given to the station explained that the head of the Conversion Authority is tasked with ensuring that conversations are carried out according to Orthodox Jewish rules, known as halacha. If the supervisor is fired, the statement said, Lau will be unable to know how conversions were carried out and therefore will not sign off on any conversions.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition Yisrael Beytenu called on Kahana to fire Lau.

The party, led by Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, said that Lau was attempting to make prospective converts “hostages of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which has taken control of the Chief Rabbinate.”

Kahana said in a statement posted to Twitter Tuesday that he was “pained” by Lau’s move, and warned that it would impact Ethiopian immigrants, IDF soldiers going through a conversion process, and thousands of others seeking to convert.

He said that the government was advancing legislation aimed at reaching “as broad a consensus as possible” on the conversion issue.

Sources close to Kahana told the Israel Hayom newspaper that Lau was wielding “a nuclear bomb” against those seeking to become Jewish.

MK Moshe Gafni, chair of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, backed Lau, saying in a Tuesday statement that “the resolute standing of the chief rabbi preserves the vineyard of Israel [the Jewish people] and prevents z grave violation of the purity of the pedigree of the people of Israel.”

Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a recent interview with the Times of Israel, Kahana said he was in “an ongoing dialogue” with Lau on the matter.

Converts to Judaism who move to Israel whose conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate cannot marry in Israel, as the rabbinate controls marriages. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel have not been recognized for years.

While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating. The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Some 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel since 1997, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

In addition, there are over 450,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their descendants who do not fit the strictly Orthodox requirement of having a Jewish mother. Some are able to convert during their army service while others go through the rabbinate, a lengthy and sometimes vexing process.

Kahana was recently provided additional security due to threats he has received over his plans to reform issues of state and religion. At the beginning of the month, several prominent religious Zionist rabbis called for protests against Kahana’s reforms.

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